,One of Australia’s favourite mezzo-sopranos Anna Dowsley is reveling in the challenge of not one, but two new roles, with the added twist of being away from her home city of Sydney.
Late in 2019, Dowsley and her partner, tenor Jonathan Abernethy relocated to Frankfurt, Germany. He, as a new member of the ensemble with Opera Frankfurt and she to further her career in Europe. As a result, Anna made her role debut in the title role of Bizet’s Carmen at the Staatstheater Nürnberg earlier this month.
Along the way, Anna took on another new role as she and Jonathan celebrated the arrival of their daughter who was born last January, the day after she auditioned for the role of Carmen. The production which opened in October will run for eight performances over three months.
In Sydney, where her career began, Anna garnered many awards before winning a place on Opera Australia’s Young Artist Program and making her debut at the Sydney Opera House in January 2014, as Zaida in Rossini’s Il Turco in Italia. She broadened her repertoire into recitals and concert repertoire whilst carving out a formidable reputation playing ‘pants roles’- outstanding as Siébel, Tebaldo, Smeton, Garcias and Cherubino – and brilliant in comic roles as Dorabella, Rosina and Zaida. Now, she is not only playing a female role, it is one of the most seductive in the repertoire. Anna recounts her brother’s response when she told him of her new role. “While very supportive and proud, he is not the biggest opera fan and he said ‘But you only play funny, goofy people!’ My husband, Jonathan also teased ‘Well, it is amazing Anna, what you can do on stage that you can’t do in real life!’ “
“But seriously” she continues, “I love the change and the chance to immerse myself in a true dramatic role. There are few characters for a lyric mezzo-soprano to sink your teeth into. A similar role that I performed was in The Rape of Lucretia, which I performed with Sydney Chamber Opera back in 2017. Carmen is very far from the real Anna. While you have to find similarities between yourself and your character, it’s easier for me the further the character is from my true self! What fun my job is – true escapism with the ability to walk and explore in another’s shoes!”
Those shoes belong to “a complicated woman” says Anna. “Carmen is an iconic role, not only for mezzo-sopranos but for the whole operatic genre and you naturally feel this important responsibility bringing this character to life, and hopefully devoid of any cliches. There are elements to her character that can’t be ignored – her beauty, charisma, enigmatic allure and strength. But her motivations and true intentions, fears and vulnerabilities – these can be played around with as an actor and not always taken at face value and that is important to me because what a character says, and what she is thinking aren’t necessarily in line all the time.”
With music direction by Guido Johannes Rumstadt, Anna describes this new production as “a mix of traditional and contemporary. There is definitely a “grungy” element present and Carmen herself is depicted as a very modern woman in a non-specific time setting – thankfully without smartphones. But the traditional comes into play with the reference to the Flamenco and to toreadors and to the old theatre that is “crumbling” in the background.” The role of Carmen is one which Anna looks forward to revisiting later in her career. “One outing with her is simply not enough,” she observes. Although already 36 weeks pregnant when she auditioned for the role of Carmen, Anna admits to having felt ‘great’ singing when pregnant. “Clearly it was all meant to be!”
The opera house in Nürnberg is one of the largest theatres in Germany. It was built from 1903 to 1905 in Art Nouveau style. The company boasts Christian Thielemann as a former General Music Director. Anna describes the stage on which she auditioned and on which she performs as an “Intimate setting with a lovely, easy acoustic.”
With Nuremberg a comfortable 2- hour train ride from home in Frankfurt, Anna believes this is the perfect role and schedule to take her back to performing after becoming a mother. She says Jonathan’s position with the Oper Frankfurt ensemble has not only been a financial saviour throughout 2020, it has also given him the flexibility to be a full-time parent and help Anna when he’s not involved in a production. “He was around to support me and Maddie during my final Carmen rehearsals and opening night,” she says. Jonathan’s first outing for the 2021/22 season will be Barrie Kosky’s Salome, opening in mid-October.
There was an exciting and greatly anticipated reunion for Anna when the newly expanded family travelled to Bari, Italy at the end of August for her first Italian production in which she returned to the role of Zerlina in Don Giovanni, with 6 performances in mid-September. This production also features Australian superstar coloratura soprano Jessica Pratt as Donna Anna and Giorgio Caoduro who sang Figaro when Anna debuted in the role of Rosina in The Barber of Seville in Sydney back in 2016.
Anna believes that fortunately, parenting their daughter comes to her very naturally. “I adore her and everything makes sense with her in my life. It definitely equates to falling in love! It has made my working job seem both more pleasurable and less important all at the same time,” adding “Life in Germany couldn’t be further from being natural! I don’t mean European life, or travel. I love being nomadic and don’t have much trouble being away from Australia (this last year, a big exception), but the way of life and general German temperament can be challenging at times. But I have my husband and many close friends to help us through this exciting life challenge. “
Anna is humble and gracious in the glow of her rising star in Europe. A driving sentiment for her at present is “the importance of enjoying the moment and whatever is happening right now. We have to live in hope; we are lucky this Carmen made it to the stage. The industry is still in such flux, most apparent now with the devastating difficulties arts in Australia is facing and the fight ahead. But I am performing an amazing role (and my first role in Europe) and I have had the chance to rehearse and get into Carmen’s skin. I have to try and simply be thankful for this opportunity. Performing to the public and bringing the music and theatre to life is incredibly exciting! And what a score it is!”
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Watch for Anna Dowsley in 2022 when she returns to Sydney to sing the title role of Orontea for Pinchgut Opera.