Wagner And Paris Fashion Week Recital For Deborah Humble

For mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble, the next weeks hold the most opposite of experiences, from the high drama of singing two significant Wagnerian roles in Melbourne, to winging her way to Paris to perform at Paris Fashion Week.

On 14 September, Humble will sing the role of Klytemnestra in Victorian Opera’s semi-staged production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra, conducted by Richard Mills. Speaking to SoundsLikeSydney from Melbourne, Humble explains “I understudied the role several years ago, sung by Agnes Baltsa, prior to COVID, with Simone (Young) conducting at the Staatsoper in Hamburg. Then I did it in concert with the score in Edinburgh for Edinburgh Opera, but this is the first time I’ve done it off the book.’

In Humble’s words, “Klytemnestra is a psychopathic murderess. I call Elektra ‘the horror movie of opera’ and Klytamnestra herself the architect of vengeance. When I was studying the role, I was told it must not be ‘beautiful’ as it’s not a beautiful role. The challenge for me is to make it as characterful as possible without losing all the tonal beauty and I will do that by using the text and the consonants and running the storyline in my mind.” I asked Humble if entering the darkness of Klytemnestra’s character was giving her sleepless nights. Laughingly she agreed with me, “but for a different reason” she quipped.

The semi-staged production has another challenge for Humble. The venue, Melbourne’s Hamer Hall, with nearly 2500 seats will accommodate both singers and orchestra on the stage, leaving little room for movement. Humble acknowledges the importance of gesture in such a setting. “There is hardly any room for manoeuvre with the orchestra on the stage, and Hamer Hall is so large you have to communicate through meaningful action. It is better to do a few things which are expressive and necessary, rather than lots of small things which people can’t see and which don’t have any meaning.” To achieve this, Humble is meeting online with director Constantine Costi to obtain some tips on gesture. “It’s one of those cases where less is more in the limited space that we have” she elaborates.

The very next day, Humble rapidly pivots into rehearsals as Erda with Melbourne Opera for a concert performance on 25 September of Siegfried, the third opera in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, conducted by Anthony Negus, at Melbourne’s Elisabeth Murdoch Hall.

Erda is a character whom Humble has inhabited often and I asked her how she brings freshness to the role. Humble agrees that each interpretation should be approached anew and that working with different conductors helps to achieve this. “A different conductor each time brings different insights. Anthony Negus is very experienced in this Wagnerian repertoire and he will bring his own unique perspective to the role. It’s interesting too to perform Siegfried in isolation without having done Das Rheingold because there is an arc when you do all four operas – an overriding arc which is absent when it’s just one of the four and in concert. You have to somehow impart the beginning of the story as well as the present one. It helps that Wagner audiences are usually specific audiences who are knowledgeable about and familiar with the music.

“Wagner is very clever when it comes to writing for Erda in both Das Rhinegold and Siegfried because he composes the music with such stillness. There is only one chord per bar when Erda reappears in Siegfried. It always surprises me the impact that the role of Erda can make in both operas because they’re not especially long roles and they’re not particularly ‘flashy’ for want of a better word. But because of the way Wagner writes, all the action stops and for a while, the focus is solely on Erda and what she is saying. There’s no option but to watch and to listen. It’s a brief opportunity but there’s definitely a chance to make a big musical impact.”

The day after performing in Siegfried, Humble travels to Paris for a truly special experience when she will perform at Paris Fashion Week. Delightedly, Humble describes the occasion. “I’ll be singing at an event entitled ‘Bonjour Paris.’ Most of the details appear to be shrouded in secrecy, but what I can say is that I will be presenting a recital in the opulent ballroom of the hotel La Maison on the Champs Élysées. The entertainment will be a precursor to the presentation of the Spring/Summer 2023 collections featuring designers from France, Italy, the UAE and USA and, of course, Australia.”

“Sydney designer Marie Linker will be paying homage to the glory years of Hollywood with her new Audrey Hepburn collection” she continues. “I’m not entirely sure what to expect of the event as a whole, but the organisers and the major sponsor, Galleries Lafayette, promise a glamorous presentation complete with press and photographers, a royal presence, international models and haute couture fashion. We’ll have to see exactly how an opera singer fits into all of that!”

For the occasion, Humble is having a fabulous dress made by Melbourne-based designer Linda Britten in a mystery colour that is ‘on trend’ this season. Says Humble, “It’s been very exciting watching this creation take shape as I have run to fittings in between rehearsal obligations, and I will be thrilled to showcase her design at this event. Linda has a wealth of experience dressing opera singers and has an expert eye when it comes to creating the right silhouette for particular body shapes. If anyone can make me look good in a room full of catwalk models, then she will!”

After Paris, Humble it’s off to London to conduct a Masterclass for some of the young Australian singers who are currently there, arranged by James Hancock from the Tait Memorial Trust.

Humble has lots to look forward to in the post-COVID arts scene and is reassured that engagements have reappeared in a relatively brief time span. A year ago, she thought she might never sing professionally again. Now, her calendar is full for the next eighteen months. “It makes me appreciate every performance. Each one seems like a bonus and at my stage of career, I have a real sense of gratitude that I’m still performing and that my career has come back in this way.”

Humble had a fortuitous opportunity recently at the re-opening of the Concert Hall of the Sydney Opera House with a performance of Mahler’s Symphony No 2 with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra under Simone Young. Mezzo-soprano Michelle de Young was unable to perform beyond opening night. Responding to a last-minute telephone call, and never having performed the piece before, Humble stepped in for the rest of the season, which included the televised performance, bringing with it offers of more engagements. Humble had done the acoustic testing with (Simone) Young and the orchestra the week before, the relationship with Young extending back many years to their collaboration at both Opera Australia at the Hamburg Staatsoper. “The acoustic test was like a post-COVID re-audition, and I nudged Simone on my way out and told her if she got into strife to give me a ring – which she did” says Humble mischievously.

Humble will be kept busy in 2023 with roles in the Ring Cycles being performed in both Bendigo (Melbourne Opera) and Brisbane (Opera Australia) as well as events yet to be made public. “One of the most depressing things about COVID was to have studied for something all your life, to reach the prime of your dramatic voice career and to not have a platform for performance. So, it’s really nice to be back with colleagues – it’s sociable, musically gratifying and challenging – all the things that I have missed.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©



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