“I Get To Sing!” – Samuel Sakker On Being A Young Artist At Covent Garden

Plácido Domingo as Francesco Foscari, Samuel Sakker as Barbarigo (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore.
Plácido Domingo as Francesco Foscari, Samuel Sakker as Barbarigo (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore.

When SoundsLikeSydney spoke to Samuel Sakker in London, the young tenor was en route to just another day at work. For him, this entails an hour’s journey, leaving home at 7.30 in the morning and arriving at the hallowed portals of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden in time for 9 o’clock.

Last year, Sam moved from Australia to London to take up a place in the prestigious and highly contested Jette Parker Young Artists Programme at The Royal Opera, Covent Garden. In a proverbial dream-come-true tale he made his Covent Garden stage debut just a few months later in October in Verdi’s I due Foscari alongside Plácido Domingo, conducted by Music Director of The Royal Opera, Antonio Pappano, filmed in high definition and beamed into cinemas around the world. 

It was a rare sunny day in London and by 10 o’clock Sam had to be vocally warmed up and physically and mentally ready for a coaching session with director John Copley.  Right now, Sam is working on several roles and his preparation includes knowing his material and the goals for the day. 

Hard to ignore are the decidedly less glamorous realities of his life in London – an imminent move to more suitable accommodation close by and formulating a strategy to consolidate his residency status in Britain.  “I’m fighting tooth and nail to be able to stay on in England after I finish. It’s a tough task but I have a lot of support from the Opera House behind me.” At the end of the day, if there is no evening concert, Sam heads home at 7.30. “When I’m at home,” he says, “it’s silence and I’m very happy to be quiet. By the time I’ve cooked dinner for myself, it’s time for bed.”

The pace seems relentless. Sam’s schedule for the day involves coaching for “a big chunk” of the first act of Simon Boccanegra and one of the buffo parts in Adriana Lecouvreur;  then there’s a music call for “Lecouvreur” and a dance call for La traviata in which he’s performing the role of Gastone in the 16 performances through the (northern) summer, conducted by Mark Minkowski and Alexander Joel. He continues “I’ll probably have a bit of work on Alfredo and the Young Artists are working as a group on our annual summer performance of a number of scenes; also there’s Don Giovanni, Das Lied von der Erde which I have just sung for The Royal Ballet and will cover when they resume it at the end of May; I have The Lighthouse which the Young Artists perform in October; also Macbeth where I’m performing Malcolm and covering Macduff on The Royal Opera tour to Japan in September.”

Samuel Sakker as Minister of Justice, Lauren Fagan as Oscar. (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore.
Samuel Sakker as Minister of Justice, Lauren Fagan as Oscar. (C) ROH. Photographer Catherine Ashmore.

“I really need that time in the morning to orient myself so I know what I need to accomplish for the day. Certainly they are all very different works. The Lighthouse and Mozart are very different from each other and again from Verdi. The Lighthouse is probably Peter Maxwell-Davies’ most lyrical piece – which is not saying very much!” Sam has a generous hearty laugh and even with the distortion of distance, his voice is polished and resonant.

Despite the demands, Sam’s appetite for his work seems insatiable. “I work very hard” he acknowledges, “but every time I walk in the building I am grateful for the opportunities that come my way each day. The Programme is not a training course – because whilst we are developing ourselves we’re also working – we’re taking part in performances and auditions as well as undertaking professional development.  It is all-consuming in the happiest of ways.”

Along with study and main stage productions, the Young Artists perform for commercial events and special interest groups like music societies. Just last week Sam sang for a high profile audience from major fashion houses and magazines at an evening hosted by the French Chamber of Commerce in the ballroom of Claridge’s Hotel. The pièce de résistance, I asked, must surely have been the invitation to sing for HRH Prince Charles at an Opera Australia Capital Fund event held at Buckingham Palace earlier this year? Sam along with his Jette Parker colleague Kiandra Howarth and Opera Australia principal Taryn Fiebig performed in the investiture room at the palace, accompanied by the Royal College of Music Chamber Orchestra conducted by Michael Rosewell. SoundsLikeSydney was privileged to attend and hear Sam perform La fleur que tu m’avais jetée from Bizet’s Carmen,  Addio fiorito asil from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Léhar’s Dein ist mein ganzes Herz from Das Land des Lächelns before joining Kiandra Howarth in remarkably sophisticated rendition of O soave fanciulla from La bohème. “It was a beautiful gig” muses Sam. “The fact that we had an orchestra playing for us from the Royal College of Music made a huge difference. Michael Rosewell was a very sympathetic conductor and I really felt that we made music together rather than belting out a few tunes.”

“A lot of work went into that function from the Royal College of Music, Opera Australia and the events company. They took great care of us and everything went very smoothly and I really wanted to give my best.”

“Prince Charles was charming. He seemed like a really great guy – but what I really took from the event is how important a role, the royal family plays in philanthropy in the way that they give their time and resources to a particular cause to help raise money. The fact that we could go to Buckingham Palace and meet Prince Charles is definitely a big draw and certainly helped the Opera Australia Capital Fund.”

I asked Sam in what ways his voice had grown since joining the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme. “I’m less precious with it now” he admits – “That’s not to say that I’m bashing it around, but I have targets that I have to hit on a daily basis and I am more forgiving of myself when that’s not optimal. My optimal range, and how often I can be at my best, is increasing because of the stamina from working up this repertoire. I’m working six days a week with the best people in the world so there’s been a lot of progress which has established the foundation of my voice, singing the way I need to, in the repertoire that I should be singing.”

Sam looks back to nearly a century ago for two of his idols – Aureliano Pertile and Giacomo Lauri-Volpi. To this list he adds Luciano Pavarotti – “a consummate technician” and above them all, American tenor Richard Tucker.

Astonishingly, there was a time in the not too distant past when Sam had relinquished his dream of becoming  a singer. Having participated in choral programmes at school, he did his undergraduate music studies at the  Queensland Conservatorium of Music. He began singing with Opera Queensland before joining the chorus of Opera Australia. Although luck has perhaps less to do with his success than talent and hard work, Sam says “I’m lucky that I’ve been working in opera companies from an early age. Nothing else can give you that experience of getting onto the stage and having the old guard of people who have been there for ages telling you how to do things. ‘That’s not appropriate Sam, don’t do that’ – I got that quite a bit” he chuckles.

Leaving the Opera Australia chorus in 2011 to pursue a freelance career, he stopped aiming to be a singer in 2013, he says. “The industry in Australia had changed so much that breaking into it was too hard, so I did a business degree, got consistently high marks at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology and tried to convince myself that I was not an opera singer. I was still singing with my coach, Raymond Lawrence, but I was not performing. Slowly, I got drawn back into performing, which culminated in performing Alfredo in La traviata for  Melbourne Opera and winning second place in the Herald Sun Aria competition, which gave me a couple of great recordings which I used for my application to the Jette Parker Young Artists Programme.”

The transition from chorus member to young soloist with a substantial amount of time in between has been a significant one. However, his time as a chorus member gave Sam an awareness of repertoire and allowed him to work with what he describes as a group of “very highly skilled and talented people”, from whom he learnt some important lessons. “Certainly, singing in the chorus is very different to singing as a soloist. Homogeneity is what makes a consummate chorus and there is a lot of sacrifice to achieve that blend. The way that you treat text and the way that you use the vowels and phrasing are very different from when it’s just you on your own.”

It is almost spurious to ask Sam about the highlights of the past year. “Highlights?” he chuckles. “I get to go to in this amazing building every day and I get to sing” he says simply, but becoming more serious adds “My parents came over for my debut with Plácido Domingo – that was a highlight and meant a great deal to me and I’m very grateful for the investment of The Royal Opera in me. I’ve had a lot of support here – there’s something about this opera house – we come in every day and we do our work and we make art together. There’s no great rivalry or competition or anything negative. It’s a very, very hospitable, warm and friendly environment across all the departments.”

The last word? In Australia I’ve had very strong mentors, who continue to give me a lot of support – Emma Matthews, Deborah Humble and José Carbó; my coach Raymond who in 2013 refused to take a penny from me for all the coaching he gave me and also my dear friend Suzanne Chaundy, who directed me in La traviata and who has become part of my family now. She’s been a real support.”

Sam invokes serendipity again “We young artists can’t perform and can’t survive without support, whether it’s financial, or emotional or practical within the industry. I’ve been very lucky in having this handful of people who have been so helpful to me.”

Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©



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