Madness is almost immediately dramatic and can play out on stage in multiple forms. The madman unhinged from reality and railing against things others don’t see, the heroine unravelled by betrayal, the collective main of the village mob. These may manifest as a frantic dance solo, a soaring aria that punches you in the heart or the pathos of Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Oh let me not be mad, not mad, sweet heavens!”
In the joys and sorrows of opera, the raw power of unamplified voices, there is fertile ground to examine the human experience.
Indeed, there is a long interconnection between the opera and madness.
Story spoke with internationally acclaimed Wagnerian soprano Lisa Gasteen AO about some of the delights and challenges of opera and the work of the elite opera coaching school she founded in Brisbane in 2011, the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School.
Is opera mad?
Lisa: Opera is not mad. But it can promote madness in performers. If you’re not mad to start with, you will have periods of madness.
I was living out of a suitcase for 18 years. That’s pretty mad, anyone who would do that. Even when I was at home the suitcases were always on the floor, always open. You’re living out of a suitcase constantly. You’re subjecting yourself to people who have no personal interest in you, so you’re just a commodity or a circus animal for them to thrash. You have incredible highs and huge lows. The lifestyle, the travel, the loneliness. Who else is going to subject themselves to that sort of punishment? Only a mad person. We do it for the music, for the love of the music. When it comes down to it, that’s really what opera’s about, it's about music.
It mystifies me why theatre directors, or drama directors, are attracted to opera. Let’s face it, the stories, they're not gripping plots generally. They’re not great drama. The libretti are often very weak. Without the music it’s just bad, most of the time. It’s really about the music and I do wish that the music was given its due in modern day. I think we’re losing what is actually special about opera. By trying to make it popular, we’re actually losing what's special about it. Not always but often.
What is special about it?
Lisa: The quality of the music. If you amplify an opera, for example, you can go and see opera on the beach, and I did it, it was fun, it really was fun. But the music suffered, the art suffered, but it was a fun event. I think as long as those sorts of things are balanced, with true acoustics and with an orchestra and conductor and everybody in the same room. You know, what does it do for the art form when the orchestra is located a block away? There’s no cohesion and if it’s all amplified then it’s all on one level so you don’t have the nuance. That’s what’s special about it. So as long as we’re mindful of what we’re taking from it.
How would you convince someone to try opera as an audience member for the first time?
Lisa: Here’s a story…years ago I was going down to Melbourne to sing a lot with the Victorian State Opera and Opera Australia on tour, I was doing Carmen (not singing Carmen, I was Frasquita). At the time, my brother-in-law was an opera virgin and one time he came
along to a performance with my sister and he absolutely hated it. Hated it, thought it was the most naff drivel he’d ever seen, and for years he didn’t come back. Then we managed to convince him again to come when I was singing in Tristan und Isolde, singing Isolde, which you would think that’s a hard ask, he absolutely loved it!
So I can’t tell you what the magic formula is but if you’re going to try and switch someone on to opera, it’s got to be different enough from what they’re used to getting to be of interest to come back. And I do think free tickets help!
It really comes back to music again. The music has to be really, really of a very high quality because that’s what touches people, it’s the music, it’s the vibrations, it’s the quality of voices unamplified. That has a really profound effect on some people and they can’t explain it away. It’s appealing.
People are affected by the vibrations and the sound wraps around you. It’s not like it’s just a big wall of amplified noise. There’s something else about it. It affects your body. It has an effect on people. It transforms them, it takes them out of their ordinary existence. These days our ordinary existence is full of electronic, amplified and artificial sound.
What do you love most about training opera singers?
Lisa: I love it when they come and they’re absolutely hungry for knowledge, hungry for input, hungry for experience. I love it when they’re receptive and open to instruction and they run with it and they feel the difference and you can see their persona change. Walking down the corridors, at the end of the first week, some of them are quite transformed because they’re having an experience that they have not had before. It’s what they’ve been hungering for, but just haven't had access to the right people to experience it until now. That’s really, really gratifying.
Then for them to make the contacts and travel overseas and be introduced to things as students, to be in contact with people who can get them into dress rehearsals and free tickets, and they get to see a lot of high, high quality music and singing, that’s a great thing. That’s very broadening and not something you have access to in this country.
You've had the energy and drive to start the school, you must have a particular answer to this over asked question - what does it take for students to become great?
Lisa: Incredible tenacity and hard work. There’s no magic, it’s really, really hard work. Of course, with that is the right instruction. For a person, it’s really not easy to find or know what the right instruction is. I always count myself as lucky because I had a very, very fine teacher from when I started, so I knew what was right. I think a lot of people don’t have that advantage and then they go away and they don’t actually know what is good for them.
It’s work. It’s work, work, work. We are our own instrument. We can’t change a string, we can’t re-felt a hammer, we can’t change our reed, we are our voice. It’s a very complicated instrument, the voice.
Talk about the emotions and the impact on the voice.
Lisa: We were talking about the madness before. You think of it, when you cry, when you start to cry, what’s the first thing that goes? Your voice.
So if you’re in an emotional state – and you’ve got to remember that with a lot of the roles they’re not straight forward characters always. A lot of the time, the director on a daily basis is trying to wrench from you every ounce of emotion and sadness that you’ve ever experienced in your life. So that’s always on the surface. You’re always actually living with that, whereas most people can suppress it and swallow it and just pretend it’s not there, or it’s there in the past and that was horrible, but they’re living now. But performers don’t do that because it’s being dredged up all the time. So you actually have that with you the whole time…very, very present.
You can never separate your voice because it’s your body.
It’s not all bad, I have to just put that in. A lot of it’s great, a lot of euphoric moments, a lot of great joy, a lot of huge satisfaction when you get something, and it feels good. In the opposite way to sadness, joy also colours the voice.
LGOS is presenting Ariadne auf Naxos later this year. Why do you think that's such a popular story?
Lisa: Love, death, renewal. That’s the eternal theme.
It's considered a slightly unusual work isn't it?
Lisa: Well, that was Strauss. It’s very clever, the way he wrote it. I guess for him it was challenging. I often think that Strauss just wrote stuff because he could.
I think he was a show off. I used to think when I was studying some of his music, I used to think why is this man even bothering with a key signature because every half bar it’s changing, there’s new accidentals everywhere, so why does he even bother with a key signature? I suppose just because he had to, but I just thought no, you’re just a show off Mr Strauss. I often think that and thought oh come on, give us a break.
As a singer I would always learn my lines. I can’t play the piano so it would be really I would be just learning my melody and it would often have not a lot of sense to it. But then of course, when everything comes together it’s glorious. It just shows you the intellect of the man.
It’s unfortunate but I don’t believe that this work is understood terribly well in Australia. I think people think it’s Strauss so it must be dramatic, and it’s huge and all that. It’s actually a lyric opera. It’s lyric and it’s ideal. Apart from the three main big roles there’s lots of opportunity for young singers. We have done excerpts from Ariadne previously in the school.
Ariadne came about because I’ve been after (conductor) Simone Young for years to come and do some work at the school and since she finished full time at Hamburg she now has more time. So we met and had dinner in London and she said, ‘Okay, I’ve got these two weeks in late November/December, could we do something then? What about Ariadne?’ I’ve always wanted to do it because it’s one of my favourite operas.
You have performed the role of Ariadne?
Lisa: Yes with opera companies in Strasburg and Berlin. For me it’s a dream role. It’s one of those roles that you just want to sing, and sing, and sing. It’s a really beautiful thing to sing. It’s very lyric and takes a lot of discipline. There’s no complicated emotion to mess you up, mess with your head. It’s just beautiful singing, that’s how I found it, just lovely. It’s a gorgeous, gorgeous thing to sing.
Image credit: Singing illustration. Illustrator: Jackie Elliott
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