Recently, I was interviewed by the Demant Dreikurs Competition about my experience in winning the competition in 2020, as well as what I've been up to lately.
I've been asked to publish my responses here on my blog, so feel free to read the full interview below!
So tell us Jeremy, what have you been up to since completing your undergraduate studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music?
I went straight back to that marvellous institution! I'm currently in my second year of the Sydney Conservatorium Opera School. The program has given me many opportunities to be grateful for, particularly during a difficult 2021. Post lockdown 2.0, Sydney Con performed Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream conducted by Dr. Stephen Mould and directed by Kate Gaul at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in a new and exciting co-production where I performed Demetrius.
2021 also saw my performance of Death in Gustav Holst's Savitri at Sydney's Observatory Hill with The Cooperative, a semi-staged performance of King Arthur at St. Paul's College in Sydney, as well as my first radio broadcast with classical guitarist and friend, Sako Dermenjian.
Alongside my Conservatorium colleague and friend, Lana Kains, we became joint winners of the 4th Fresno Art Song Festival in California, USA for 2021, competing via Zoom. Lana and I are about to commence rehearsals on La serva padrona in Wollongong in late March and I've also just commenced rehearsal for Le nozze di Figaro as Count Almaviva with The Cooperative in May, as well as an exciting workshop project at Sydney Con and some concert engagements and solo recitals throughout.
I've still got much learning to do and I've been digging in hard and working to be the best singer I can every day. I'm enjoying every moment of it and working very hard to get where I want to be.
How has the scholarship benefitted you the most and what did you learn by participating in the competition?
The reflective learning is always the most important part of a performance - either concert or competition. I was very appreciative of the feedback I received after performing in the final concert. It's important to reflect constantly on how your performance is being read and to receive comments from the panel and audience so that you give your best performance at all times.
The scholarship funds go a long way, paying for extra coaching, lessons, scores and suits - all which come at a cost. It's great to have access to that financial support (much of which in 2020-2021 was lacking from extra singing and performance work due to lockdowns) that prevents you from dipping into savings that you need for future relocation expenses to chase your dreams.
I will be forever grateful for this scholarship.
What is the most rewarding thing about being a singer?
In a nutshell, it's the privilege to be able to work so intimately with the highest art form that exists - grand opera.
More specifically, I personally think it's really that tremendous sense of responsibility that you feel every time you prepare your performance. It gives a young man like me a tremendous sense of purpose and responsibility, and that alone is the most rewarding part of being a singer.
There is so much to learn - centuries of historical context with countless literary references, languages, and the importance of informing your performance to stylistically suit the repertoire. There is no end to what you can learn about each operatic role, song cycle or cantata.
Best of all, a justified and informed interpretation can go a long way to bringing works that are centuries old to new life in the 21st century. It's an unbelievable responsibility and one I value tremendously and take extremely seriously.
Who is your favourite composer of Lieder?
As Lieder is most often a piano plus voice arrangement, I think that it's impossible to go past Hugo Wolf for his pianistic specificity and core musical material. Wolf's piano accompaniment is pianistic - as it should be, in my view. Songs like Der Feuerreiter and the tail end of his output in the Mörike-Lieder are simply incredible works of art. They are all-encompassing and in many instances, operatic.
It might also be fair to say that Richard Strauss also captured this sentiment. However, while we stumble upon many-a pianistic accompaniment in Strauss' Lieder, the piano accompaniments mostly function as orchestral reductions. Strauss evidently had specific instruments and a broad palate of timbres in his imagination. Many of the Strauss songs (including, most notably, the Vier Letzte Lieder) receive a symphonic treatment, as is the case with Gustav Mahler and his Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen and Kindertotenlieder cycles.
As for a personal favourite overall, I'd have to say Gustav Mahler. Just a personal preference. And in response to my obvious favouritism, I don't think it's fair in the slightest to look past the fine work of Hugo Wolf which deserves the utmost admiration for his overwhelming contribution to the Lieder genre.
Isn't it just amazing that one can be so torn between great composers?
From which singers do you draw your inspiration from?
I subscribe wholeheartedly to the school of thought that believes the best Lieder singers are opera singers. Therefore, it's difficult to go past Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, particularly after such a significant contribution to Lieder alone. The man was a giant of the genre, but it is often overlooked that whilst at 22 he gave his first professional song recital, he also made his stage debut the following year in Verdi's Don Carlos as Rodrigo at the Städtische Oper Berlin.
This was breaking with tradition in a time where singers would often not cross genres - a situation that is hard to imagine being a young singer in 2021 where many cross between lyric, choral and contemporary singing to get by. Daniel Barenboim puts it best when he remarks that "in his interpretations, he created a unity between text and music unlike few before or after him. He set the benchmark in enunciation, and he emphasised key words through changing the sound of the note on which the word was sung. Thus, he not only clarified the sense of the word, but he let every syllable and every note sound together and thereby created a unity of harmony and colours unlike anyone else."
Away from Lieder, I draw inspiration from Tito Gobbi, Leo Nucci, Thomas Hampson and Dmitri Hvorostovsky. When it comes to the non-baritones... Maria Callas, Anna Netrebko, Beverly Sills and Dame Joan Sutherland.
How did you prepare for the competition?
Admittedly, I prepared ferociously. I wanted to give my absolute best performance and was blessed with the extra time that presented itself in lockdown to fine tune my product before taking my preparation to David Miller AM who accompanied all competitors on competition day. I prepared the text alone for some time, speaking, singing, over (and under) annunciating the words on the page to vary things up.
I made sure that I understood the true meaning of the text and read deeply into analysis by Dr. Graham Johnson, Gerald Moore and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau about the texts, poets and the composer's settings. I also developed an understanding and appreciation for the piano part - something often strangely overlooked by singers.
Lockdowns meant David (my accompanist) and I could not work together for some time, so we 'Zoom-ed' and at times I would play along with myself. It was only 10 minutes into each session that David was critiquing my rubbish piano skills - though that was a lesson in itself, helping me to realise where the pulses in the phrases were and how the text fit into that.
I found that it was important most of all to bring out the text, warts and all. It became apparent that every consonant and vowel matters. This is something Fischer-Dieskau notably achieves with delightful specificity and it was a steep learning curve for myself to be able to attempt this.
What are your goals for the future?
I would like to complete my studies at the end of 2022 at the Sydney Conservatorium and look abroad for any opportunity that presents itself. Germany seems most appealing, though admittedly, I've only ever visited the UK in that neck of the woods, so I really don't know what I'm in for! (Isn't that exciting!)
The saturation of opera houses in Germany and Europe broadly presents itself as a promising choice and one I will jump at if I'm considered competent enough to get a foot in the door.
Whatever puts me on the path to singing middle and late period Verdi in a few decades time with good conductors and colleagues is what I will aim to do. It would be a privilege to be able to achieve that goal down the track, though I know it will be far from easy, or perhaps not even realistic. Perhaps I won't suit Verdi! Time will tell. The only certainty is that one can try.
I know that a lot of Mozart must come before Verdi, so I hope a German house will take a chance on a young bloke from Wollongong in years to come.
What advice would you give to those vying for the scholarship this year?
Prepare thoroughly and leave no stone unturned in the text or the music. Your score should look like a madman scribbled all over it three or four times over... Now I'm saying too much.
You can follow the Demant Dreikurs Competition here.