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From Bach to Bizet - chatting with soprano Rachael Griffin about her career as an opera singer.

American-born soprano Rachael Griffin has been an active performer on the Brisbane music scene since moving to Australia, wowing audiences with performances that range from operatic choruses in major productions by Opera Queensland, to featured solos with the most prestigious choral groups in Queensland. Rachael joins Voxalis in its inaugural concert, Songs of Love, as a featured artist performing arias by Massenet and Puccini. We sat down with Rachael to chat about her impressive CV and her life so far as an opera singer.

You will be performing arias by Puccini and Massenet for our inaugural concert. What do you love most about the pieces that you are performing, and why did you choose them?

Such a good question. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to get to know and perform new pieces. I will be singing three arias that I have never performed before. I learned “In quelle trine morbide” as a study piece with a teacher many years ago, unfortunately he used to jokingly refer to it as “in this morbid latrine”, which is a terrible thing to have in mind when you are singing this beautiful piece! I adore Puccini, I think he is the most incredible Romantic composer, especially the way he puts swelling passion into melody connected to beautiful poetry. We wanted songs about love for this program and this piece really embodies that. “In quelle trine morbide” is such a joy to revisit, get to know better, and I really feel connected to it.

His opera Edgar is less well-known. Unfortunately it was unsuccessful in Puccini’s time, but there are some incredible gems in it. So again, it is a real pleasure to immerse myself in this magic that Puccini composes. The Massenet is so sweet and gentle. There is almost an innocence in the character’s love and passion for someone who showed her kindness, it is incredibly beautiful. They're all an absolute delight to sing, I am really pleased to have the opportunity to perform them with Voxalis.

From left to right, Anne Fulton (mezzo soprano), Richard Bonynge (conductor), and Rachael Griffin

You’ve got quite an impressive CV, what has been a career highlight(s) for you?

It is hard to pick one thing. In some ways, where I am in my life right now is a highlight. I have the opportunity to perform with Voxalis. I am part of a vocal quintet - Soirées Musicales Quintette, founded by Dr Peter Roennfeldt - and we perform gorgeous 19th century Romantic repertoire every year. I am also starting rehearsals this week with Opera Queensland for The Sopranos, which will include some beautiful opera choruses, some familiar to me and some new. I am also the soprano soloist with Brisbane Chamber Choir next month, and later in the year with Canticum Chamber Choir. So I feel unbelievably fortunate to have so many opportunities to sing and work on such a range of repertoire, from Bach to Bizet.

It has been absolutely fantastic to work with some amazing conductors. I had the chance to work with Zubin Mehta in New York, we did Beethoven’s 9th Symphony with the New York Philharmonic at the United Nations at the end of the first Gulf war, as well as Leonard Slatkin and Kurt Masur. With Opera Queensland we have been so lucky to work with some of the finest conductors in the world including Johannes Fritzsch. And I am honoured to work again this year with both Emily Cox and Graeme Morton who consistently bring extraordinary experience, skill and passion to their concerts along with great joy.

Can you tell us about a funny moment behind the scenes in an opera performance?

There have been quite a few. Opera Queensland toured “The Mikado” in 2012, and it had an amazing cast. Everyone was so funny. Every show in the regional areas was hilarious. It really went up a level on tour, the audience would laugh and we would be genuinely laughing (in character, in the appropriate places) as well on stage, so it was this reciprocal thing. Brian Castles-Onion was the conductor and he was great fun, he kind of set the pace. I don't know who had more fun on that tour, the audience or the cast members.

One unforgettable incident, our beloved chorus master John Dingle, during a production of A Masked Ball (Un Ballo in Maschera) surprised us in a scene when the women had to turn upstage and then turn downstage to sing. He appeared before us upstage as an old crone in rags. He had blackened some of his teeth and he smiled at us just before we had to turn back around. Of course, we had to face the audience and sing with very serious intent. He knew we were dying on the inside because all we wanted to do was burst out laughing. So, yeah he got us good with that one!

Another funny incident was during a stage dress rehearsal for The Merry Widow in 2010. There was a change of scene between Act II and Act III where six of us ladies had to do a quick change into exquisite Grisette costumes that Karen Cochet made for the production. She did such a fantastic job, they were made from imported European burnt orange satin with 40 meters of tulle in each skirt to make them stand out and they were hand embroidered and embellished as well. The six Grisettes were all of different heights and the dresses and pantaloons had been painstakingly made to fit us perfectly. We had a quick change in the dark, side of stage before making an immediate entrance into Maxim’s for the next scene. At the end of the rehearsal, we stayed on stage for notes and as we caught our breath, we looked at one another. Somehow, Kaja, the tallest girl was in Jenny’s costume, the shortest girl and vice versa. Jenny’s pantaloons were below her knees and Kaja’s dress was indecently short! So whilst trying to absorb the notes, we were stifling our laughter at how on earth these two managed to get into each other’s costumes in the first place. But the look on Karen’s face in the audience, she was horrified! She thought she’d somehow gotten something terribly wrong with the costumes which of course she hadn’t, she is an incredible perfectionist. Needless to say, we had the help and order backstage necessary to successfully maneuver the quick change each night, into the right costumes.

There are always some little pranks that people play on stage and it often involves blackening teeth or swapping costumes. However, they are very subtle things that the audience wouldn't pick up so it’s more of an inside joke. Singers are very playful and love to have fun.

Annie Lower, Rachael Griffin, Karen Gaydon, and Anne Fulton at QPAC for Opera Queensland's production of La Traviata in 2015.

Do you have any tips for aspiring opera singers?

I always say go overseas. Try to immerse yourself in a country and culture that really venerates and celebrates opera. Try to expose yourself as much as you can. Never stop learning and don't be afraid to ask for help, because for the most part, people are always happy to. Again, we have had some great conductors and artists come here, and I believe they would be more than happy to workshop and help young singers. In a way, it is in our nature to help other people coming through to be the best versions of themselves.

You should try to create your own opportunities and also audition for everything. The practice of auditioning is good and essential. I have put my hand up for some gigs that I initially didn't know why I was doing them, but then I was glad I did. That one gig can connect you with other people that may take you on another path on your journey. In other words, be open-minded because you never know how these collaborations and connections might positively impact your career.

You can hear Rachael perform arias by Puccini and Massenet in our upcoming performance, Songs of Love, on Saturday 5th March at Saint Andrew’s Uniting Church.


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