What music gets your heart racing?
There are definitely heart racing moments in The Riders, “The Storm” in particular is fun and wild. An electric guitar solo wouldn’t be out of place!
Relaxing music, I look forward to albums by the cellist Sol Gabetta and singer/songwriter Laura Marling. I saw Simone Young conduct a wonderful Lohengrin at Zürich Opera last year, now I love listening to “Mein lieber Schwan” remembering that feeling Klaus Florian Vogt created with his voice.
What do you sing along to?
Wade and I spent many hours driving around Germany, Switzerland and Italy so we were always singing in the car, usually Mumford & Sons, Rufus Wainwright or Dave Dobbyn.
This month you are singing the role of Jennifer in The Riders, an opera by Iain Graindage (composer) and Alison Croggon (librettist) based on the novel by Tim Winton. It is a very WA affair! The soprano, composer and novelist are from Perth and The Rider’s protagonists are from Perth. Is this the closest association Perth has ever had to opera?!?
|Pearson singing the Queen of the Night aria
Yes the entire cast (a part from Wade my New Zealand-born husband) grew up in or now live in Perth. The two girls sharing the main role of Billie (Rosanna Radici & Mia Beattie) are very smart middle-school music students at M.L.C. Richard Mills based his opera Batavia (2001) off the coast of W.A., but I think this is the first time anyone has sung lines such as “The blow of Perth sunlight striking up from a white beach” operatically! Tim Winton has given us reminders of experiences this cast and this audience all know so well. “A sniff of eucalypt, and memory rushes in like a fever.” We have to thank Alison Croggon for all that she has incorporated in the libretto. West Australians can be very proud of this piece.
The opera opens with Scully in Ireland waiting for his wife and daughter to arrive from Perth. Only his daughter gets off the plane so the opera follows the journey of Scully searching Europe for his missing wife. The opera could be taken as a warning not to chase elusive hopes from the past. Is it a dark story? What can the audience expect?
It’s a dark story in that it explores what happens when we suddenly lose the most valuable thing in our lives. The audience will see Scully go through the stages of grief, dragging his daughter through dangerous places to find Jennifer. The hunt for her is gripping but his daughter Billie’s singing will melt your heart and it is also is really uplifting when you see that in the end, Scully has the strength of character not to look for his love anymore. We see him evolve. Before Alex (the painter) kills himself, he sings to Scully, “Sometimes the only end of something, is the end you make.”
The Riders are from celtic mythology, terrifying, faceless horsemen who try to drag us back to the past. At the end of the opera Scully sings “Every night they’ll be here…but I’m not waiting with them, not in life, not in death, not any more.” Our director Marion Pott’s idea of Billie carefully blowing out one of the three symbolic candles burning in their window, always has me reaching for tissues at the end.
You are playing the role of Scully’s missing wife Jennifer. Is she a heroine or an anti-hero?
It is a really interesting character and I have tried to understand her point of view even though at first, to be honest, I sided with Scully. Because in the book, Jennifer comes across as unbelievably selfish and delusional about her artistic potential. But the question why she really runs away is always left unanswered. In the opera Marion, Iain and Alison have given Jennifer a more sympathetic voice, she represents people who value high-achievement and self-discovery over romanticism and family obligation.We are assuming she is still pregnant when she runs away. Iain has written her music beautifully so that the audience will be more sympathetic towards her. She doesn’t feel a bond with her daughter or husband anymore, only suffocation. Some of my friends feel she is a heroine, someone who remains true to herself, no matter the cost.
How did you prepare for the role?
I started by reading the book and Iain sent us an early version of the score months ahead of time so we could start tinkering. I like starting ahead of schedule on modern opera roles so that the intervals and rhythms become second nature and you can just concentrate on singing technique, realistic movement and your part as a reliable cog the whole machine.
How are rehearsals going?
We end a full run of the opera passing a box of tissues around, it’s pretty moving! Brad Cohen is there every day refining our diction, style, tuning. Marion Potts is changing some aspects from the original Melbourne production to suit His Maj’s stage and incorporating our ideas if they fit with the style of the piece. A great luxury! Iain has been here and has shown us more than the notes on a page can. If only Verdi was still able to do the same for his operas! James Clayton is singing this enormous lead role superbly.
Where did you grow up and what led you into opera?
I grew up on a rural property in Wanneroo, my Dad grew and exported wildflowers. We moved in to Wembley in my final years of highschool at St Mary’s A.G.S. I studied classical singing at St Mary’s, loving Lieder and baroque music, but wasn’t very keen on opera until I saw a Deborah Warner production of Britten ‘s Turn of the Screw at Covent Garden in 2002.
From where I sit opera singers have a grueling job. To be successful singers must have not only natural vocal talent and years of technical training, but also the tenacity to learn at least five languages, be an outstanding actor and maintain excellent physical health. All the while working late nights, travelling lots and engaging with seriously psychologically challenging roles! How do you do it?!
You have to put yourself first, like Jennifer! Or find a partner with similar values. And have very understanding parents. It also helps, a lot, to have a dual passport. It is an itinerant lifestyle, you have to be prepared to live away from loved ones for months at a time. I was lucky to have an intense self-improvement period at the Australian Opera Studio, be touring operas at 23 and then fall into a safe job at a German opera house at 24. I slowly added international destinations to my workload with mixed results!
|Pearson and Wade Kernot
Your husband Wade Kernot is principal bass at Theatre St Gallen in Switzerland. What are your tips for managing a long-distant marriage?
After 5 years of travelling to see each other we are now both freelancing and can even work together on operas occasionally (like The Riders). Now we travel together more often. Skype was our lifeline, we always talked through everything we were experiencing and held the same future goals in our heads.
You finished working in Wiesbaden in 2014 and the State of Hessen awarded you the honorary title of “Kammersängerin” – the youngest opera singer to have ever received this title. Since then you seem to be much in demand around Australia and in Europe. Why did you opt for a freelance lifestyle and what is the plan for the next stage of your life?
While I was very grateful for the nine years of salaried income at Wiesbaden, I started to get run down trying to branch out into other opera companies, keep up with family in Australia and NZ and try to start my own family. It was burning the candle at every end. I reached a point where the freelance work was enough to live on, so that when our Intendant retired in 2014, I decided not to take a “Fest position” in another company and finally move in with my husband in Switzerland.
When I last interviewed you in 2006 you had a soft spot for the role of Adele in Die Fledermaus. What is your dream role now?
Haha that is a funny reminder! I suppose it was 10 years ago. I sang my dream role last year, Violetta in La traviata for Opera Queensland. I also had a wonderful time singing Hilda in Henze ‘ s Elegy for Young Lovers recently. It was very challenging music but a funny/tragic Miss Haversham-type character role. I would love to perform that opera again in English (text by W. H. Auden) one day.
Opera is such a huge part of German culture where it holds intellectual and political sway. What do you feel the art form has to say to Australians, where opera isn’t so mainstream?
It is human nature to enjoy stories, escapism and live music. These days it’s also rare to hear live music with your own ears, free of microphones and sound engineering. Come to the opera to be soothed or moved and hear the power of the natural human voice. I was watching a Katy Perry concert on the plane recently and with the sound down it was basically opera just without a story line. The desire for the grandeur and spectacle of our artform is still there. The main difference with Australia and Germany is Australian parents don’t take their children to symphonic concerts, theatre, ballet or opera, as often. Our children become adults who are unsure of what to expect inside formal performance venues, like an adult going to church for the first time.
Where are you spending your spare moments in Perth?
I am trying to keep up with the changes in this lovely city since I left in 2003! I am intrigued by Print Hall in St George’s Tce, Gordon ‘s Garage in Gordon St and love Bivouac and Sneaky Tony’s in Northbridge. On weekends I visit my parents at their home in Dawesville- it’s so peaceful there and the beaches from Tim’s Thicket to Miami are great.
What’s it going to take for us to woo you back to Australia?
A small male child might make an appearance in our lives in August, we hope! He will definitely make us settle down near family for a while.
Do you have a soft spot for anything else in life or is it all about the music?
It’s mostly languages, music, art and cheese sandwiches with me these days. I have a soft spot for public libraries, big and small. I’m compiling a mental list of the vinyl albums I want to own once we settle down. I’m also trying to be a better cook and baker, thanks to the all inspiring TV show Great British Bake Off.
Watch Emma Pearson in her debut at Opera Australia singing Queen of the Night in David Freeman’s The Magic Flute.