Bizet’s romantic opera The Pearl Fishers gets a makeover by Australian playwright and director Michael Gow, and WA Opera brings his revised production to His Majesty’s Theatre and WA audiences in just one week. Gow has made the three main male parts European, with Perth home-grown baritone Sam Roberts-Smith performing the role of Zurga. Roberts-Smith has had a very welcome homecoming from WAO in the production after travelling the world with The Ten Tenors; he gives us a few insights into the secret of his success.
How is this role and the production challenging you as a performer?
Vocally it’s demanding. Most baritones I think find it slightly difficult because the vocal line sits quite high. But because I’ve sung baritone and tenor roles professionally, I find that having that ability has helped me navigate through this vocal part, which most baritones probably would find very difficult. In terms of this new take on the production, I’m playing a sort of drunk alcoholic pearl dealer who has escaped from the world and is taking advantage of the villagers. So character-wise it’s challenging, but vocally as well, but because of the supportive team at WAO, it makes it a lot easier to put together.
You began re-training as a tenor for a while. How did the decision to do that come about?
I’d always trained as a baritone; I went to OA and was singing baritone roles. The Artistic Director heard that I was experimenting with tenor repertoire, and that I had this capability in the upper part of my voice sometimes. He was interested in that, and I think because I’m 6’5”and lean, I think he thought that would be quite nice to have as a tenor, because I don’t look stereotypically like a tenor. I took it on with the understanding that it would be a trial, and once I signed that contract, the very next day I was singing tenor repertoire. There was no transition period; I was thrown on stage right away. It’s quite scary singing on the Opera House stage to 2000 people in a voice type that you haven’t trained in. I did that for two years. I successfully sang the roles, but I knew that it wasn’t what I wanted. After two years, I decided that I was a baritone; I could sing the baritone roles right now, and if the tenor thing was going to happen, that could develop later in life.
That was hard and I had to leave OA because of my choice. Funnily enough after that I was invited to join The Ten Tenors, and I had just gone back to baritone! But in The Ten Tenors we sing a whole range of music. There are 10 parts, and I usually sing the lower baritone parts, and they put me on the heavier operatic tenor repertoire sometimes. I’m kind-of an impostor in The Ten Tenors, but I can sing both baritone and tenor because of that training, so it’s just about being versatile, I think.
How does singing tenor repertoire affect your voice?
If I’m singing tenor music I have to sing at the very extremity of my voice. That’s not good if you have to sit up there every day, every piece of music, if you’re singing right on the edge of what you’re capable of. It’s possible, but it wouldn’t be consistent and there would be no longevity in it. All of these experiences weren’t wasted at all, and have added to my knowledge of how it’s meant to work and how it’s not meant to work. So when I come back to a role like Zurga, it just sits in an ideal position and when everything is working as it should, that is such a great feeling.
You were recently awarded the Deustche Oper Berlin Award, supported by The Opera Foundation for Young Australians. Tell us a bit more about that.
I nearly didn’t audition for it at all. Doing competitions is just part of this industry, especially if you want to go overseas. It’s a gateway into other companies and the international scene, and I’ve been doing them since I was still at WAAPA. It’s a numbers game I think. It just depends on who you get on the panel, what you’re singing, what it’s for, and what they’re looking for. Because I had already been getting good contracts, I wasn’t sure if I should even audition, because I had done enough competitions already and was a working singer. I’ve been very lucky with the consistency of work.
I was in Sydney after finishing with The Ten Tenors, and I had a few days to myself. I’d gone out for lunch and was feeling very relaxed that afternoon, and I thought, ‘I’m just going to sing for me, and enjoy the experience.’ Most of the time you’re nervous, and if you put too much thought into it it’s usually detrimental. So I enjoyed it for myself and it felt really good, and I said to myself, ‘If I don’t get it that’s fine, because I just sang really well.’ They had a few hundred singers, and it was narrowed down to three, two others from Melbourne, and I was representing WA. I got the phone call and I was selected.
Aside from all the performing you’ll be doing, what are you looking forward to during your time in Berlin?
When I got the phone call, I was in shock for a little while and I tried not to think about it too much because The Pearl Fishers was coming up, and I didn’t want to get distracted. Winning is incredible, but I don’t want to stop; now’s the time the work begins. Every minute that I’ve had away from The Pearl Fishers, I’ve been learning German myself. They fly me over to do a month intensive language course in Berlin before I start. I’m really looking forward to getting immersed in the language properly. I’ve had to do it as part of this job over the years anyway, Italian, French and German. But now this is a really good goal to make sure that I really focus on speaking German properly. Being bilingual is an exciting thought. Geographically we’re so far away here, so being on that side of the world is a gateway to the rest of the world; I can fly for an hour and be in a whole different country.
What do you attribute your success to?
It’s been work non-stop really, and it has taken a long time. My parents have been very supportive, 100% the whole time. It’s about making your goals quite clear and putting your focus on what you want. A lot of people get distracted by other things, rather than having a clear goal. I have a lot of friends that still like going out and having a good time and doing whatever they want on the weekend, but I don’t mind being at home on Saturday night and making steps towards what I want. Also, it sounds a bit cliché, but you have to be resilient because there are so many knock-backs all the time; you have to keep going forward. The goal right now is to do a great job at The Pearl Fishers and making sure it’s a success, and I know that it will be.
What’s it like coming home to Perth after traveling the world?
It’s my first time back in Perth for a really long time. I’ve been traveling around internationally, the States, Europe and Asia. It’s nice to be performing with my home opera company because my family and friends are here, and the company itself has been so supportive and welcoming. It’s very nice to come home.
The Pearl Fishers runs from 25 October to 5 November at His Majesty’s Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the WA Opera website here.