Jacqueline Dark: Australian opera singers are some of the finest in the world
Meet Jacqueline Dark. A mezzo soprano whose skills span opera, musical theatre, cabaret, theatre restaurant and concerts. She is a principal artist with Opera Australia, and has received very prestigious awards - The Helpmann and Green Room Awards, to name just a couple. She has performed with the Victorian Opera, The Melbourne Chorale, Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, Orchestra Victoria, Sydney Philharmonia, The Australian National Academy of Music, The Royal Melbourne Philharmonic Society, the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra and the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra. Jacqueline has also appeared on television on Spicks and Specks and So You Think You Can Dance. In opera, Jacqueline has performed many roles including Marcellina in The Marriage of Figaro and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. The effort of learning these various operas is no small thing; one must learn another language and understand the impact of every word. And that's before a performer prepares to hit those notes with technique and emotion in equal measure. Jacqueline has mastered this art and is invited for more and more roles year upon year. But she has also dominated roles in musical theatre such as Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music (alongside Cameron Daddo and Marina Prior in 2015) of which one reviewer said, "Much loved on the opera stage, mezzo-soprano Dark makes an effortless crossover to music theatre... the act one finale Climb Ev’ry Mountain threatens to blow the roof right off the theatre."
Jacqueline is Australian to the core, born and raised in Ballarat, and currently residing in Sydney with her son. She has a degree in Physics because, "Mum always told me to have a 'real job.'" This inspirational award-winning mezzo soprano kindly took the time to tell Music Love all about her experience working in opera, an art form of which she declares, 'There is nothing else like it in all the world.' Take the time to get to know Jacqueline Dark, and learn more about the world of opera.
What does music mean to you?
It sounds so naff, but singing is a part of who I am – a part of my identity and how I define myself. I sing all the time – walking down the street, doing the dishes, even brushing my teeth! It drives my friends and family nuts, but I don’t even realize I’m doing it. It’s always been my chosen way of expression, and has got me through many a bad breakup. Do not underestimate the therapeutic effect of locking yourself in a room and screaming out some heartbreaking torch songs at the top of your lungs! When I’m sick and can’t sing, it feels as though a vital part of me is missing and I can get very frustrated with the world and feel incomplete and miserable.
I love the idea of music as a form of power, as it was in the days of the Weimar Republic, when rebellious souls could oftentimes get away with singing things that could not be spoken. My best friend Kanen Breen and I perform a cabaret as the Strange Bedfellows that we like to think follows in some small way in these huge Weimar-ian footsteps. We sing about things that we feel should be said, about things that make us angry or make us despair … and also thoroughly filthy things that we probably shouldn’t sing about but do. The aim is not just to shock the audience, but to challenge them and make them question their preconceptions and prejudices; to open up a dialogue about things that are swept under the carpet and considered taboo. It was a terrifying project that laid us both bare, but it was also utterly exhilarating at the same time. We’re writing another show now, so we must have more to say!
Opera in Australia – discuss!
Australian opera singers are some of the finest in the world, and I am so proud to stand beside these extraordinary talents and call them colleagues and friends. People often ask why opera is important, why it's different to other art forms and why it should be preserved, especially when it can be so costly to produce compared with other art forms. I’m answering this after singing at an orchestral rehearsal for Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle in Melbourne this morning, and the answer has never been so clear to me. I was just physically rocked by an orchestra of over 100 and a bunch of singers with the technique and sheer vocal power to sing over this massive orchestra. ACOUSTICALLY. No microphones, no tricks, no help. For hours on end. The naked passion of the human voice soaring over this brilliant behemoth of an orchestra, and carrying with it all the passion and heartbreak and sorrow and hope and joy that a human heart can contain. It’s a force that hits you viscerally and leaves you helpless and overwhelmed as you contemplate the enormity of the depths of the human soul and the extraordinary beauty that this group of very special humans can create. THIS is what is so special and unique about what we do. This is what needs to be preserved and honoured and treasured, and needs to continue to be experienced by generations to come. There is nothing else like it in the world, and it takes huge amounts of stamina, technique, raw talent and courage from every single person to make it work. When it does, the sheer glory of that sound is so magical that the tears and goosebumps are unavoidable, and when it does hit you, you’ll be hooked for life. I loved it when The Sound Of Music audience came up to me after the show saying they’d loved the nuns and had never heard that kind of singing before – those classical voices had reached out and touched them!
Your voice is beyond beautiful. When did you start singing? How do you look after your voice?
Ah, this is very kind – thank you! I’ve always sung. I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing, and it was always something that came from so deep within my soul that it was an integral part of me. I sing what I feel and I feel what I sing. This can be a drawback, as I tend to get so emotionally involved in what I’m singing that I laugh or cry along with the character … not so great for sound production! I’ve sung in so many different styles and love them all – opera, musical theatre, cabaret, piano bar in a nightclub. Singing in theatre restaurant shows at Sovereign Hill in Ballarat as a teenager prepared me to deal with ANYTHING an audience can possibly throw at me – you cannot begin to imagine the shenanigans some of those guys got up to.
I worked very hard on my technique when I was younger, and continue to focus on it now, as a solid classical technique means you can sing anything in a healthy way and have much more stamina and volume, a sturdier voice and a longer career.
If I’m singing a big role, I have to be incredibly disciplined. With a four year old little boy in tow, I have to be vigilant about my exhaustion levels and make sure that I keep my body as healthy as I possibly can to cope with both vocal and mummy demands. I walk a lot and eat loads of good foods (she says on Halloween eve, with a fistful of lolly wrappers sitting next to her). I don’t have big nights out very often, especially ones where I have to talk over crowds or in loud rooms – that‘s an absolute voice killer! You use your speaking voice much more than your singing voice, so it’s a great idea to keep that fully supported, as you would if you were singing, to avoid vocal fatigue (especially if you talk a lot, like me).
I keep well hydrated, even on days when I’m not singing, and try to stay well away from folk with colds. I had a terrible sinus infection this year that required an operation, so am now continuing to do sinus rinses twice a day – those things are FANTASTIC for lessening allergies and keeping colds at bay!
What was your favourite opera that you’ve ever performed in?
My favourite opera is often the one I’m in at the moment, as my current role tends to consume me and I immerse myself in it as completely as possible.
The Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos was a favourite, as it was the first time I’d sung a role so huge and high and I suddenly felt as though I was flying. My voice just took off and I knew that this was how it was meant to feel. Wagner feels the same – my voice just melts into it and I can relax and just let the notes fly out of me. I definitely feel it in my abs, and in my support and breathing muscles when I’m first learning it, but my body gets used to the demands of a new role very quickly. I love Fricka in The Ring Cycle, and Elvira in Don Giovanni, and Herodias in Salome … basically all the roles that have a bit of psychological as well as vocal weight. The ones that make me think and try to worm my way inside a character’s skin, the ones I can bring a lot of myself to. I’ve never been a fan of singing the roles of the pretty, simple, happy lasses – thankfully, I was born with a voice and body type that veer more towards the harlots, the witches and the complicated and crazy ladies! I’m very excited to be singing the Prima Donna in the Australian premiere of Rufus Wainwright’s opera Prima Donna for Adelaide Festival next year. I’m playing an ageing opera singer preparing for her comeback, and the music is achingly beautiful – such a jewel of a role to be immersing myself in. Also coming up next year is Kundry in Parsifal with Opera Australia. She’s a complicated character with the most extraordinary music to sing, and I’ve already fallen completely in love with her. Plus, I get to perform with opera superstar Jonas Kaufmann, who is a devastatingly great singer.
What’s your process like when you are learning an opera?
I always learn the notes first. The notes and the words. The translation, word for word – I don’t know how anyone can ever go on stage just knowing a vague translation, as I have to be able to understand every single word so I that I know where the weight in the phrase lies and can imbue every syllable with meaning. Then comes language coaching, to get the nuances and the phrasing just right and sound like a natural speaker. Music coaching, to refine the stylistic elements. Reading up on the background of a piece – where and when it’s set, how your character would live, what would be happening in the world around them, how they would move physically and how they would think (usually differently to you, which is where bringing something of yourself to the character whilst still honouring their truth is important). Sometimes all of these separate elements pull you in different directions and it can take a very delicate balancing act to pull it all off. My biggest challenge is usually how to balance my natural instinct to prioritise the drama and play a scene for realism against the necessity of singing a line beautifully (or, depending on how difficult the phrase is, getting all the notes out at all!) and being heard over the orchestra.
What should anyone who has never been to the opera know before they go?
It’s not just for ‘snobs’ – it’s for everybody. Whether we’re telling the ‘big’ stories of vengeance and murder and huge-scale rebellion, or presenting a gentle, intimate tale of heartbreak or betrayal or quiet joy, we often have folk come to a show and leave shaking and crying, or laughing uncontrollably, or livid with anger. There’s just something about those voices telling those stories. There’s also something about hearing those voices acoustically.
My little boy still hums The Magic Flute and talks about, "The mean lady (Queen of the Night) chasing daddy up the ladder.” He still talks about the nuns and the "Do Re Mi kids" and sings the "Goat Song" from Sound Of Music. If you present something wonderful, cast with exquisite voices, people will respond.
Don’t be put off because you think you won’t understand it or will feel out of your depth. Just go and let the music surround you. Drink it in and let that acoustic wave knock you off your feet. Also, we have subtitles, so you’ll always know what’s going on, although it’s worth reading up on the plot beforehand, as you might just want to watch the action on stage! I’d also say that if you’ve been to one opera and thought it wasn’t for you, try another one in a different style. I’m not a fan of Westerns, but I love a good thriller. Find the style of opera that suits you, whether that be a light Rossini farce, a delicate Handel piece or a seven hour Wagner opus. The range of opera is so huge – there really is something for everyone.
How was it performing the role of Mother Abbess in the Sound of Music? How do you prepare for a role like that?
Mother Abbess was one of the most beautiful roles of my career and I am so grateful that the producers entrusted her to me. The whole cast and crew were utterly gorgeous – they welcomed me into their world with so much love, and we really did become like a little family, performing and touring together for so long. Singing Climb Ev’ry Mountain was a great gift and I loved singing it every single night. It never, ever got old or stale, and I never tired of singing it – the mark of a truly great song, I feel! I prepared the same way as I would for an opera – learning the role thoroughly and thinking about the character. I had wonderful guidance from Gavin Mitford, our resident director, who always encouraged me to dig deeper and find new ways of saying things, and to play the truth of the piece; and Peter Casey and Luke Hunter, our musical directors, who led me down the path of musical righteousness. We were fortunate enough to be invited to visit the nuns of Jamberoo Abbey, and this was invaluable, as it informed our characterisations immensely and was an intensely beautiful and moving experience.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
Kate Miller-Heidke. She’s a brilliant artist in so many genres, and is a genius at challenging preconceptions and not being put in a box.
Meow Meow. She’s a genius, and every single time I watch her perform, I am left in absolute awe of her ferocious talent and heart.
She’s not a musician, but my friend Lynne Kelly has been an inspiration to me from the day we met and has made a huge impact on my life. She taught me Physics in Year 11, which inspired me to follow that path myself, and by a stroke of fate, we ended up teaching at the same school in Ballarat. Every lunchtime, we would walk together and encourage each other to chase our dreams – mine to sing, and hers to be an author. Her latest book, The Memory Code, has just become a bestseller and gained international attention for presenting a new theory for Stonehenge. She is an utter genius with a creative, scientific whirlwind of a mind that I behold with awe. She is also one of the most generous, encouraging women I have ever met, and we are both so lucky to have to crossed paths – who knows where we’d be without those lunchtime walks kicking each other’s bums into action!
Hopefully EVERYTHING! I love singing with every ounce of my being. I love connecting with an audience and saying something new and leaving them thinking or feeling in a way that they weren’t when they walked into the theatre. I love opera. I love music theatre. I love cabaret. I love writing my own material, so hopefully there’ll be more of all of that this year. I adore performing Strange Bedfellows with Kanen, and can’t wait to unleash another instalment on an unsuspecting world.
I recorded my first ever album this year, so that will be released soon. It was such a fascinating, rewarding experience, and the arrangements by my musical director Daryl Wallis were so achingly gorgeous, that I can’t wait to drag him and my producer Sam Russell back into the studio to record another one!
What was life like growing up in Australia for you?
I’m a ‘country city’ girl – born and bred in Ballarat, Victoria. I love my home town, as there is such a sense of community, and I know that so many people follow my career and come to watch me perform. The theatre and music scene there is so strong - it gave me such a solid grounding in stage technique and so much performance experience that by the time I sang in a professional show I could hit the ground running much more easily, and I will always be grateful for that and remember those shows so fondly.
I completed a Bachelor of Applied Science degree, majoring in Physics, because mum always told me to have ‘a real job’ to back up my singing. I then did a Dip Ed and taught Physics and Maths for five years, which I absolutely loved – Physics is a major passion of mine and I loved passing on my passion about the bizarre universe that physics tells us exists to the kids, and watching their brains expand with wonder before my eyes. I ended up trying to run two careers at once, which quickly became impossible, and singing took the front seat, but I still love talking about Physics and set one of the trial exams for the Victorian Year 12 kids to keep a little bit of contact with that world.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
Cuddling up next to my little boy Alexander. Wherever we are - and I’ve dragged him all over this wide, brown land with me in the last 12 months - is home. Family and friends are everything to me. I am fiercely loyal to the people I care about and feel so fortunate to have so many incredibly special souls in my life. I love that this career gives you an extraordinary extended family – wherever you travel, there are dear souls that make your heart sing, and it’s always joyous when your work takes you back to them.
What is your favourite Australian café/restaurant?
Belljar Café in Sydney. It’s on Alice St, right near where I live, so many a gorgeous family lunch is spent sampling their delicious fare and indulging in their fabulous coffees (usually more than one, if I’m being honest). They know just how Xander likes his Vegemite toast!
Favourite non-music thing to do?
Hanging out with my little boy. Seeing anything through his eyes makes it special and magical, and he has the most quirky, creative views on things. Having him around also takes me places I’d never think to go – museums, zoos, Scienceworks, crazily fabulous playgrounds … I get to experience it all with him, and the joy of watching his face light up with discovery is indescribably wonderful.
Jacqueline Dark will be performing in the following roles: Fricka and Second Norn in Wagner's Ring Cycle with Opera Australia; Régine Saint Laurent (the Prima Donna) in Prima Donna (an opera by Rufus Wainwright) for Adelaide Festival; Parsifal with Opera Australia