Jessica O'Donoghue was highly skilled and trained in the art of opera, but chose to unlearn it all to find her true artistic self. Her new album title is fitting.
Opera singers are often described as elite athletes by writers and reviewers the world over. And it's a fitting description. Last year, the BBC's Brian Morton wrote, "Singing opera is to ordinary vocal activity what distance running, triple-jumping and pole-vaulting are to ordinary exercise.... The operatic voice is unnatural, a cultural artefact rather than a given, or a gift. Some singers achieve greatness with little intervention. The majority require F1 technical support and fine-tuning." To be trained in this art form means long hours of dedication with the utmost care and attentiveness given to one's health and physical fitness. So to walk away from being a highly skilled, and extremely disciplined vocalist and performer but still want to sing would be extremely difficult. Enter Jessica O'Donoghue. Ten years ago, the Australian soprano walked away from the world of opera. Despite being well on her way - Jessica once was invited to perform at London's Covent Garden - something just wasn't sitting right. We'll let her explain it to you in the following interview. But now, a decade later of unlearning opera and learning about her true artistic self, Jessica has just released a brand new EP called Emerge. And she's more content than ever.
What does music mean to you?
Music for me is the whole reason I’m here. It was what I was put on this earth to do, I truly believe that. Music (of all kinds) moves me so fundamentally and I feel that it plays a crucial role in society as a way for all people to connect on a deeper level, to communicate and share on a level that is beyond language, race, class, gender, etc.
How did your life in music begin?
I was surrounded by music from the time I was in the womb! My father, Rory O’Donoghue, raised four children as a full time musician, and my grandparents on both sides were professional singers and performers, so it began at home and has been my life ever since.
You call yourself a "reformed opera singer" - tell us about why you decided to leave the world of opera?
Hahaha, yes, sorry opera folk!!! Well, firstly I really fell into opera because I had been singing and performing all sorts of different styles of music (jazz, contemporary, choral, musical theatre, cabaret) since I was a child, so when it came to leaving high school I found I wanted to further my studies and skills in music, so I started looking at university degrees. I got accepted into a Bachelor of Music at Sydney University and it was really there that I ended up moving towards opera. Not because I was passionate about that genre, but because that was the best way to develop my vocal technique to an extreme level. I really wanted to master the art of singing and I got that from my operatic training. However, as my operatic career went on I found that traditional opera was so restrictive. There was no room for personal interpretation, or the idea of introducing different vocal sounds to express various emotions, I felt really stuck as an artist and like I just didn’t fit into this world. I felt that my true purpose of moving my audience and taking them on a journey was not being used in the operatic world, so I left to pursue new avenues including writing my own songs. Ironically I still perform operas and classical music, but more contemporary works where I’m actually working with the composer and am able to be a part of the process and bring my own style and interpretation to the work which I find very satisfying.
Are there any things you miss about opera?
The thing I miss most about opera is working with a full orchestra. I always loved the epic scale of operatic music and the way that a full orchestra can really take you to a whole other level. There’s nothing like soaring vocally over a group of 80 amazing instruments, it gives you wings and makes you sing in a way that you can’t do with a smaller group or band. My favourite part of the operatic process was a rehearsal called the Sitzprobe, which is basically the first time all the singers get together with the orchestra and we all just sit together and play though the score without the staging or costumes or anything. It was always a really magical moment to sing with the orchestra for the first time in a production.
You certainly haven’t removed yourself from drama in your music. Do you think the opera art form informed your dramatic edge?
Most definitely. If I had the money, I would do a big orchestral pop album. Albums like Sarah Blasko’s I Awake and Lior’s Compassion are huge inspirations for me, I’d love to do a work of that scale one day. But until then, I definitely try to bring that epic scale and drama that I love so much about opera into my music in other ways.
How do you look after your voice?
I must say I'm very disciplined when it comes to looking after my voice and I got that from my operatic training because being an opera singer is in many ways like being an elite athlete. You have to be at 110 per cent all the time and that takes work. I'll always warm up properly before singing, I practice singing daily to keep my technique in good shape and I look after my health so that I don't get sick.
Did you have to ‘untrain’ your classical voice to sing in a more contemporary fashion?
In a way I did go through a process of 'untraining' my voice. Not so that I could sing pop music though, because by then I could really make any sound I wanted, but because I wanted to find my 'true' voice that was really 'me'. Not me singing opera, or me singing pop, but just me truly being 'me' and sounding like 'me'. That was an extremely difficult process but the most rewarding thing I've done in my journey and the things I discovered about myself through that process ended up being a lot more than what my true singing voice sounds like, but who I was as an artist and what it was that I really wanted to say.
What are your thoughts on this increasingly genre-less world of music?
I love it! This idea of categorising music into neat little 'genre' boxes seems so ludicrous to me! It's one of the main things I've struggled with putting my own music out there. There is never a suitable box for me to tick that describes my sound and it's a real barrier! All music is what it is. We're all individuals and ultimately we don't want a whole lot of music that sounds the same, yet we force people to put themselves into a box that has already been filled countless times by other artists.
What genres and sonics give you goosebumps?
I really do love most styles of music, but I have to say that the the music that seems to really speak to an old part of myself is Middle Eastern/Arabic musics. When I was at uni I sang with a group called The Renaissance Players, and we performed a lot of Mediaeval Sephardic music. It always moved me so deeply and really resonated with my core in a way that no other music seems to do. In fact I always open my live shows with one of my favourite Sephardic songs/melodies over a drone and it's my favourite way to start a set. I might pop one on the next album too!!!
What is your favourite song from your new EP?
As much as I love the big epic numbers on the album, actually my favourite track is Lift. I wrote it after I had an amazing meditation session one day and it was one of those songs that just came out almost in it’s entirety. It was a gift, and it really didn’t need much producing in the studio, so it’s a very raw song that came straight from the heart.
Who are your favourite Australian women in music?
I have a beautiful close posse of women in my musical family that I have had the pleasure of working with including amazing artists like Jess Green (Pheno), Alyx Dennison (kyü), Jane Tyrell and Bree van Reyk. I also love Sarah Blasko, Sally Seltman, Sarah Belkner, the All Our Exes [Live in Texas] ladies and Katie Noonan. And some incredibly talented women composers I’ve worked with recently are Ella Macens, Mary Finsterer and Andrée Greenwell. There is so much talent in this country, I feel so privileged to be amongst these inspiring artists and we really must keep supporting all the great women who are putting themselves out there.
Who is your favourite non-musical artist?
Two women artists I massively admire are Nikita Margarita with her jewellery brand ‘Doodad and Fandango’ and Robyn Wilson and her venture with Flutter Lyon. Both these women have thrown themselves into their art whole heartedly, totally backed themselves and followed their dreams without compromise and are a massive inspiration to me as artists, women and all round kick ass human beings. I love them and their work.
What is your favourite place in Australia?
Now that’s a hard one! One of the things I love about Australia is it’s variety. I’m in love with Sydney Harbour, I’m in love with Melbourne shopping and night life, I’m in love with Brissy’s weather. I have also done heaps of regional touring in my time and I absolutely love the small country towns around Australia. When I was three years old, my family drove across Australia in our Kombi van because my Dad was filming a movie about a guy who travelled around Australia in a hot air balloon! That was an incredible experience as sometimes we would drive for days on a dead straight road without ever seeing another soul and we really came to appreciate the size and expanse of this beautiful country. We went to Uluru, Coober Pedy, many many little lost and forgotten places along the way and really saw the heart of Australia. I think it’s that sense of the country as a whole, and massively unique land, that I love and that will always stay with me.
After my EP launch tour I’m going straight into a wonderful production of Benjamin Britten’s opera The Rape of Lucretia with the Sydney Chamber Opera which will be on at Carriageworks. Then I have a baby! Then I will start working on my next album which I’m so excited to get into as there are so many songs already on the boil.
Advice for young Australian women in music?
Follow your dreams and passions. Be yourself. Don’t wait for someone to give you permission, back yourself, just put your art out there and do what you love to do.