February 2006

Jumping off the deep end to Perth and beyond


Since winning the German Operatic Award on her 25th birthday last August, lyric soprano Anita Watson has added the 2005 Mathy to her list of achievements.

Unlike many singers, Sydney-born Watson does not come from a musical background - her immediate family members are accountants and statisticians. However, she recalls that even at pre-school she was always the loudest singer and later, in primary school she auditioned for the Australian Youth Choir and sang with it for the next eight years. Occasionally she was given small solos. At 16 she joined the Education Department's Combined Schools Choir conducted by George Torbay, and by then she was being given more and bigger solos "and that is when it started getting serious," she recalls.

The big question after the Higher School Certificate was whether to enroll in business or music. She saw business as a cautious alternative in case a career in music didn't eventuate, but her parents encouraged her to go ahead, take a risk and try music. Four years in the Sydney Conservatorium's Bachelor of Music course followed, and for the last two she believes she was fortunate to have Jane Edwards as a teacher. "She really helped me and gave me work that was challenging but still lay within the parameters of the course."

After graduating with a B.Mus, she toyed with the idea of doing a Dip.Ed - "I still needed something to fall back on" - and so she auditioned for that as well as the Conservatorium's postgraduate opera course and the Australian Opera Studio, and was accepted into all three. Now she had to make a very big decision. "My Dad said: ‘Don't worry about the money - just go for it,’ so I did!"

She decided to take up the two-year scholarship offered by Perth's Australian Opera Studio, directed by Greg Yurisich. "It was a bit of a risk, but I looked at what the studio had to offer: the acting and the number of roles they did a year, so I decided it would be a good experience. I had never been to Perth and I really jumped off the deep end." After four days on the Indian Pacific the young soprano and her car arrived in Perth and headed out to the Studio at Midland.

The two years at the AOS were an intensive learning experience. Watson recalls that until then she had had little acting experience, apart from roles in productions such as Bye Bye Birdie and The Secret Garden at university. At the studio, however, acting classes were a daily discipline and she is especially grateful for the skills taught her by John Milson and Marcelle Schmitz. "They were quite different: John focused on the text and Marcelle was more concerned with movement and characterisation - putting both together was very beneficial."

She recalls that before the 2004 end-of-year performance of Le Nozze di Figaro they actually worked through scenes of Beaumarchais' play (in English) with Milson and then acted scenes with Schmitz before they were blocked with the director, Yurisich.

She also recalls that the first master class in her second year of acting with Milson (before an audience) was a semi-staged version of Under Milkwood. The pace was fast, the complex language horrendously difficult and she thought: "I'll never get through this." Adding: "But because I stayed on at the studio for an extra six months (to consolidate and prepare for competitions) I actually got to do it again and the second time it was completely different. I thought: ‘Gosh, it wasn't so hard after all!’"

Fast-forwarding a little, she credits these learnt and experiential acting skills as crucial elements in winning the 2005 German Opera Award. The finals started with each contestant singing an aria of their own choice, followed by the judges' choice and then an interview. Later in the day they reassembled for a production workshop.

This time the judges chose one of her set pieces, Mimì's farewell. First she was asked to act it out as she thought it should be performed. The second time she was given a red feather boa and told to play Mimì as a prostitute. Finally a fan was added to the ensemble and she was told to perform the same aria as if she were walking on a tightrope! "If I hadn't been at the studio there is no way I would have coped," she recalls. After the competition the judges' feedback confirmed that Watson had won on the performance she gave at the workshop - how she coped with direction and could change her voice and actions according to the situation.

She also found working with AOS director Greg Yurisich particularly inspirational and influential. "He is such an amazing person to work with. He did everything he could to teach us the tricks of the trade - whether to do with singing and acting or applying stage makeup. We only wish we could get him more out of the office and into the coaching room, or even better, back onto the stage."

During her time at the studio Watson performed many varied roles. Her favourite was Susanna. Some were more challenging than others: for instance Cleopatra in Giulio Cesare had eight arias, (one of which she sang in the Mathy Award finals); Donna Anna was also very demanding; but she admits that they will probably be easier when she comes back to them in her professional life. She was dux of AOS in 2004 which entitles her to a return trip to London.

She has no idea what roles she will be singing when she takes up her year contract with the Cologne Opera Studio in August. However, it is likely she will be singing for Kinderoper (children's opera) as well as smaller roles and covers on the main stage. She feels it will be a bit like OzOpera without the touring. In the meantime she is doing a crash course in German which is part of her Goethe Institut Award.

Mid-year she will be heading for London, followed by Israel for a month to take up another award at the Nelly Apt Summer School in Tel Aviv. Then she will spend a year under contract with the Cologne Opera Studio. Further down the track she would like to return to London and possibly audition for a Covent Garden Scholarship as she really believes her future lies in the Italian repertoire. It looks as if this talented young soprano has quite a future and we won't be seeing her here for a while.

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