Elena Xanthoudakis was delighted to win the International Mozart Competition recently. The soprano earned the accolade in the composer's birthplace of Salzburg, during the 250th anniversary year of his birth.
As the only Australian among contestants from twenty-eight nations, she was one of nine singers to reach the final, where her rivals included five other sopranos all singing the same prescribed arias. Despite the pressure, Elena walked on stage with a positive attitude. "I try to enjoy every performance," she says.
Several months earlier, she had received a Marten Bequest Scholarship and astutely invested much of it in coaching for the Mozart Competition. She reaped the first prize of 10,000 euros, as well as a concert tour of Japan, an orchestral concert in Salzburg during Mozart Week, and a Liederabend at the Mozarteum.
The Salzburg success was not her first award in international competition. In 2003, she claimed the oratorio-lied prize at the Maria Callas Grand Prix in Athens, leading to concert appearances in St Petersburg and Hong Kong.
"It's good to test yourself against what's out there on the international scene and get noticed. I'm very focussed on being international."
At 27, Elena has undertaken a vast amount of study, which has not been confined to the field of music.
"I've always had a very strong interest in astronomy so I wanted to be an astrophysicist. I studied double maths and physics at high school so I could do science at uni. I thought the voice will take a few years to develop anyway and by then I'll know what I want to do."
After graduating from McKinnon Secondary College, one of Melbourne's specialist music high schools, she completed the first year of a science degree. For the following two years she continued with that degree part-time while also studying at the VCA for a Bachelor of Music Performance with honours.
Although she still takes an interest in astronomical discoveries, Elena accepts she will probably not finish the science degree. "Music is my big focus and it takes up a lot of time," she says.
Next on her academic agenda came a Master's degree in Music Performance at Melbourne University, and a concurrent Graduate Diploma of Opera at the VCA in the evenings. She then achieved a second Masters degree from Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London after winning the Guildhall Prize at the Mathy competition.
Somehow she also found time to join the Young Artists' Program at Teatro Maggio Musicale in Florence. As the recipient of a Rotary scholarship, she spent four months in the Program and performed the role of La Contessa di Folleville in Rossini's Il Viaggio a Rheims.
Since deciding to pursue a singing career, Elena has used her background in mathematics and physics to illuminate music. "I've got an analytical sort of mind. It even helps with things like Mozart, the way I phrase. I like to think of things in terms of graphical representations.
"I also think in terms of painting; how might this phrase be painted. Some studies I did at the National Academy of Music took articulation of phrase shape and matched them to the emotional content. My three favourite composers would be Bach - I'm crazy for Bach - Mozart and Richard Strauss. The reason is the way that they match the text to the phrase shape and put changing emotional subtext to that music. So where Bach might say the same thing four times, the way he modulates, and each little corner, adds a new emotional nuance. And it's the same in Mozart, and a similar thing in Strauss with the harmony and the way the colour of that harmony dictates so much of the emotion."
These days Elena is based in Glasgow to be close to her boyfriend and avoid the expense of London where she increasingly performs.
After auditioning for Covent Garden two years ago, she was invited to cover the role of Ismene in Mozart's Mitridate, Re di Ponto. "It was a great experience to learn the whole role and get coaching as well. It was also choreographed and I had to learn the dance routine. The other soprano didn't like the dancing and I loved it so much I was dying to go on, but it didn't happen."
The time for her debut with Royal Opera arrived last month when she appeared as Frasquita in Carmen. She was gratified that conductor Antonio Pappano was "very positive" about her work. Later in the year she will return to Royal Opera to sing Clorinda in La Cenerentola.
Her audition for Sir Charles Mackerras at English National Opera was also rewarding, as he selected her to sing Krista in The Makropulos Case last May. A live recording of the production, also featuring Cheryl Barker, is scheduled for release on the Chandos label in a few months.
Elena's engagements for ENO in 2007 include Satyagraha, the Philip Glass opera based on Mahatma Gandhi's years in South Africa. Its director Phelim McDermett, known for his provocative shows Theatre of Blood and Shock-headed Peter, will require the performers to build constructions and shift them around the stage while negotiating the score's tricky rhythms and singing in Sanskrit.
"It's going to be very interesting. A lot of top Cs and As, very difficult tessitura, and really repetitive. With normal melodies that come up and down, the voice gets time to relax, but here you've really got to be in peak physical form to keep that up.
"You've got a whole section and you've got to memorise it and do it twice and then you're off for one and then back in for three. It's mathematically going to be a memorisation task. I draw a structural graph and then put in the orchestration underneath. I do that by colour, and then memorise it in terms of how many repeats I do for each section, with which orchestration."
There are numerous operatic roles and oratorios Elena hopes to sing in the course of her career. She was cast as Anne Truelove in the VCA/OzOpera production of The Rake's Progress a few years ago with Richard Gill conducting. "I'm dying to do the role again," she says.
"In maybe five years' time I'd like to do La Somnamble, because I love the bel canto repertoire. As well as Mozart. I'd like to do Susanna because Figaro is an amazing opera, and Pamina, maybe Donna Anna. And I would love the opportunity to do Bach."
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