February 2005

Pearson off to Wiesbaden after big wins


West Australian soprano Emma Pearson capped her first professional year by winning two of opera's most prestigious awards: the Mathy and then the German-Australian Opera Grant.

As the Mathy finals were in her home town, Perth, she had many supporters in the audience, including her family and colleagues from the Australia Opera Studio where she graduated with honours in its inaugural 2002-03 program.

Just before finishing at the AOS, visiting lecturer Bruce Greenfield, repetiteur at NBR New Zealand Opera, suggested that she fly to New Zealand for its 2004 auditions. Pearson recalls: "There were good deals being offered [on trans-Tasman flights] so I went over and sang "Come Scoglio" from Così and a piece from Tancredi. They loved my energy and I felt free to be as fiery as I wanted." She got the job.

Emma Pearson (right) as Fiordiligi in the 2004 NZO production of Così fan Tutte, with Joanne Cole as Dorabella.

She toured as Fiordiligi in the NZO production of Così fan Tutte and was then invited to perform Mercédès in the mainhouse production of Carmen. Touring was an intense learning experience: "The three-month tour was hard work and I have learnt a lot about touring life. There was never a chance to relax really; the travelling and setting-up of the stage was the hardest (and coldest) part. I often had to do surtitles or chorus in between my Fiordiligi performances.

"We travelled from the warm North Shore [20 minutes north of Auckland] to the snow-covered Arthur's Pass [on a transalpine ride from Greymouth to Christchurch]. Most of the opera houses are wooden to survive the quite regular earthquakes. Their acoustics are lovely and very generous - and the scenery was always beautiful of course!" She is very grateful for the NZO management for making it possible for her to attend the Mathy first round and the semi-finals in Sydney. Then it was back to Perth to prepare for the finals.

Emma Pearson (right) as Fiordiligi in the 2004 NZO production of Così fan Tutte, with Joanne Cole as Dorabella.

Until recent events proved otherwise, Pearson's family, although supportive, had always seen music as a love rather than a career. She had piano and ballet lessons from an early age, but admits that she was drawn towards musicals and grew up on a diet of My Fair Lady, Mary Poppins and Julie Andrews in general.

In secondary school she was awarded the inaugural Lynne Leake singing scholarship to St Mary's Anglican School for Girls. This included vocal tuition with soprano Sara Macliver, who has remained Pearson's role model ever since. At school she performed Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret as well as extra-curricular performances as Alfonza in Man of la Mancha for the Midnite Theatre Company at Perth's Playhouse Theatre and Maria in West Side Story at the Quarry Amphitheatre.

In 1998 she enrolled in the four-year University of WA Bachelor of Music Performance course. Her singing teacher was baritone Andrew Foote and she credits him with giving her a thorough grounding in vocal technique. The following year the UWA School of Music amalgamated with the WA Academy of Performing Arts and Pearson was given the role of Lauretta in their joint production of Gianni Schicchi.

During this period she was also involved with Perth's Gilbert & Sullivan Society, performing Yum Yum and Phyllis and many short roles in Andrew and Donna Foote's production of I've Got a Little List marking the society's 50th anniversary celebrations.

In 2002 she joined the newly formed AOS under the direction of Gregory Yurisich. Looking back, Pearson believes that the greatest asset she gained from the two-year course was the ability to speed-learn an opera. "Four operas a year and you had to really thoroughly know your part. It has been a very useful tool." She also found language coaching in Italian and German with Michael Schouten a great asset as well as opening up a new world for her: "I thought, gosh, I've got to go there. It really broadened my horizons."

Anna Sweeney's drama and movement classes at the AOS also added to her operatic development. Recalling her role as Amenaide in Rossini's Tancredi, Pearson refers to the vocal and dramatic problems Sweeney helped her overcome: "Anna helped me to portray the character in all its emotional states, but not let the emotion affect the voice. The face has to be expressive, but also has to be relaxed to make a beautiful sound." Adding that "at the AOS I learned to be a complete performer - a perfectionist."

Highlights at the studio included travelling on tour. The first trip was to London where she sang "O mio babbino caro" from Gianni Schicchi as well as ensembles, with Robin Stapleton conducting the English Chamber Orchestra. Later in 2002 they travelled to Japan where she and fellow AOS young artist, contralto Emma Foster, sang the Flower duet from Lakmé, and then she joined baritone Greg Yurisich in Gershwin's "Bess, You is my Woman now".

Later in the year Pearson sang the title role in the AOS production of Alcina at His Majesty's in Perth and toured it to five of WA's major country centres. Another joy was performing Gilda (with a hard G), one of the ugly step-sisters in the Schools' Production of Iain Grandage's Dryblower and the Water Girl. "It gave me the opportunity to be funny and I have always loved comic roles."

She recalls working with director John Milson and his wonderful sense of humor and timing. Her final performance with the AOS was Adele in Die Fledermaus, with Milson directing. Here she was able to combine her love of comedy and the skills she had gleaned in G & S productions as an undergraduate, with the polished techniques learned at the AOS. Pearson ruefully admits that "learning to walk and waltz onstage in Viennese costumes was quite tricky and [although] the Erte production was beautiful to look at, it was hell to perform!"

Then it was off to Beijing to perform with the Chinese National Orchestra. It was here that she heard Lakmé's Bell song, an aria she was to sing in her winning performances in both the Mathy and German-Australian Opera Grant finals, and ruefully recalls that in the latter, "I didn't crack on the last note!"

She admits that in the Mathy she was quite unprepared for attack of nerves that preceded her first number, Bach's Jauchzet Gott in allen Landen from Cantata 51. "This was my first competition and nerves took me by surprise and affected my breathing." Unlike many competitions, the Mathy Scholarship is not awarded solely on the finals concert.

According to the program,"the finalists are being judged for the fourth time tonight on the performance, technique, potential, personality, and the suitability of their proposed study plan. They have already been assessed at the heats and the two stages of the semifinals." Obviously Pearson's over-all talents impressed the adjudicating panel, headed nationally by Glenys Fowles.

Then it was back to Melbourne for the semis and finals of the German-Australian Opera Grant, with More Than Opera Ltd represented by Dr David Kram of the Victorian College of the Arts and an adjudication panel comprising musicians from Germany and Australia.

The aim of the grant is to promote emerging Australian opera singers, who are in the development stages of their professional career.

Again Pearson impressed the adjudicators as well as the audience and this time she won both prizes. Ironically, she found singing to an unknown audience was much easier than facing a home crowd.

First prize grants her a one-year employment contract at the Wiesbaden Opera House in Germany, plus a return Austrian Airlines ticket to Germany, and two months' German language course at the Goethe Institut in Berlin.

Before that she will have a month's work experience with the house, where she will join another OAS graduate and 2003 Grant winner, Emma Foster, who has had her Wiesbaden contract extended for another year.

In a recent email Foster enumerates her many roles (that include Grimgerde in Die Walküre) and warns: "All of these operas continue throughout the year, so I will have to keep all these operas in my head at one time. I am sure this will bring back memories for Greg [Yurisich] of his time in Germany. Also tell the performers at AOS to work now as it only gets harder!"

Emma Pearson admits that she has a high tolerance for hard work and is looking forward to tackling many new roles in Wiesbaden. "I expect the workload to be heavy, but I have learnt how my mind works and luckily I have a retentive memory. If something really interests me it sticks."

Before leaving for Germany, Pearson plans to audition for Opera Australia and the state opera companies, and hopes to have lessons with David Harper in Sydney. Then in late May she flies to Europe - and who knows what opportunities will present after Wiesbaden?

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