"It's a role I've been dying to do since I first heard the opera," says Joslyn Rechter of Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. "It's a funny role and I enjoy playing comedy. It's such a nice change to play a character who's so uncomplicated."
The mezzo-soprano recently appeared as the adolescent boy for Opera Australia. "I switched brain space for the role. I didn't think I was a 14 year old horny boy, it wasn't method acting. But I couldn't react as a woman wondering how a young boy would react because it takes too long. I tried to be as spontaneous as possible.
"I think the strength of the cast was because we have all worked with each other over the years. There was a lot of trust that makes spontaneity safe. I could react to the women in the cast as a young boy and know they'd go with it. It's like having a safety net and the rest of the cast will catch you and support what you're doing."
Joslyn carefully devised the physical aspects of the character. "Even though I'm quite tall and have long legs, as a woman my stride is shorter than it was when I acted Cherubino, because your weight and centre of gravity are different. And the way I sat was different. I was also very aware of my hands, because I did ballet for a number of years and have quite soft hand gestures, so as Cherubino I made sure I had splayed or straight fingers. Even my smile was different. As a boy, I took on the characteristic of smiling on one side of my face, a sort of smirk."
Other male traits were more difficult to emulate. "The direction was to hump an ironing board and a door frame. It was quite hard to do with a flat vertical object. I needed some lessons from the director: ‘Try going up on your toes’. It was almost broken down into a technical exercise; a slightly embarrassing one, of course. But the cast didn't stand around laughing or making fun of me, they thought ‘she's got to get this right for the performance’."
The plot developments for Cherubino provide a twist to the usual pants role, as eventually the mezzo is playing a boy playing a woman. "I was hyperaware of how male I had to act then because it would be very easy to slip back into female characteristics. I obviously know how to move in a skirt and I've worn bodices or blouses before. But he's fascinated by the fact he's wearing female clothing. It feels weird to him and it doesn't quite fit. I made him a touch more ungainly than I did for other scenes."
She had previously covered Cherubino twice with OA in English, but had to re-learn the role in Italian for Neil Armstrong's production. "There was a fresh take on it too. The conductor Alexander Briger did some research and found there were a lot of appoggiaturas that could have been put in the recitatives, so he wrote in the scores what he'd like and the dynamics he wanted. We were able to create something a bit different."
Joslyn's career began with Phantom of the Opera. "It was not something I'd always planned to do, but I must say it was such a good job for a brand new graduate because it was a year of performing and a year's salary. Doing 400 performances in a year gave me the sense of accountability and discipline it might have taken years to learn. And I could use my classical voice and continue on with what I'd been trained for. I didn't need an Ethel Merman Broadway belt to do the show."
Following Phantom, she toured with OzOpera's The Magic Flute and sang The Fox in a schools' performance of The Cunning Little Vixen at Sydney Opera House. She then joined OA's Young Artists' Program. "It was a gift of a year. I think it's one of the best ways to be introduced to the operatic life style, because you have full rehearsal schedules but you have the opportunity to watch senior artists and attend performances. I was also given quite a few main stage roles. You wouldn't necessarily do the premiere; you'd do half way through the run so you could attend rehearsals for the main cast and watch how a director works."
In 2000, Joslyn received a Covent Garden scholarship and spent a year at the National Opera Studio in London. "With the Young Artists, you're part of a professional company so you're learning on the job. National Opera Studio was not a performing vehicle, it was a learning vehicle. I nominated seven roles that I wanted to learn by myself, and maybe five to help other people learn their roles if their character had to interact with mine. You'd learn the roles so carefully, everything was pared back.
"When you're with a company full-time, you are doing maybe three roles at once and you're performing and it's absolutely exhausting. Sometimes it's hard to find time to give every role the attention it deserves. So it was quite indulgent to have been at the Opera Studio with the concentration on becoming better at your profession, without actually having to do your profession at the same time."
After London, Joslyn headed to Cologne. It took a while to settle into her new environment and adjust to German customs and work practices. "But there's a big community of expat singers and musicians in Germany, from Australia, New Zealand, Korea, America, and we look after each other."
She has enjoyed the Melbourne connection with Markus Stenz, who was chief conductor of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for seven years before taking over at Cologne Opera. Rechter is a German name - her ancestors immigrated to Victoria during the gold rush in the 1850s - and prior to their meeting, Stenz had assumed she was German. He was pleasantly surprised when she spoke with an Australian accent. "And when Markus speaks English, he speaks with an Australian accent. He's very idiomatic and it made rehearsing just that tick easier to be able to express yourself in your mother tongue."
Cologne Opera gradually presented Wagner's Ring Cycle over a few years, culminating in performances of the entire Cycle on one weekend. The energetic Stenz conducted both operas both days, while Joslyn sang in three of the four.
"Wagner's something I never thought I would do. My voice certainly wasn't leaning that way early on. I still wouldn't call myself a Wagnerian singer, but I can sing certain roles. I've done one of the Valkyries, a character called Rossweisse, and I've done one of the Rhinemaidens, Flosshilde. It fells like a privilege to have done Wagner finally. It was an area of opera I had no physical or emotional experience of, and the first show we did I was in a state of hyperawareness like I hadn't been for years."
Adding to her intensity was the stress of singing German in Germany, particularly in front of Wagner's fierce fanatics. "There's no hiding. I got a lot of input from senior members of the cast who knew the tricks of how to make German clearer because they'd worked with foreigners for a long time.
"My German is fluent, but it's not at that stage of fluency where if I feel a blank spot coming on, I can improvise. Wagner uses a lot of alliteration and words that are simply not in your everyday vocabulary, not even in your once a year vocabulary. I'm grateful to say I've never fluffed up the text in a Wagner opera, but I have in The Cunning Little Vixen when we did it in German. There was one night when my brain just went ‘fitt’ and I just made up something that was pretty much the storyline of what I had to sing, but God knows what the grammar was like. I was doing The Fox and the girl doing The Vixen did a bit of upstage laughing before she could turn back to the audience and sing again."
Joslyn still lives in Cologne but commutes to Wuppertal further north and renowned as the home of Pina Bausch Dance Theatre. "It's a town that's extremely proud of its opera company too. Opera is a lot more integrated into society in Germany because it's an old art form here. The company relishes that and puts on a lot of free and interesting shows for the public. We are public servants here; opera companies are government-funded and are expected to give back to the community and not just perform for paying patrons."
Since her stint as Cherubino, she's returned to Wuppertal Opera and performed The Mother in Hänsel und Gretel. In the next few months she has Mercédès in Carmen and Emilia in Otello lined up. But she's looking forward to working in Australia again sometime soon. "There are so many good singers there. When I was doing Figaro, every night I'd listen to the other singers and think ‘that was so good’. There are phenomenal singers in Germany too, but for such a small country with a very short operatic tradition, the music-makers in Australia are astonishing."
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