August 2005

Departing law for music: no regrets


As someone who plotted a career in law, Michael Smallwood is now an opera singer heading to Glyndebourne.

The young Melbourne-born tenor is currently based in Hamburg and has been a regular on the German opera stage for the last four years. Most recently he appeared at Halle Opera House singing the roles of Grimoaldo in Rodelinda, for the prestigious Handel Festival held annually in the composer's birthplace, and Lysander in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Despite his former aspirations to be a human rights lawyer, Smallwood has no reason to regret departing the legal profession to dedicate himself to music.

"I realised law wasn't the right career for me. It was an issue I debated with myself for a long time because it struck me that being an opera singer can be a bit hedonistic - it's also masochistic - but I felt almost bad enjoying the pleasure that music gave me. Because when you considered things that were happening in Rwanda at the time, and other social justice issues that were part of my law degree, it seemed that being an opera singer was almost a bit flippant.

"But the rationale I came up with is that we as people are capable of incredible ugliness and incredible beauty. And hopefully, we musicians are responsible for part of the latter."

Smallwood attended Melbourne Grammar and credits the school with introducing him to drama and music, a combination that developed his interest in opera. At school, he performed in several Shakespeare plays and took up the cello.

"From the age of five or six, they basically forced you to put an instrument either under your chin or under your fingers, or beside your ear in my case. My mother was convinced I picked up the cello because it was the most difficult instrument to transport."

Whatever his initial motives, Smallwood played cello for 16 years, continuing his studies with the instrument at Melbourne University whilst undertaking his law degree. But there came a time when it occurred to him that although he was a musician, he was not a cellist.

"I was playing in a string quartet at a wedding and we had to play Pachelbel's Canon. The cello plays five or six notes over and over again. And I got lost. I didn't know what came next. And I realised that when you're forgetting Pachelbel's Canon, it's time to stop."

Fortunately, the cello had been an apt choice of instrument for a singer.

"It's a voice-like instrument. It teaches you about intonation. That's an advantage I've had over, say, a pianist. As a cellist you have to think about the intonation of every note. You can't take it for granted just by pressing a key.

"Cello provided my musical training, I think that was one reason I didn't need to do undergraduate vocal training at a conservatorium and could go straight into post-graduate studies."

Whilst still completing his law and arts degrees, Smallwood commenced night classes at the Opera Studio of the Victorian College of the Arts.

After practising as a lawyer for two years, he was granted a stipend to attend the advanced performance program at the Australian National Academy of Music, which allowed him to pursue music completely. Following his time at the Academy, he took up his prize in the Mathy Awards; a scholarship to the Juilliard School in New York.

"I think I was very fortunate going to America, for a couple of reasons. One thing, an Australian is slightly unusual at the Juilliard. Out of 700 kids, I think we were six Australians and I was the only singer."

"The other reason it was so wonderful to be in the States is this extraordinary, positive attitude they have there. There's a real sense in America that if you want to do something, you go and do it. Everyone believed that they had an equal chance to do something with the opportunities that they were given.

"And I feel very much attached to the place still. I try to sing as regularly as I can back there."

He has returned several times, mainly for performances with the Chicago Opera and at the Sante Fe Festival. It was a rehearsal at Sante Fe that convinced the modest singer he was entitled to perform in the company of opera celebrities.

"I was 26. I went to my first musical rehearsal of Wozzeck and sat in-between Håkan Hagegård and Eric Halfvarse. They're both a lot bigger than me and they're famous. And Eric particularly has this huge voice; it's a force of nature. And the conductor was Vladimir Jurowski, and I sat there thinking, OK, I'm not supposed to be here, there's obviously been a mistake."

Instead, the rehearsal process revealed to Smallwood that his renowned colleagues were only human, and not exempt from the technical and mental challenges any singer may experience.

Michael Smallwood as Grimoaldo in Rodelinda for the Halle Handel Festival. [Photo: Gert Kiermeyer]

Smallwood's background of juggling a number of endeavours proved beneficial during his three year stint at the Hamburg State Opera.

"I had perhaps 60 main stage performances a year. You have every experience from eight weeks to prepare Meistersinger von Nürnberg, to learning a role overnight and being on stage the next day because someone's sick.

"They also have something called Studieraufträge where they say we're going to teach you this role and see how it sounds, without the guarantee that you'll necessarily go on stage. I must have sung about 30 or 35 roles in three and a half years.

"The first time I sang Ferrando in Così Fan Tutte in Sante Fe, I sang without a stage rehearsal, an orchestral rehearsal, an ensemble rehearsal, without a proper run through with the rest of the cast. But because I'd had this German training, I could manage it."

After a few years, Smallwood felt inclined to branch out from the German opera system. He resigned from Hamburg Opera just months before Simone Young was engaged as its artistic director and chief conductor after her departure from Opera Australia. He says there is great anticipation surrounding Young's appointment.

"The city is very excited about her arrival, it's palpable. I guess musically people will always end up finding their niche and I hope that hers is Hamburg because it's a wonderful house."

Although he will continue to perform with Hamburg Opera occasionally, he is intent on pursuing a freelance career.

Last year, Smallwood hit the jackpot with his first real freelance job when he performed in Capriccio at Palais Garnier in Paris, taking his place in an élite cast that included Renée Fleming and Anne Sofie von Otter.

"It was a beautifully directed production and great just to be working with people who have careers of that calibre. To go and see Shrek with Anne Sofie von Otter, it was all an incredible experience.

"After the second performance we went to a big reception in the ballroom, which is only ever used for special occasions, with all Paris society there. It was ‘There goes Mme Chirac’. It's the most extraordinary thing for a boy from Melbourne to be walking around in this beautiful, over-the-top, atmospheric place."

In August, Michael Smallwood debuts at Glyndebourne. He will feature in Jonathan Dove's opera Flight, a role he repeats at next year's Adelaide Festival.*

"It's a lovely to sing. It's also hard work. There's an ensemble of eight and you're on stage for the entire time. But it's a great piece and I can't wait to go to Glyndebourne."

* Smallwood did not appear in the role in Adelaide and was replaced by Aldo Di Toro.

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