Saturday, March 12, 2016

An interview with Sam Roberts-Smith

Sam Roberts-Smith
We've been following Sam Robert-Smith's career since he was a finalist in the 2009 Mathy Awards. In 2011, he broke our hearts with the news that he was now singing tenor and healed the wounds with the news that he was back in the barihunk realm. We asked him a few questions about his interesting career path in his young career.

1. What drew you to a career in opera?

For as long as I can remember I’ve always wanted to sing. However, It wasn’t until a knee injury sidelined me from playing school sport that I subsequently had the available time to start singing lessons. I went to an all boy school in Western Australia and was the only voice student in my entire year group. Classical singing wasn’t the ‘coolest’ subject to take at that age but luckily I was also a School Prefect, Swim Captain and Water-polo Captain, which definitely helped me avoid any unwanted attention. Three weeks after lessons began I came second in the school music competition singing Non piu andrai from Le Nozze di Figaro. I was so nervous but after finishing felt a huge sense of achievement. This was a way of connecting and communicating with an audience like I had never experienced before. It took me completely by surprise and made me consider the possibilities of what it would be like singing and performing as a job. The more I researched the great singers and learned about the incredible world of Opera the more I wanted to be involved. Being an Opera singer was never part of my original plan but I think opera chose me. It has been a wonderful journey so far and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

2. What's with the baritone to tenor to baritone switches? Do you prefer one over the other?

I began my voice studies at the WA Academy of Performing Arts as a baritone and have always been a baritone. The difficulty came when I was able to develop the top of my range quite easily and initially had a tenorial quality to the upper notes of my register. After graduating and finishing my post-graduate studies I moved to Sydney and became a member of the Opera Australia ensemble, as a baritone. During my first OA year I was singing smaller roles such as Morales in Carmen and Yamadori in Madama Butterfly. A meeting was arranged with the Artistic Director, who had come to observe many of my performances. He had been impressed, especially with the top of my voice and offered me a position in the OA Young Artist Program as a tenor! I had always wanted to be in the program but was unsure about switching voice types. I accepted on the condition that it was a trial, and if I were not comfortable by the end of the contract I would return to the baritone repertoire. Retrospectively I think the Artistic Director was excited at the prospect of having a tall tenor in the company rather than the longevity of my voice. I performed roles such as Don Ottavio, Tamino, and Remendado (not an easy feat after singing Verdi baritone roles up to that point) but felt I was only just managing. Going through a voice transition unassisted and in public was one of the hardest things I have experienced.  In September 2014 I left OA. While I had the ability and notes to sing the majority of tenor repertoire I still, after two years did not feel comfortable maintaining the tessitura or seem to have the mentality that many tenors do. I think I am lucky having the ability to sing both and have done so professionally, but it has been confusing for people. My voice definitely sits towards the baritone repertoire, however it seems to fall between the two. I have now settled on calling myself a Bari-tenor. I will be touring with The TEN Tenors across Australia, New Zealand and America this year but will also be singing the role of Zurga in Les pêcheurs de perles, with baritone recitals in WA and the Sydney Opera House.

Sam Roberts-Smith
3.  Tell us about your participation in The Ten Tenors.

Soon after leaving OA, I travelled to Paris for the finals of the Paris International Opera Awards, as a baritone. While there, I was in contact with The Ten Tenors who were looking to replace an exiting member for the remainder of their Ten Tenors On Broadway tour. I try to make the most of every possible opportunity presented to me and was available during that time. I sent a few audition video clips in (Nessun dorma being one!) and was successful in being offered the position. I decided to give it a go and learn as much as possible from Australia’s premier classical-crossover group. Because there are ten of us, I usually sing the lower harmonies and all of the heavier operatic numbers. Having a Bari-tenor voice has been very useful in the group, especially when we perform everything from Queen and David Bowie to Puccini and Rossini. Brand wise it’s not ideal for me being a Baritone in the TEN Tenors, but they couldn’t really change the name to The NINE Tenors and Sam! Being in the group is completely different from the main stage baritone operatic work I do, but I feel extremely lucky having the opportunity to do both.

4.  What are your thoughts about singers taking care of their bodies as well as their voices? Do you have a routine to stay in shape?

I think it is essential having a healthy mind and body in life generally. As a singer, we should take even greater care of our health. Personally I try to get to the gym or do something physical every day. Not only does it make you physically stronger but helps with stress management. The result is you feel better and look better which is becoming more and more important to casting agents. That being said, I don’t lift weights on performance or coaching days. Resistance training can tighten your muscles, limiting your ability to breath deeply and relax the muscles around the head and neck. It is a difficult balance between maintaining a fit and healthy body while keeping the muscles flexible and relaxed for singing. There are some periods were I have been required to sing every day while on tour and can’t exercise. Performing a highly physical show every night can be enough activity but I still watch what I eat and always get back to the gym when I can. My advice would be it’s never too late to start. It’s going to be difficult but the hardest part is starting. Remember, Rome wasn’t built in a day.

5. Anthony Roth Costanzo went the full monty at ENO...Any limits on what you'd do at a stage director’s request?

I guess it depends on the story itself. If it were necessary to help communicate a part of the plot or was a choice my character had to make then I would have to. I don’t think the performing arts are for the shy or faint-hearted. However, I also don’t believe in artists being asked to perform naked for the ‘shock’ factor, or simply to sell tickets. If the nudity has a meaning behind it and is actually part of the story then I would be open to it. While we all want to have an impact on the audience, I think it’s a fine line between making an audience think, and making an audience uncomfortable and upset. It obviously depends on the content and type of show but these ideas need to be thought through and discussed properly by all involved in a production or performance.

Sam Roberts-Smith
6.  Are there any roles in particular that you really hope to get to perform someday?

Now that I am getting older and my voice is changing yet again, I am really enjoying singing some of the heavier baritone repertoire. Because I have had the opportunity to experiment with the extremes of my range, and have focused years on developing my upper register, I am fortunate that some of the more difficult phrases in Verdi, Leoncavallo and Puccini come more easily to me than most. The tenor and Bari-tenor training has not gone to waste! Luckily my voice has darkened naturally without losing the facility for the top. I am currently happy singing the young baritone roles such as Silvio, Guglielmo and Billy Budd while I still can but have the secret desire to sing Rigoletto and Macbeth eventually. Two of my all time favorites! I am aware that they are both vocally huge and challenging parts but I am excited by the prospect of performing them one day.

7.  Do you prefer singing standard operatic repertory or newer pieces?

I am a fan of both the standard repertory and new works. I think for me, it is more about how an opera is written for the voice and if the music touches me in some way. There are very famous works that when performed badly can be extremely boring and unrewarding, however a brand new piece which has been written and cast well can be extraordinary. The standard repertoire has survived for many reasons and is loved by audiences around the world. Opera Australia for example performs La Boheme every year without fail. I have found that some of the newer pieces propagandized as ‘opera’ do not fit within the style and tend to be a mix of genres. This poses the question whether they are even operas at all. The world is constantly changing, as is opera. I am happy singing any work as long as it’s an enriching experience for the audience.

8.  What other passions do you have aside from music?

Aside from music, over the last few years I have become increasingly interested in politics. Politics affects everything. There is no escaping it. I have been looking at ways to make a difference when I’m not travelling around the world and have slowly been getting involved when I can. I have been so extremely lucky to travel and deal with many different cultures and situations. This has given me a unique insight into how the world works and what decisions can be made to help improve people’s lives. It has also been fascinating watching the field of US candidates running for the United States presidential election recently. A quote from Pericles “Just because you do not take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics wont take an interest in you”. I’m not sure when or if my interest in politics will lead anywhere, but it has become a passion of mine.

9.  What do you listen to other than opera?

I listen to most music actually. The only genres I’m not a huge fan of are heavy metal rock and rap. I think that’s more because I don’t understand them more than it being bad. In New Orleans last year I went to Preservation Hall and listened to old school, no-frills jazz. It was one of the best performances I’ve seen. The musicians had obviously been playing their entire lives and seemed to of mastered their craft. It was a night I will not forget. I like to train at the gym to dance and up beat pop music. It gives me that extra energy to work harder and is part of the escapism from opera each day for an hour or so.

10. Do you plan on taking your career outside of Australia? 

Australia really is far away from the rest of the world. However, in the last few years I have had the opportunity to perform extensively throughout Australia and internationally including performances in France, The Netherlands, South Korea, China, England, Scotland, and North America. China was very interesting last year. I performed Il Conte in Le Nozze di Figaro with the Australian International Opera Company around the whole country for a month. From Wuhan to Guangzhou to Xining and many other places in between. It was a completely different culture but fascinating none the less. I have been extremely fortunate to work consistently in Australasia and abroad since graduating but would still love to expand that more into Europe eventually.

Dame Joan Sutherland and Sam Roberts-Smith
10. What was it like meeting Joan Sutherland?

I was 20 years old at the time and didn’t realize the gravitas of the situation until a few years later. I obviously knew who she was but did not truly appreciate the moment. I had won the Joan Sutherland Vocal Scholarship earlier that year and was subsequently invited to perform at her birthday celebration for her. Dame Joan Sutherland reached the pinnacle of operatic success in Australia and around the world. Not only was she an amazing artist but an inspiring ambassador for her country. Luckily a few years later I had the opportunity to meet and be conducted by Maestro Richard Bonynge in La Sonnambula at the Sydney Opera House.

11. Tell us something about yourself that has nothing to do with opera.

I am totally addicted to Coke Zero, getting through about 10 cans a day. I know most people think this is bad but at least it doesn’t have any sugar in it. My guilty food of choice would have to be Ferrero Rocher. I can’t have them around me or in the house because I find them irresistibly delicious. Not so great for someone who likes staying in shape. If you do want to get me some as an opening night gift, I wont be upset.

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