Mezzo-soprano Bernadette Cullen has little complaint about her life in song, from schooldays in Brisbane, to a stint as a young artist with Australian Opera [now Opera Australia], and the international phase of her career when she made England her base for performances all over Europe.
Now, back in Australia and setting up home near Bowral about a 60 to 70 minute drive from the Sydney Opera House, is great, says the singer. For the first time in her travelling life, she has been able to have a pet dog, an impossibility while she was on the move.
"I've been lucky. I was always travelling back to Australia with work as I worked regularly with Opera Australia and various symphony orchestras so I certainly can't complain. I've really always been in the two places," said Cullen. "Funny you ask about that [the pet dog]. In London it was never possible, with all the travelling I was doing. So for the first time in my life I've got a little dog and she's gorgeous. Lily her name is. She's a 10-months old wiry terrier-cross-Jack Russell, a white little fluffy thing with lots of personality. I keep thinking, my God, look what I've been missing out on.
"But it's hard when you go away. Now friends look after her. I found her in the pound so I just think hopefully her life is better now. Yes, I have a great circle of friends, heaps of rellies, lots of cousins and they come down here too."
Cullen was in Brisbane to sing Brangäne to Lisa Gasteen's Isolde. She has already sung the role with Hamburg Opera, Scottish Opera and Opera Australia, where she also performed beside Gasteen. It brings her Wagnerian roles to four, the others being Venus, Ortrud and Fricka (Die Walküre). Unlike Gasteen who now specialises in Wagner, Cullen likes to return to Verdi, or Mozart, or Strauss or Rossini or Handel, or others whose music is in her repertoire.
"I am not singing Wagner all the time. It is interspersed and I am singing a variety of composers regularly, which is probably in my favor," she says. "Look, I've always held that you really sing it in the Italian way. I was coached like that and to tell the truth, touch wood, it has never affected me. If you are singing it consistently, and no other composer, you do have to be careful.
"The trap is, Wagner has a huge orchestra, so you have to be really sensible about that. I did have good training and I've stuck to that, and I"m still going. I've always kept up coaching, then you have peace of mind. I've done Schoenberg's Gurrelieder a number of times, and that's a really big sing. I`ve recently done Mahler's Resurrection Symphony with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and Markus Stenz. It has just been recorded."
Reviewers have acclaimed Cullen's "artistry of the rarest sort, rich in tonal nuance, a voice I would gladly have listened to all night. In presentation that was stellar. Overall, Cullen's star shone brightest of all." Another noted that "majestic in bearing and in magnificent voice, Bernadette Cullen gave an unforgettable performance as the bird which describes the murder of Tove. Even the tritest phrase was here imbued with baleful meaning."
Cullen enjoys the drama of opera, the costumes, the settings, but she finds much satisfaction as a concert artist, close to the audience. Which is how she first became acquainted with the Australian Youth Orchestra.
"I did a Gurrelieder with them at the Perth Festival, conducted by [Diego] Masson and I think they're sensational, a fantastic orchestra. It's just gorgeous to watch the enthusiasm of these young ones. They're playing so well at these Tristan rehearsals. I think it's going to be a great performance."
Her prediction was correct. It was one of the greats according to the buffs, a performance where all the links were strong and the cast worked as a team.
It also boasted several ex-Queenslanders, Cullen, Gasteen, conductor Richard Mills, David Wakeham (Kurwenal) and Dale Barthrop, concertmaster of the AYO.
Cullen feels she has done all her favorite roles. Great moments have included stepping in for a Trovatore with Zubin Mehta two years ago in Munich. So far her schedule has not allowed her to fit in invitations to do a Trovatore in the United States, but she is not ruling out work there in time. And perhaps she might like to have done a Kundry.
"But it doesn't break my heart if I don't do it. I really like these festivals, as well as an opera season. You come home but the door hasn't closed on things overseas, and that's quite nice."
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