November 2006

Looking forward to Dvorak


"If I can sing it, I'll do it," says Bruce Martin. As a veteran of the unpredictable Australian opera scene, he appreciates any opportunities that come his way.

In 2001, Martin was rehearsing the role of Pelsaert in Richard Mills's new opera Batavia. His next job with Opera Australia was scheduled for fifteen months later.

Bruce Martin as Francisco Pelsaert in Richard Mills's Batavia in Melbourne in 2001. [Photo: Jeff Busby]

"As it turned out, during those months, I finished up memorising ten other major operatic roles and sang about eight of them. It was all last minute stuff as people suddenly couldn't do it.

"I didn't have a life for those fifteen months. I'd rehearse Batavia from 10.30 to 5.30, get home around 6.30, have a couple of beers, and watch the seven o'clock news on TV. Then I'd sit down in front of my little keyboard with about five scores and start ploughing through each one of them. Finish at about 11.30, get up at 7.30 and get ready for rehearsal."

Amidst the frantic preparations for Batavia's world première in Melbourne, Martin did not consider the significance of appearing in a role created especially for him.

"Afterwards you look back on it and think it was a great honour, but while you're rehearsing and doing it you're desperately trying to cope. The job itself is all-consuming and you are totally immersed in the details of the actual performance."

Immediately the curtain fell for the final time at the première, the sound of the cast whooping and cheering resonated through the State Theatre. According to Martin, this spontaneous outburst was mostly due to relief.

"To do a new work from memory, that is the difficulty for singers. When you go along to a symphony orchestra, all the musicians have the music in front of them. But we have to memorise it and our only assistance is the conductor out the front who's too far away to shout words if you forget them."

Martin is gratified that Batavia has received standing ovations from audiences in Melbourne, Perth and now Sydney.

"I think it's a brilliant work and the response of the audience demonstrates this. I put a lot of faith in the audience's judgement. They're intelligent people who pay enormous ticket prices because it's their special interest.

"It's a vast difference from the reception you'd usually expect for a modern composer. He obviously touched a chord in those people."

Either side of this year's Sydney season of Batavia, Martin worked with Richard Bonynge. In May he sang the role of Nilakantha in Lakmé under Bonygne's baton.

"I found the part very difficult, probably because Delibes wasn't used to writing opera. He may not have been as familiar with vocal capabilities as someone like Verdi or Puccini. The role really had a foot in both camps, part bass and part baritone. Most of it was bass but every now and then there were these very high phrases. I had to do a tremendous amount of vocal practice in the months before to accommodate that range."

Last month he joined Bonynge at Opera Queensland for Lucia di Lammermoor. Martin's regular attendance at the gymnasium enabled him to cope with the physical demands of the production.

"Being fit allows me to do virtually anything that's required on the stage, and still sing. I can run up and down stairs, as I had to in Lucia, without dying or being left totally breathless."

The gym sessions also substitute for his sporting inclinations. The young Martin was an avid hockey player in Western Australia until the prospect of turning up for concert appearances with bruises and broken bones forced him to sacrifice the sport for his singing career.

He grew up in a country town in the wheat-belt, "where there was nothing". A local radio program called "Italian Opera Half-Hour" caught his attention. The show's record library would sustain a few months of airplay and then duly be repeated.

"It was actually quite a good introduction to opera because by the time I left high school, I knew all the main arias and choruses of Italian opera by heart as a result of this one program."

His other inspiration was the American musicals released on film in the 1950s. "The people in them could really sing: Mario Lanza, and Gordon MacRae who had a beautiful baritone.

"These musicals were done like opera for the common man. There was a strong connection between the way they were sung and opera, a far stronger connection than with opera and today's pop music and that style of singing. It's no wonder that a lot of people now who may have voices for opera are not inclined to be involved in it because they've been seduced into another way of singing."

Martin started singing as a bass but was disappointed to find the repertoire mostly consisted of "old man" roles.

"An opera revolves around tenors and sopranos. In any CD shop you'll see dozens of CDs of sopranos, but you'll be lucky to find a bass one. The greatest bass that ever lived, Nicholai Ghiaurov, had one or two albums in his lifetime. The music just isn't there for our voices."

Fortunately for Martin, his voice suits the great bass-baritone roles of Wagner, which he has sung with distinction over the years. When he first heard Wagner, he was drawn to the music and the interesting characters.

"Die Meistersinger is one of the greatest operas ever written. It indicates that Wagner was not just a musical genius, he was obviously a very perceptive man and had the skills to represent people and their interrelations in sound.

"The two roles that I really like are Hans Sachs in Meistersinger and Wotan in Walküre. Sachs is really a major undertaking for anyone; it's the largest operatic role for any voice. If you were to put Tosca, Norma, and Brünnhilde in Die Walküre end to end, it would almost be as long as Hans Sachs."

Next year, Martin is looking forward to exploring a role new to him when he plays the Water Goblin in Opera Australia's production of Dvoràk's Rusalka.

"We've all heard the aria ‘Song of the Moon’, but I'd never heard the whole opera before I was offered the part. So I asked for the score to have a look at it and make sure that I could sing it.

"It's as good as any opera you ever likely to hear and just as good as his symphonies. But what really impressed me about the opera is that Dvorák, like Wagner, is very alert to the sort of emotional flux that exists between people and he has the skills to detail this in music. So instead of it just being one tune after another, it's extremely expressive."

There are other roles Martin is yet to perform and he accepts they may elude him.

"The sort of things that are my métier are very difficult to put on and cost an awful lot of money, so they're only going to happen every now and then.

"I've never had an opportunity to do The Flying Dutchman, and it would be nice to have done Boris Godunov as well. But I've really had a good run. I wasn't sure I was even going to last this long."

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