Behind the smoky eye make-up and hair extensions of the image Victorian Opera first presented to the world is soprano Jacqueline Porter. The glamorous concept featured on the company's promotional poster and website to launch its inaugural season last year.
Porter is currently in her second year as a Developing Artist with VO. For the past few weeks she has been travelling Victoria as Despina in Cosi Fan Tutte. The tour concludes in Ballarat this month.
She was introduced to the role of Despina while understudying Tiffany Speight in the same production last year. "I feel like I've had huge shoes to fill. Having watched Tiffany do it, I have very clear in my mind what she did. I had to then find my own interpretation of the character. Even though I'm wearing the same costume and the same wig and on stage we probably wouldn't look that dissimilar, it was about trying to find the Despina within me and make that work in a production that's already fully formed. She's a comic character as well, so I have to find the comedy in what I'm doing."
Porter recalls that music has always been part of her life. Her mother constantly listened to classical music on recordings or radio, and encouraged young Jacqueline to sing along. "I've been singing since I could talk. I used to tell my Mum off when she was singing out of tune. She wasn't offended; she loved it. She always used to sing to me around the house, and we sang together, little songs like You Are My Sunshine."
When she was six, her school was visited by talent scouts from the Victorian Children's Choir. "We sang the national anthem and they came around and listened to individual voices. They gave you a little slip to take home to arrange an audition at their offices. I put it in my bag and mum found it and went and signed me up. It was such a good grounding in performance practice. What you should or shouldn't do. Not waving to Mum and Dad in the audience. We'd be singing and they'd throw chairs around to try to distract us."
After five years in the Choir, she won a music scholarship to Firbank Grammar School and began singing lessons there. Gradually it became apparent that her voice was best suited for classical singing. She headed to Melbourne University to undertake a music degree in performance, and an arts degree in Italian and linguistics. "I studied the International Phonetic Alphabet. It teaches you how to make every single sound in the human language and how to transcribe it as a symbol. You can then recreate the sound knowing what those symbols mean. So I can apply it to any language, French, German, Czech. I don't know Czech, and being able to create these sounds that are not in the English language at all, and not even in the romantic languages, has been really helpful and trained my ear a lot." Her aptitude at languages has seen her receive the prize for "Best diction and understanding of the German language", judged by the Goethe-Institut, in consecutive years at the National Liederfest.
While still in the final year of her music degree in 2004, she was hired by Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Chief Conductor Oleg Caetani to be a soloist in Bach's Cantata BWV 207. The concert was scheduled for the following year and became her professional debut. She modestly attributes the arising of this opportunity to "the stars aligning".
Throughout rehearsals, Caetani became a mentor to her. "He was really patient. I was blessed to have him as my first professional conductor. Just for someone in his position to give an opportunity like that - I must have been 21- was really special. I certainly was conscious of having to step up another level with my singing, which was exactly what I needed. He was very specific about what he was asking us to do and I found that I was able to respond really well.
"It was a year between when I given the piece to work on and the performance, so I had quite a bit of time to work on my technique. Unfortunately, when you start learning something as a young singer, your technique is changing all the time. Six months or 12 months down the track you'll be singing in a different, better way. But you'll have a lot of old habits stuck in your memory and your body from when you first started. So you have to basically re-learn the piece technically. My voice had matured so much in that year. What'd happen is I'd pick that piece of music up and I'd sound quite young again and so I had to try to work out how to sing it in my new voice. Even a few months is a long time for a young singer. I took a break at the end of last year because I was getting married and I didn't sing for two months and came back and my voice had grown. I had to work out how to use it again."
The MSO's interest in Porter provided the impetus for her career. "It was the start for me. Once people knew that I was going to do that concert, they starting asking questions about who I was, and asking me to come and sing for them." One of those people was Jonathan Grieves-Smith, artistic director of Melbourne Chorale. Porter has now performed as a soloist with the Chorale in Mozart's Coronation Mass, Britten's Rejoice in the Lamb, Bernstein's Chichester Psalms, Haydn's Maria Theresa Mass and, most recently, in Mozart's Requiem, along side her VO colleague Samuel Dundas. "The Requiem was fantastic. I love singing Mozart. It's very suited to my voice type. It feels comfortable physically to sing and the music is absolutely beautiful. I also love singing Schubert lieder. Schubert and Mozart are probably my two favourite composers at the moment."
In June, she was honoured to perform the world premiere of a song cycle, I would sing a little while, written for her by Calvin Bowman. With accompaniment by Australia Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra, the composition was recently broadcast on ABC Classic FM. She was inspired by the texts Bowman chose for his musical settings. "He used wonderful poets and I wanted to be true to what the poetry was saying. As he was working on it, he sent me bits and pieces, so I had some input on what worked for me. The end product was really beautiful music. I enjoyed being able to experiment with lots of different vocal colours and qualities. I approached it like a painting rather than a show of what I could do vocally."
Two months later, Porter took on her first operatic role as L'Amour in VO's striking production of Orphée et Eurydice, directed by Stephen Page of Bangarra Dance Theatre. "It was interesting working with Stephen because he comes from a dance background. Instead of tackling things from the dramatic intention first which gives you the physicality, he took it from the physicality and then you find the dramatic intention within that. I learnt a lot about my own physicality and how to move on stage. It's quite hard trying to get the balance right between being able to sing the music and move at the same time."
She completes her time as a VO Developing Artist at the end of this year. "It was a big learning curve coming out of uni. The constant feedback has been invaluable. I can continually refine what I'm doing. It's given me performance opportunities and reasons to learn new music." She will return to the Company next year to perform the roles of Drusilla and La Virtù in The Coronation of Poppea. The opera will be conducted by Music Director Richard Gill. He describes Porter as "a highly intelligent artist who brings a rare sort of musicianship to each phrase she sings. Her gifts in language and phrasing are real assets; a delight to listen to."
In between her engagements for 2008, Porter is keen to "hit the competition trail again". Beyond that she plans to venture overseas when the time is right. "I'd like to sing in the countries that the music was written in and sing in the opera houses the music was written for, and really get an idea of the culture, the background and history. I wouldn't feel complete unless I at least went and gave it a shot over there at some stage. But I'm young and I've still got a lot to do and learn here. Part of my plan is to learn as much as I can here and use that when I do go overseas, rather than going too early and having to start again over there."
Wherever she's based in the future, she envisages a continuing connection with VO. "I feel a huge loyalty to the company and Victoria is my home state. It would be wonderful to be coming back here to work. There'd be a lot of nostalgia in working again with the company where you started."
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