March 2006

Dougiamas on the brink of big things


By ANNIE PATRICK


[Photo: Richard Jenkins]

In 2004 mezzo soprano Sarah-Janet Dougiamas stepped out of the West Australian Opera chorus and into the spotlight as Marthe in Faust.

Now she is appearing as Suzuki in WAO's production of Madama Butterfly.

She was born in New Zealand, but has lived most of her life in Australia. Her family migrated to Perth when she was 13 and she has stayed. Her parents however, have kept on moving and her father now works for the Australian Embassy in Beijing. "They have a great curiosity for different places and love to travel. That's just how they are - they're like gypsies."

There was always music in her family environment: Her brother played in a rock band for years; her father plays the guitar and sings; and her mother has a beautiful voice and loves to sing (but sometimes her intonation is questionable). "Everyone says I have my mum's big voice and my dad's quality," she adds.

Singing has always been a part of her life. In primary school in New Zealand a family friend who was an opera singer gave her lessons in breathing and taught her songs, but without tampering with her voice. Later, in Perth she sang in musicals at Rossmoyne High School, did Music as a TEE subject, learnt the piano and joined the church choir. In her late teens and early twenties she sang in bands. Then a friend said: "Let's go and have some singing lessons."

Acting on this suggestion, seven or so years ago she started tuition with Polish-born mezzo Jolanta Nagajek, and has been with her ever since. Nagajek recognised that she had "a voice" and set her on the classical path. Looking back, Dougiamas realises that this was an excellent choice: "I landed on my feet. Jolanta has had a terrific career herself and her knowledge of not only the voice, but performance and repertoire, have been incredibly beneficial. I still have at least one lesson with her a week."

However, an operatic career was not on her agenda when she left school. In fact she chose a degree in Communication and Cultural Studies, majoring in creative writing and literature with a minor in journalism, offered by Western Australia's Curtin University. Her major also encompassed the reconstruction of theatre - they wrote plays and then directed them - thus giving her a good idea of theatre technology. In hindsight she is particularly grateful for this background as theatre technology, together with the honing of her literary skills, has helped greatly in analysis of libretti and character, and the way in which music and words interact to create meaning within a theatrical context.

She believes that music and literature go hand-inhand in opera, and really getting into the character and the responsibility of conveying that to the audience is what she enjoys most. "For example: a character can be expressing (say) frustration according to the text, but the music could be telling a different story. So you have to look at both and realise that perhaps the overall emotion is a gentle longing rather than frustration. This interaction is so important."

After graduation she taught English to senior high school students, and creative writing at TAFE as her "day jobs" and at night sang with the WAO chorus. Nagajek had suggested that she audition for the chorus "just to see how you go:" She did, and was immediately accepted and has been on a steady upward path with the company ever since.

In 2004 she was selected as Emerging Artist and then given the role of Marthe. Currently she is the 2005-2006 Young Artist - thus participating in a training program that is sponsored by the WA Opera Lovers. She was also soloist for the 2005 Opera in Education program.

She sees working with professional singers, directors and conductors as the great ancillary benefits for a young artist. Mentoring and coaching with tenor Keith Lewis (another Kiwi) when he was singing Faust in 2004 made a big impact. "He has been a terrific mentor (even gave me advice on how to cook!)" He also told her a lot about the industry in general. As Marthe she was able to observe Lewis in rehearsal and was particularly impressed by his process of preparation for the role and creation of character: "Nothing is ever static, he is always striving for perfection."

WAO's artistic director Richard Mills has also been an enthusiastic supporter and confirms the above. "The company's faith in her potential was reinforced by Keith Lewis, who encouraged her and gave her practical help in developing her technique. Her warm, beautiful sound has been heard to advantage in the role of Marthe, her first major assignment for the company, and now as Suzuki and then Fenena in Nabucco. These opportunities to work alongside international singers like Elizabeth Connell and Anne Williams-King, and to collaborate with fine conductors like Joseph Colaneri and Stephen Barlow will contribute significantly to her artistic development."

In 2005 Dougiamas had two opportunities to perform Third Lady in Die Zauberflöte: First in the PIAF/WAO Opera in the Park and later in a WA Symphony semi-staged performance at the Perth Concert Hall. She also sang Annina in La Traviata at His Majesty's for WAO. She admits that these small lyric roles have been wonderful steps up the operatic ladder. However, her final goal is to perform as a dramatic mezzo and the roles on her current wishlist are Jocasta in Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex and Dalila. Elaborating on the latter, she admits that Dalila is her favourite operatic character: "She is very human, very much in control of her power and aware of her weakness."

At this stage in her career, however, she just hopes to keep on her steady upward path. Following the Butterfly season in March/April she will be singing Fenena in August. Between these two engagements she will be travelling to Sydney (as part of WAO's Young Artist program) to observe, work with Opera Australia coaches and gain further experience. She also values the encouragement, coaching and career advice she is currently receiving from WAO's newly appointed head of music, Francis Greep. "I am really excited with the opportunities I have been given to work with such talented people. It's the next step up in my career," she believes.

Currently she is focusing on her role as Suzuki and sees it as a great challenge to give this character emotive power. She admits that Suzuki has only one outburst in the entire opera, but her presence is always there, nurturing and trying to protect her fragile mistress. "Because everyone can see that Pinkerton will not return to her and she is doomed forever. The music is full of these emotions, and she is trying to explain to Butterfly that never has a foreign husband returned to his [Japanese] nest, and she says it with such passion, but also with the respect of someone who is the maid - and that's difficult. It's not really an outburst, she's actually pleading, and that is the challenge for me."

She is particularly looking forward to starting rehearsals with Butterfly's director Andrew Sinclair. She has already seen him in action when she was singing in the chorus of his 2003 production of Cav and Pag and recalls that his direction was very clear. "He has so much experience and I look forward to learning how to react and act as a character." She believes it's important to listen to the direction as well as ask questions and be prepared to change. Adding philosophically: "What happens at the first rehearsal is rarely what happens at the general."

Summing up, Mills believes that this young mezzo soprano has a very bright future. "Sarah-Janet has brought great energy and enthusiasm to the company and her cheerful and generous nature is appreciated by all. I feel she has reserves of potential that are still to be realised. She has always been a quiet achiever and I think this year will mark the beginning of some exciting developments for Sarah-Janet personally, and for Australian audiences of the future."

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