Melba Recordings

"... a label of fragrant distinction"

There are no products in your shopping cart.

News from Melba Recordings

Go behind the scenes for insights on our recordings, our artists and our future plans. Follow our artists' schedules and share the excitement of their journeys.

Around the World on a Ring Cycle

Monday, 19 June 2006 - 12:00am

Her big voice graces a new Wagner recording as Lisa Gasteen heads home to sing 'Salome'.

When she was little, says Wagnerian diva Lisa Gasteen, her family called her "the peacock baby". A few of those famous operatic throat muscles come into play as she sends a very convincing peacock cry ringing through an otherwise peaceful London coffee shop. Gasteen is a quite a hoot, in several senses.

"Lisa," her mild-mannered brother told her once, "noise just follows you around like a fog." Even her husband used to say that the volume of the house shot up the moment she got home from a tour.

A few years ago, just as her career was entering the stratosphere with leading roles at Covent Garden and Paris Bastille, Gasteen decided she couldn't bear those tours. Happy, screeching homecomings could not compensate for the lonely hotel rooms, the life in a suitcase, the isolation from family, the dissipation of friendships, the endless jet lag from long-haul flights.

"I'd been on tour for seven months," she says, "and I couldn't stand it, basically. I went home and said to my husband: 'I can't do this any more. I don't have the strength'."

She gives one of her merry laughs. "And he said: 'If you give up singing, you're going to drive me absolutely nuts'."

The solution, as Barry Johnson saw it, was to give up his solicitor's practice and move north, closer to the world's major opera houses. We are now sitting in that solution: leafy Kew, only a short train ride from the Royal Opera House, where Gasteen can walk off the tensions of performance by the river and go riding when she has the time.

"And we're together!" she enthuses. "Well, we're not all together, but my at least my husband and I are together."

Their son, who is in his final year at school, and their daughter, who is studying hairdressing, elected to stay in Australia. "This is the problem with having children," says Gasteen, sighing theatrically. "You bring them up to be strong and independently minded and then they are!"

Gasteen returns this month to her home town, Brisbane, to sing Salome under Simone Young's baton as part of the Brisbane Festival. This month also sees the release of the Melba Foundation's recording of the State Opera of South Australia's 2004 production of Wagner's Ring Cycle. Gasteen sang Brünnhilde, warrior goddess and perhaps Wagner's definitive heroine, for this mammoth undertaking.

When we meet, she has just finished singing Brünnhilde again in Keith Warner's controversial production of Gotterdammerung, the fourth and last Ring opera, at Covent Garden.

Even a single work demands a massive performance, six hours with two intervals, during which Gasteen's towering voice often fills the theatre. Her role also involves swinging above the stage and throwing herself over a wall, which she does with gusto.

"You can't half-do these things," she says. "Brünnhilde is a warrior, a physical being. I don't think it is acceptable these days for opera singers to swan through in their frocks.

"Anyway, in Wagner you often don't get much of a frock - it's leather and sandals, a good working dress! But I love it; it's a wonderful part.

"She plumbs the depths of human emotions, including the most base - anger, hate and revenge - but then regenerates into the noblest of humans."

It is strange to think she was prepared to let all this go. Gasteen did not begin to study singing at the Conservatorium until she was 22 and had already been married for a year. She thought she could give it up in a flash if it got too much.

"People always talked about the sacrifice of the career and I thought that sounded terribly pretentious - a load of bull really. I always thought, well, I don't feel like I'm sacrificing anything and if I do, I'll just stop, won't I?"

It was Barry who made her realise she couldn't. "And that was a very difficult moment in my - er - personal development," she says, rolling her eyes at her own self-help speak. "I was really quite shocked."

Singing is, she agrees, generally an emotionally fraught career. Stars like Gasteen spend almost all their time moving between strange cities. Below that stratum, competition for smaller roles is ferocious.

"It's a life full of highs and lows anyway because of the music," says Gasteen, "and because of what we do, it's very emotional. But in other ways it's not dissimilar to other walks of life in that it isn't an honest competition. You are always working against things over which you have no control."

As a young singer, she says, you don't realise that many auditions are held only for forms' sake and the director already has the parts cast.

Especially these days, she adds, when it is not enough to have the voice; you also have to look the part. This is particularly hard on mezzos, she says, because many of their roles are trouser parts. "So if they don't look good in satin trousers, that cuts out more than half their repertoire. And who looks good in satin trousers?"

Gasteen has measured her career as a series of goals achieved. It takes a long time, she says, to conquer and train a big voice like hers. "It was just a huge noise; I didn't know how to refine it, how to sing softly, that sort of thing. Big voices always need more work."

From the start, she decided she would only be satisfied with lead roles. She had to have sung a lead by the age of 30.

"I just made that with Turn of the Screw for Opera Australia. I really date my start from Miss Jessel. Then I wanted to sing Desdemona in Otello and Amelia in The Masked Ball and I did those. Achievable small steps."

She began singing as a teenager, riding out in the bush where nobody could hear her. So what does she sing these days when she's on her own?

"Peggy Lee," she answers, without hesitation. "When I'm in the bath. If I didn't think I'd be setting myself up as a target, I would dearly love to perform some of that croony stuff. I think it would be so much fun, but I wouldn't like to appear ridiculous. Or as a caricature of myself."

Again, she laughs heartily. Of course she should do it. Let that peacock run free.


Stephanie Bunbury
The Age (Australia)

Lisa Gasteen AO