From Mildura to Berlin for a song
Mildura is not known for its opera scene. But it might gain an extra degree of cultural notoriety if Siobhan Stagg’s star continues to rise. I met Siobhan in mid-2012 when she performance at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival. The Festival’s Artistic Director, Jacky Ogeil, confided in me when she booked the 24-year-old: “Watch this one, she’s a find. She’s going places.” How right she was.
By the time Siobhan arrived at the Festival, she had collected a swag of awards and honours, had just picked up a scholarship which would take her to the UK, and was considering offers from Paris and Berlin.
Siobhan’s voice had already won her fans worldwide – including rave reviews of her performances at the Melbourne Recital Centre in June 2012. In 2011 she won First Prize and the Audience Choice Award in the prestigious Meistersinger Vocal Competition in Graz, Austria and featured on the debut album of Latitude 37 which was nominated for Best Classical Album in the 2011 ARIA Awards. She has performed with the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra in Sydney and Melbourne and the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra.
She ultimately accepted a spot with the Deutsche Oper Berlin (Berlin Opera), which is where she is right now – completing a European summer season performing at the Salzburg Festival (Austria), after finishing her Masters in Cardiff at the Wales International Academy of Voice on the scholarship from the Australian International Opera Award. This Mildura girl is now calling Berlin, the capital with the reputation for being the hippest of cultural and creative centres, home.
“Berlin has a pretty magic atmosphere,” she explains. “There are so many artists from all over the world congregating in one place. It has a very cosmopolitan feel to it- it could be anywhere in the world really.”
Also surprising to her – especially coming from the land down under where relatively few people speak a second language fluently was the prevalence of the English language. Like many countries outside the English speaking world, the ability to speak more than one language is far more ordinary. It made it easy to settle into the new city: “English and German are spoken almost everywhere. I was relieved to feel very welcome here from day one.”
What was quite unlike home was the opera scene. “The sheer scale of work is quite different,” describes Siobhan. “Australian opera companies tend to stage a handful of different operas in a season whereas the big repertoire houses in Germany show perhaps 35 operas a year, and a different show each night. It’s a way of life.”
Such is the appetite that the word ‘more’ comes to mind – more performances, more variety, more performers, more opportunities and more work for aspirants like Siobhan.
“I realised as soon as I arrived in Berlin that I am now part of a huge working machine that is an opera company,” she said. “It’s my responsibility to show up prepared and ready to do my best for the public on the stage, but the reality is that my part is just one tiny piece of a thousand piece puzzle, most of which is concealed behind the curtain.
“Everyone, from the dressers, the tech guys, the lighting team, directors, ushers… are all doing their job to make a great night at the theatre, and the culmination of everyone’s combined efforts makes the show.”
Enough opera performances in any single night to ensure not just an opera scene, but audiences with specific operatic tastes, and a high value placed on the singing form – relatively mysterious to most Australians (even those who pride themselves in being ‘cultured’). Siobhan’s observation is that it’s probably an inherited sensibility.
“Opera seems much more valued over here. The shows are always well attended and often sold out, with a wide range of demographics. Europeans are brought up with opera more commonly than children in Australia,” she reflects. “The deep-seated sense of European history is palpable everywhere. It’s amazing to think I’m walking the same streets as some of the great poets and composers from centuries passed.:
Much like any performing arts – ballet, theatre, music, to be a paid, working performer, even for the most dedicated, still has a dreamlike quality to it – something Siobhan is still conscious of: “Each week at the opera house my idols are walking through the door to rehearsals, so I’ve had to learn to not be too star struck. I really admire all my colleagues here- they are all so interesting and drawn from all walks of life.”
The daughter of school teachers, Siobhan grew up in Mildura (where her parents still live & work), but music was not really a central part of her family life: “I was always singing but it was always just a hobby. Music (professionally) is new in my family. My brothers spent a lot of time during our childhood telling me to be quiet,” she laughs.
Opera and the stage are a long way from early dreams of being a vet or taking up medicine – Siobhán’s older brother is a doctor and her younger brother is studying to be one. It was really only at about age 18, when Siobhán was exposed to her first orchestra and opera that her dream shifted.
Classical training has enhanced Siobhán’s vocal ability in pop and musical theatre – which she also loves, but she is in awe of what beautiful classical performances can offer. And that beautiful angelic voice is getting a serious workout.
“I’ve performed about six different opera productions in the past three months as well as numerous concerts. I’ve enjoyed each one for different reasons – the music, the costumes, special staging requirements, working with some of my idols and new colleagues. There is so much to love!”
“Life is pretty fast-paced at the moment,” she explains from Berlin where she lives in a studio apartment in the old west of the city in relatively close proximity to “the beautiful Tiergarten and Victory Tower, not far from the Memorial for the Murdered Jews and the Brandenburger Tor.”
So fast paced there hasn’t been much time for shopping or restaurants yet (“Let’s face it,” she confesses, “you can’t beat Melbourne for good food”) – but she has picked up some local foodie-related slang: “The traditional German sausage (wurst) has found its way into a useful slogan in every day German slang. When wanting to express indifference, you can say ‘Es ist mir Wurst’ which roughly translates in to ‘It’s just sausages to me’.”
Rarely lonely for company from home (rarely a week goes by without friends passing through on their own European adventure and angling for a tour of the opera house), Siobhán has returned home to Australia three times in the last 12 months – to debut with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra singing Mahler Four at the Sidney Myer Music Bowl for an audience of 10,000; to perform in Christmas concerts, record her own album in Melbourne and release it in Melbourne in April this year).
Lucky for Australian audiences that (so far) Siobhán is not completely lost to the lure of the glamorous European circuit – yet: “I love Melbourne and Australia and intend to pursue my singing career in both hemispheres, though that super long-haul flight can be pretty tiring.”
“I will probably stay based here in Europe for the next five years or so, with semi-regular trips home to Australia for work and to visit family. I’m in Europe now until June 2014, then back to Australia for performances in Adelaide, Melbourne, Perth and Hobart at the end of next year,” she said.
When she’s here, don’t miss her. Siobhán Stagg of Mildura, Australia, lately of Berlin, and who knows where next. But it will surely be somewhere wonderful.
Follow Siobhan’s career and performances at http://siobhanstagg.com.au/