10 questions – Madeleine Pierard
Research tells us that early musical experiences have a lasting impact. Tell us about growing up in New Zealand and the musical influences in your early life.
This will be no surprise then! I grew up constantly surrounded by music: practice was a part of everyday life that was as normal as brushing teeth or making the bed (though I was far more reluctant to engage in the latter two activities!) Every member of my family are musicians and music was constantly playing. It’s hard to talk about growing up in NZ without getting terribly homesick, but I can say my childhood was a rich and happy one and Napier was a particularly wonderful place to grow up.
What inspired you to become a singer? You sang in the NZ Youth Choir – what impact did this have do you think?
I was following in the footsteps of two aunts and a sister, really. My mother and another sister are also jazz singers. It was never my intention to make a career of it: for one, my instrument was piano and from an early age, I had planned and worked towards studying medicine. During my first year of university I studied biomedical science, music theory, composition and English literature. Not surprisingly, I discovered I had bitten off quite a bit more than I could chew and after a year, I decided to specialise in music. It wasn’t until I was finishing my composition/musicology degree that I started studying voice. Singing had always been a normal part of family life too – I had always sung in choirs (National Youth Choir, The Tudor Consort and others) and had some vocal coaching while I was in those groups. While studying composition I started singing a lot of new works by colleagues and lecturers (one of whom was Ross Harris) as well as my own and I started voice lessons in 2002 with Linden Loader.
New Zealand has a strong reputation for the world class singers it produces – why do you think that is?
I don’t know that I can answer that with any authority, but there could be several reasons. The most obvious is the choral tradition, both the European influence and the strong traditions of Polynesian culture. I have also noticed a trend whilst overseas that Kiwis, whatever field they’re in, seem to have a huge pride in what they do and a drive for innovation and excellence that may stem from our pioneering ancestors, as well as coming from a small, isolated country. Some people think it could be a more physiological reason – for example, how we form vowels or speak with very relaxed vocal folds, but whether any proper study has been done, I don’t know!
What are the pros and cons of life in London? Will you be based there for the foreseeable future?
Life in London is intense, exciting, sometimes isolating and expensive. I would adore to be based here (as long as I can get back to NZ as often as possible) but visas make that highly unlikely. I have had to fight to stay every year I’ve been here and it’s getting increasingly difficult – a long, rather depressing story! I love it here though. It’s a colourful, beautiful, endless city with a spectacular history and I have made some incredible friends and connections. I feel very privileged to have my roots in NZ along with the experience of life over here.
What are the challenges of being a professional musician? Tell us about your fitness regime.
The challenges are many. People in this profession (and many facets of the arts) are scrambling for work and unless you’re a superstar (or a tenor!), there are often periods of no paid work but life is always horrendously busy learning music and keeping on top of technique. Constant travel is exhausting, admin is time-consuming too and we’re constantly auditioning, which is a stressful aspect of the job with a very low success rate a lot of the time! It all becomes worth it though. Especially in my position as a Jette Parker Young Artist at ROH – I am working with and inspired by people at the top of the profession every day. The fitness aspect you mentioned is highly necessary for the modern opera singer and thank goodness I’ve subscribed to it for a few years (with a regime of lots of bodypump, boxing, kickboxing and Kung Fu and various other pursuits) because recently I had to double as a scantily-clad contemporary dancer in a production of Rusalka. A lot more is expected of opera singers these days, I can tell you!
Tell us about the work you are currently performing with the Quartet.
The Abiding Tides was written by Ross Harris for my university singing teacher, Jenny Wollerman, who sang the premiere in New Zealand on tour with The New Zealand String Quartet in 2011. It is familiar territory for me, both with the historical subject matter and the composer’s collaboration with the poet, Vincent O’Sullivan. Ross wrote his dramatic Symphony No 2 with Vincent and I was lucky enough to sing the premiere with the Auckland Philharmonia Orchestra in 2006. The Abiding Tides is a touching work about life and loss on the water with particular reference to the sinking of the Titanic and the experiences of the people on board. Ross has an amazing capacity for specific narrative through every musical moment and I think he and Vincent make an excellent artistic team. I adored singing it in Leipzig. The whole experience was very special and the New Zealand String Quartet are a spectacular team of artists – overwhelmingly so!
You have performed a number of new works by New Zealand composers. What do you enjoy about that experience?
There is a lot to be said for ‘coining’ a new work with your own interpretation (to a degree) but perhaps the most exciting feature is the luxury of working with the composer and having that rare relationship to add to the performance. It is also a mental challenge – I’m no longer singing as much contemporary music as I used to and some aspects of the music itself, especially in terms of pitching are difficult to master when you’re not doing it all the time. It’s like learning a language and then forgetting it all when you haven’t spoken it for years. Revision required! But as a lover of puzzles, I relish those challenges.
Have you performed with a chamber music group previously? What are the challenges and rewards in this sort of partnership?
I have worked with the NZSQ before, as well as Felix the Quartet, Stroma, Gateseven and various chamber ensembles at The Royal College and Victoria University. The shared experience is, by its very nature, completely different to performing as a soloist, but as an opera singer, we’re constantly part of an ensemble so it’s not so far removed. In fact, that is the major appeal of opera for me – being part of such a larger picture. The wonderful thing about being part of a chamber group or ensemble is learning so much from your colleagues, gathering inspiration from their performance energy and creating together. Any music-making is particularly satisfying when you’re all reliant on everyone involved. The trust, mutual admiration and love for our craft makes for some of the most intense and wonderful relationships.
Tell us about your upcoming New Zealand tour with Chamber Music New Zealand and what you will be performing.
My Chamber Music New Zealand tour in August is featuring some of my favourite song repertoire, especially Berg’s Seven Early Songs and Rossini’s La Regata Veneziana. My sister, Anna is joining me for some of the concerts so opera duets and arias will also be on the programme for those. I can’t WAIT to sing with Anna again. We’ve always wanted to work together and in November, we’re overjoyed to be playing real-life sisters in Cosi fan Tutte with Auckland Opera Studio. I’m also doing Messiahs in Christchurch and Tauranga and singing as an ROH representative for the president of Singapore at his palace in October – so there’s a lot going on!
What else do have lined up in your schedule over the next couple of years?
There are a few things I can’t really talk about, but there are a couple of roles with The Royal Opera in 2013. One is actually a tour production in Tasmania with other Antipodean ex-Jette Parker Young Artists. It’s a really brilliant production so I’m looking forward to that. Before I finish as a Young Artist, I have my biggest role as Contessa di Folleville in Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims and I’m featuring heavily in a BBC documentary series/conducting competition called Maestro at the Opera which is rather exciting.