As for our opera scene, our Zoe is The Voice

By Riverine Herald

A FEW weeks ago Zoe Drummond was awarded the Marianne Mathy Scholarship. Few in northern Victoria would have known; even fewer would know anything about the award. Zoe grew up in Tongala, the award is worth $30,000 in cash plus benefits and she won it as one of Australasia’s most promising opera singers. Now based in London, Zoe this week spoke to the Riverine Herald between rehearsals

DEEP down Zoe Drummond does worry she might have left one or two scarred classmates in her wake at Tongala Primary School. Kids caught up in Zoe’s need to perform – planned and/or impromptu – and the shows she admitted “forcing” on the school.

But even those with a touch of PTSD – post traumatic singing disorder – will take some comfort knowing it was for the greater good.

Because Zoe, Echuca born, Tonny raised and now citizen of the world, used that ad hoc foundation to become an opera singer on the international stage.

Although at 25 Zoe is still at school – currently in the second year of an Artist Masters of Opera Performance at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, London. It’s a world away from the good old primary school but for those who knew her it will come as no surprise.

Nor will her success.

Earlier this month the London-based soprano was awarded the prestigious Marianne Mathy Scholarship at the IFAC Handa Australian Singing Competition.

The Mathy includes a cash prize of $30,000 and just reaching the final is a gruelling round of auditions before the semi-final and final before a live audience in Sydney.

It was a glorious moment in a nascent career – but one that came with a new lesson for Zoe.

Success also sucks.

Because the other, obviously, disappointed finalists who had nothing to do but stand there and clap when Zoe’s name was read out, were all her friends.

“The opera singing world is not that big, and we all know each other, and they were all so gracious and happy for me but I have been in enough competitions to know how it feels,” Zoe said from her London home.

“Fortunately the competition includes many other prizes, of which they all received a share.’’

Limelight, Australia’s classical music magazine, said “Zoe impressed judges with a technically refined reading of the aria Nel grave tormento from Mozart’s early opera, Mitridate, re di Ponto. She followed it up with Nanetta’s aria from Verdi’s final work, Falstaff, sung with commendable control and shimmering tone”.

The finalists were accompanied by the Opera Australia Orchestra conducted by Nicholas Milton.

The cash that came with her award is for a program of study or singing activity as well as an audition with Lyric Opera of Chicago’s professional-artist development program, a portrait painting, a taped interview conducted by historian Diana Ritch and a statuette created by Drago Marin Cherina.

Zoe’s golden night was made even brighter with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Prize, which will see her perform with the orchestra.

She told the audience at the Mathy she saw all the finalists as “amazing and incredible”.

“I feel very privileged to be here onstage with you all.

“I’d also like to thank my teachers, past and present, and my family and beautiful support network that I’ve got, so thank you all so much.”

Which brought the conversation back to Tongala and Echuca.

BECAUSE Zoe was in no doubt much of her inspiration belonged to her earliest influences – that would be Dianne Henss, her first teacher who has retired to Patho, and Echuca Moama Theatre Company, which convinced the young girl the stage was where she belonged.

Dianne also got her into the Campaspe Youth Choir, an experience Zoe still rated enormously as an early – and very happy – influence (it was founded by Dianne).

“We were also really into EMTC,” Zoe said.

“Shows such as Oklahoma, Wizard of Oz and Seven Little Australians gave me an introduction to some of the musical greats and at the same time Dianne was working with my young voice and she taught me so much; I owe her so much,” she said.

While all this was going on her mother Jodie was driving her everywhere she needed to be; father Andrew loved being in the EMTC chorus and involved in it all, and her sisters who also loved singing.

“My older sister Kyra is with contemporary arts company CreateAbility, based in Bendigo, and they are currently delivering their latest show, No Hands, in Albury-Wodonga.

“Ruby, my younger sister, is studying to be a nurse and has performed in shows such as The Addams Family.”

Clearly music and performance was in her DNA, which might also explain Zoe’s competition success – she also won the Lady Fairfax New York Scholarship in 2016 (and took it up in 2017), and was a Melba Opera Trust Scholar for three consecutive years.

“At home I have sung with Victorian Opera and Opera Australia, in The Eighth Wonder and Two Weddings, One Bride and have performed lead roles, in the chorus and recitals as well – at this stage of my career it is all about performing as much as you can, honing your skills and getting known.”

And while she worked at that, Zoe was not afraid to admit she could also be as star-struck as the next person.

While performing in the chorus for Opera Australia’s 2017 winter series, superstar German tenor Jonas Kaufmann came to fill the lead role in Wagner’s Parsifal.

“It was so cool being able to see him just getting around, in the green room, and then up close on stage,” she laughed.

“It was just so weird knowing you could turn up each day and he would be right there.”

But Kaufmann stands atop the opera world, Zoe is still getting established.

“Success is not just about having the best voice, it is also timing, being in the right place, people you know, or who know of you, even your health,” Zoe added.

“You can go for an audition and be feeling a little ill, or have a slightly sore throat, and a bad audition can set your career back months, or more,” she said.

“Even being in the wrong frame of mind could affect your performance.”

As with any elite performer – from singer to athlete – what you see them do is the very small tip of a seriously large iceberg of effort and preparation hidden from the real world.

At Guildhall Zoe trains seven and eight hours a day, five days a week, then goes home and most days will practice for a couple more hours to make sure she isn’t losing her edge.

Occasionally she might take a day off at the weekend. Just not very often.

“There is a lot more to practice than just singing; there are days when your voice needs a rest, you might have a cold, but that doesn’t mean you have time off,” Zoe explained.

“That’s when you spend time translating pieces, memorising words, listening to others, analyzing text.

“At Guildhall there is a strong emphasis on acting and drama class, one of the reasons I was so keen to come here.

“I love the singing but I also love the total performance of the stage – recitals are great but I crave the acting side as well, where you get into a character, not just a song, how they might walk and talk and the costumes you wear, I find all that such fun.”

Some things, however, are not such fun.

Such as Zoe’s first engagement with Opera Australia, with a performance of The Eighth Wonder on the steps of the Opera House and with the audience seated on the forecourt.

She said ‘‘it was really exhilirating performing in the rain, and quite funny — I remember looking over to the lady playing my mother, and her false eyelashes had melted halfway down her face; it was so comical’’.

Zoe doesn’t have any one song, or opera, that she rates as her goal.

Privately she would love to do Nanetta in Falstaff (one of her Mathy songs).

But frequently falls in love with whatever opera she is working in. For example, at her London school they will do three in this second year – the first two are Cosi Fan Tutti and A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the third not yet announced.

“All I can think of right now is Cosi, I love it,” she said. “After which I am sure I will be having a love affair with Midsummer.”

As her training evolves; so does Zoe’s voice – not the least because of physical changes to her larynx.

It was not something she said she noticed on a day-to-day basis but “even listening to the tapes of the Mathy I can pick differences that weren’t there a year ago,” Zoe said.

One thing that hasn’t come as easily to Zoe has been foreign languages – with most major operas written in French, Italian and German being able to sing them so well that a native speaker would be fooled is her goal.

“Part of my Mathy money will go to language training, probably summer school in Italy and Germany,” Zoe said.

“The European singers are often already bi-or multi-lingual so the transition is much easier for them,” she said.

“I recently started teaching here and in the holidays the children go to places all across Europe; it makes such a difference when it is all in your backyard.”

Speaking of her backyard, Zoe has also found time for a private life with fellow singer Damian Arnold.

The Canberra tenor is also studying at Guildhall and Zoe said it was “amazing that we were both accepted to the Guildhall at the same time”.

“We met as undergraduates in Sydney and have been together since then,” she said.

“People often think the opera world is full of catty, jealous people but everyone I know is really friendly and helpful and it has never happened to me.

“I went to a performing arts high school; since I have been about 15 the only people I know and study/work with are all doing the same things as me, with the same range of goals – and they have all been super-duper supportive.

“But this is a very tough business and you have to be determined to go all the way.”

Zoe had her own way of explaining what she had achieved to date and what she hoped it would do for her in the future.

“I am proud to be 100 per cent committed to opera and an opera career. I don’t go out, I don’t drink; my whole life is shaped by what I have to do to be a singer.”