Dynamic Diva from Down Under: Australian mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble [Photo by Andrew Keshan, © by Deborah Humble]
Like Music itself, both what it takes and what it means to be an important singer are criteria that are perennially evolving. In this age in which a gifted singer can toil for years without receiving the attention that the voice deserves but in which a hard-won career can be ended by a single poorly-judged ‘tweet,’ the parameters by which a singer’s success are now measured might seem arbitrary and bewildering to singers of the past, singers who expected to be judged primarily for how they sang. Without question, there are now more well-trained singers before the public than at any other time in the four-century history of opera, but there now are also more obstacles to making a career as a singer. However vociferously their perceived absence is lamented, there are still great voices to be heard, though one must perhaps listen more diligently to hear them. When Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra closes the 2014 – 2015 Season with a concert performance of Act Three of Richard Wagner’s Siegfried on 26 April, among a quartet of esteemed Wagnerians will be heard one of the Twenty-First Century’s great voices, that of mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble. Born in Bangor, New South Wales, but raised in the South Australian capital of Adelaide, she embodies a tradition that in years past brought Australian artists like Dame Joan Sutherland and Dame Joan Carden to international prominence. Her studies at the University of Adelaide and Australian Catholic University of Melbourne complemented by receipt of the 2004 Dame Joan Sutherland Scholarship and being chosen as a finalist in the 2008 Seattle International Wagner Competition, she was a principal mezzo-soprano first with Opera Australia and then with Hamburgische Staatsoper. Singing an exceptionally varied repertory including rôles in operas as diverse as Händel’s Alcina and Janáček’s Jenůfa prepared her to accept one of the greatest challenges in opera: interpreting parts in Richard Wagner’s Der Ring des Nibelungen. As the Oehms Classics recordings of Der Ring, compiled from live performances conducted by fellow Aussie Simone Young confirm, Ms. Humble’s singing as Erda in Das Rheingold and Siegfried, Schwertleite in Die Walküre, and the First Norn and Waltraute in Götterdämmerung in Hamburg proclaimed the presence of a world-class Wagnerian on the international scene. Continuing the legacies of eminent Australian mezzo-sopranos like Margreta Elkins, Lauris Elms, and Yvonne Minton, this impeccably-trained, unfailingly-prepared artist is a dynamic Australian diva for the Twenty-First Century. In truth, though, excellent training and consistent preparation are insignificant if the quality of the voice does not match the care expended in cultivating it. Deborah Humble’s voice is like the spirit of her native Australia: fearless, indomitable, and beautiful in ways that words can only imperfectly and inadequately describe.
A delightfully intelligent, shrewd artist with complete cognizance of her musical roots, Ms. Humble is awed by the musical colossuses to whom she is often compared. ‘Margreta Elkins, Yvonne Minton, and Lauris Elms are three of Australia’s greatest-ever singers, and I am humbled to be considered to be upholding and expanding their legacy,’ she says. ‘Indeed, I had the great good fortune to learn with both Lauris in Australia when I was a beginning student and later with Yvonne in London. I learnt a great deal from these ladies, not only about the art of singing, interpretation, and technique but also about the personal values that they believed were important in a successful career: integrity, perseverance and patience, and an intuitive understanding of one’s own instrument. One of the nicest compliments I was ever paid in an Australian review said, “Deborah Humble surely evoked Elms and Elkins.” It was referring to my performance of Pauline in a concert version of Tchaikovsky’s Queen of Spades conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy, and I still think there could really be no greater compliment for an Australian mezzo-soprano.’ Ms. Humble is also aware that the first fifteen years of the Twenty-First Century have been an amazing time for Australian artists, both at home and abroad. ‘Australian opera singers are visible all over the world right now, so the education and training in Australia must be said to be doing something right,’ she suggests. ‘I think Australian artists are aware of how lucky they are to get any opportunity overseas, perhaps more so than [those] who have lived in Europe, the UK, or America all their lives. This awareness makes them work especially hard, embrace learning opportunities, and take advantage of every professional and training situation. Having said that, they also have to demonstrate an even greater tenacity for new experiences than the average artist: new cultures, new languages, a totally different operatic system to what they are used to, suddenly having to understand their position on a world stage. Australia is geographically an isolated place, and pursuing a singing career abroad means being far away from family, friends—indeed, everything that has always been familiar. It can be a huge and daunting assimilation process, and it is not necessarily for everyone. I think that, whilst Australia can be confident of its developing culture in the present and future, there will always be more opportunities away from home for Australian artists.’
The sacrifices required of singers pursuing international careers are, as Ms. Humble intimates, intensified for Australians, for whom the geographical divides among artists and their ancestral homes are greater than for singers from almost anywhere else in the world. She is uncommonly clear-sighted about the unique circumstances that Australian musicians encounter when they pursue opportunities beyond their native shores. ‘The concept of “cultural-cringe” is not yet something that is entirely in the past,’ she shares. ‘That’s not a criticism,’ she quickly adds. ‘It’s just a fact—and something that we have to keep working towards together. It is also worth reminding Australians that everything that happens “overseas” is not necessarily always better. Perhaps the best quality of most Australians I know is their open-mindedness and ability to get along with people, an important quality for operatic teamwork’—a quality that, though she is too considerate a colleague to say so, too many singers—especially younger singers—lack.
No forgetting this lady’s fate: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as the title heroine in Henry Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas at Opera Australia, 2004 [Photo © by Opera Australia]
Before diving into the Wagnerian waters that she now navigates so assuredly, Ms. Humble honed her craft by charting the very different seas of Baroque repertory. ‘The exposure to Early Music that I gained in Paris was extremely informative,’ she recalls. ‘First of all, I was passionate about Baroque music at the time, having completed a Master’s Degree in Oration and Gesture in Baroque Opera only a couple of years before arriving in France.’ In Ms. Humble’s view, this experience with Early Music was primarily a tutorial in stagecraft and, from her individual musical perspective, an instance of right place, right time. ‘I wouldn’t say that singing that repertoire shaped my future approach to Romantic music,’ she confides, ‘but I would say that it was very much the right music for me to be singing at the very earliest stages of a career. I still sing Händel and Monteverdi and Bach. It’s not easy, so it provides a challenge, but I also find [that] it keeps the voice fresh, versatile, and flexible. Working with Marc Minkowski and Les Musiciens du Louvre also meant that I was exposed to great artists like Anne Sofie von Otter and David Daniels (both of whom I understudied), Dame Felicity Lott, Richard Croft, Gidon Saks, and Ewa Podleś and got to go on tour to the best concert halls and opera houses in Europe. It was an incredible and exciting education for a young Australian singer. We did a large amount of recording, so I also learnt something about that side of the music industry, and I still have lifetime contracts with Deutsche Grammophon and EMI and the royalties that those recordings earn.’ In addition to these benefits, Ms. Humble also fondly recollects interactions with fellow musicians that enriched her formative years in the business—musicians like renowned harpsichordist Jory Vinikour. ‘Yes, coaching with somebody as talented as Jory was an opportunity not to be underestimated,’ she says. ‘I remember going to his apartment in Paris for sessions. There were so many keyboards of various varieties in the living room: one could hardly find a place to stand for the lesson! I am very pleased for his enormous success and international reputation.’
Having sung rôles in operas by composers as varied as Purcell, Händel, Mozart, Donizetti, Mascagni, Richard Strauss, Shostakovich, and Henze in addition to the Wagner ladies in her repertory, Ms. Humble is a model of the constructive effects of the versatility demanded of today’s young singers. ‘When one has a fixed contract at a German repertoire house, it is guaranteed that you will be required to sing a wide variety of rôles both large and small,’ she states. ‘For me, this was a very positive experience as I was never asked to undertake anything that wasn’t appropriate. I was not only able to continue developing my technique during my five years at the Hamburgische Staatsoper but I also learnt a lot about stagecraft and the art of rehearsing things in a very short period of time. I had exposure to great coaches who influenced my musical interpretations and language development.’ This exposure aided her in refining her sensibilities as an artist and determining the course that she would pursue in her career. ‘Since becoming a freelance artist four years ago, I have much more choice in the repertoire I would like to sing. One of the most positive things about being a dramatic mezzo-soprano is the fact that the voice develops later than some other voice types, and that means that new repertoire is always opening up. With every note added to the range, that means another rôle becomes possible.’ With her solid technical foundation and stylistic adaptability, future opportunities are virtually limitless, she feels. ‘I can’t think of a rôle in my Fach which would never be possible for me to sing—assuming that I continue to develop in the next few years.’
After singing Erda in Boston Philharmonic Youth Orchestra’s concert performance of Act Three of Siegfried on 26 April, Ms. Humble’s performance diary includes her inaugural interpretation of Brangäne in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, which she will sing in Mexico City under the direction of Jan Latham-König, followed by Judit in Béla Bartók’s A kékszakállú herceg vára (Bluebeard’s Castle) in Melbourne. These are two of the most daunting rôles in the repertory, but Ms. Humble imparts that, in her opinion, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. ‘I often think that the real demands of a particular rôle are not totally evident until after you have performed it for the first time,’ she indicates. ‘Singing something through in a practice room or in rehearsals is very different from doing it on stage in front of an audience. Only when you have done that do you know where the inherent difficulties really lie; where greater breath control might be required, where greater nuance and color would be of benefit, where to conserve, where to give a bit more. Brangäne is quite a physically- and emotionally-demanding rôle. So far, I have really been studying the opera as a whole from a historical perspective. It is certainly difficult to overstate the importance of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde in the operatic repertoire. His use of chromatisicm and uninhibited dissonances challenged the accepted idea of tonality and contributed to the belief that this was the beginning of modern music. The idea of human love that goes beyond emotion into a metaphysical world needs to be understood via an understanding of the libretto, the orchestral music, and, eventually, by the staging. Last year, when I performed my first Wesendonck Lieder, I began looking at the ideas of Schopenhauer and how Wagner was influenced and attracted by concepts such as death and night, dreams and ecstasy, and unattainable worldly love. These themes are also relevant in Tristan since Wagner was in the middle of his love affair with Mathilde Wesendonck during its composition. All of these things help to put a new rôle into context whilst undertaking the technical and musical study required.’
Don’t judge me: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Amneris in Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida at Opera Australia, 2013 [Photo by Jeff Busby, © by Opera Australia]
Highlights of the past few seasons in Ms. Humble’s career include her first Amneris in Verdi’s Aida with Opera Australia and singing Catherine in Arthur Honegger’s Jeanne d’Arc au bûcher. Her commitment to singing not just familiar music like Verdi’s but also less-known works is indicative of the affection and respect that this singer has for her vocation. ‘It is a great privilege to be able to do the thing that you love most for a job,’ she muses. ‘If your work is something you enjoy doing, then it never really feels like work. That is the best thing about my career. I enjoy the ongoing challenges, and as I get better and better at what I do it becomes even more enjoyable. I am very grateful for how things have worked out for me because I had to do a lot of things I didn’t enjoy in order to get where I am today. That makes me more appreciative for every contract, every performance. We never know when the work will stop coming in, so it is important to treat every opportunity with 100% commitment. I have always tried to do that. The ability and opportunity to express oneself through music really is a great gift. Dealing with the insecurity of the profession, the traveling, the stress of staying in good vocal health, living in hotels, and being away from family and friends are some of the inconveniences of the profession. Sometimes, you have to be careful what you wish for. But there is nothing else I would rather do.’ If she were starting her career now, with the knowledge that she has acquired through her studies and engagements, what would she do differently? ‘I went to university when I was seventeen, so I really didn’t know anything about the world of music outside of a structured school setting,’ she reflects. ‘I knew I wanted to be a singer, but I had absolutely no clue what that entailed or how to go about getting to the next step. When I graduated with a Bachelor of Music Performance three years later, I still didn’t really understand anything about the nature of my chosen career, and, to be honest, I couldn’t really sing very well, either! I had a limited repertoire of songs and oratorio pieces, and, since I couldn’t sing above the stave, I knew only three or four arias. I knew I had to leave Adelaide, but where to go and what to do next were a bit of a mystery. I was very determined, although it is true to say I had no idea how hard a career in singing was going to be. Having gone to an all-girls’ school for seventeen years, that time at university was probably more about learning on a social level than a musical one. I don’t think I have changed all that much over the years. I still enjoy doing the same things now as I did then. I don’t think I would tell my seventeen-year-old self to do much differently. I might tell her to worry less about what other people think or to have greater self-confidence. Otherwise, I think I am lucky to look back and feel that there is very little I would alter.’
Returning to the theme of her place in the lineage of great Australian mezzo-sopranos, Ms. Humble is attentive to the remarkable ways in which the narratives of the careers of Twenty-First-Century singers can be shaped by circumstances beyond their control. As she suggested in her comment about advising her younger self to worry less about others’ opinions, her energy is focused on connecting with audiences directly, one on one, as is only possible through music. First and foremost, the aspect of her artistry that facilitates those connections is the voice itself, and, when asked which impressions she hopes to leave with audiences, she responds contemplatively. ‘That’s a very difficult question! I suppose what most people comment on when they talk about my voice is its color and quality. They talk of warmth and depth, carrying power, chocolate, honey, and red wine! I would like to be remembered as an artist who committed to everything [she] did, someone with a compelling stage presence, someone who could help people escape from the reality of their lives for a moment in time and to dream about something else. At the end of the day, my voice is only one part of me. It would also be nice to be thought of as someone people were happy to work with, a generous colleague with a good sense of humor.’ Her performances reveal all of these qualities, but it is this last statement that discloses the heart of Ms. Humble’s artistry: a desire to be a great singer who, off the stage, is equally a great person.
Few singers invite or deserve comparison with the legendary Marian Anderson. The obstacles that she overcame made her a legend, but it was her voice that made her a legendary artist. With its satiny texture, reserves of steely power and molten-lava sensuality, earthy lower register, and lightning-bolt top notes, Deborah Humble’s voice is the rare instrument that warrants comparison with that of Marian Anderson. Sadly, the Wagnerian credentials of many of Australia’s most important mezzo-sopranos remain too little appreciated beyond Oz’s shores, but Margreta Elkins and Lauris Elms were integral to the musical and dramatic triumphs of Sir Charles Mackerras’s Australian concert performances of Tristan und Isolde, Die Walküre, and Götterdämmerung with Rita Hunter in the 1980s. Though her Wagnerian journeys are only one facet of her sparkling artistry, Deborah Humble is what her countrymen might term a ridgy-didge talent—in short, the genuine article. In her, today’s Brünnhildes and Isoldes have a platinum-voiced confidante and a splendidly worthy adversary.
Earth Day: Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble as Erda in Richard Wagner’s Siegfried at Oper Halle, 2013 [Photo © by Oper Halle]
To learn more about Deborah Humble and her upcoming engagements, please visit her Official Website.
Ms. Humble is represented in Australia and Asia by Patrick Togher Artists’ Management; in the UK by James Black Management; and in Germany, Austria, and Switzerland by Kunstleragentur Wrage. Her Press and Public Relations Representative is Tim Weiler of O-PR Communications.
Sincerest thanks to Ms. Humble for her time and extraordinary candor in responding to questions for this profile and to Tim Weiler for facilitating the interview.