Fame and fortune are not the main goals of young opera singer Emily Edmonds, but being able to live from singing is.
At 23, that is exactly what the effervescent girl from the Hills is doing, living in London, studying in Europe and now being chosen for a prestigious program for young opera singers.
“I have been pinching myself,” Emily said as she sat down to tea with Sydney Hills Living during one of her visits home, after being announced as one of five young singers from around the world selected to join the Jette Packer Young Artists Programme.
The program gives participants invaluable training with the Royal Opera Company, where for two years they have the chance to perform while learning their craft. On a salary, no less.
Needless to say, the competition is tough, with 370 applicants from 59 countries vying for this year’s program, which begins in September.
Mezzo-soprano Emily will be joined by Russian soprano Vlada Borovko, Irish soprano Jennifer Davis, Korean tenor David Junghoon Kim and British bass David Shipley.
Last year, three Australians made the grade. “Australians do well because we are regarded as versatile and hard workers,” Emily said.
Already based in London, Emily is set for the challenges ahead of her, which she will no doubt tackle with the same enthusiasm she has applied to every challenge she set herself from the time she realised that opera singing was her destiny.
“I was about 12 or 13 when I realised I wanted to pursue opera singing,” Emily said. “I had always loved performing on stage, going to the Australian Theatre for Young People (ATYP) and enjoying singing roles. Loving classical music, I was drawn to opera when I realised I could make those sounds. I am grateful that I have the right voice, but it is always hard work.”
Growing up in Castle Hill and Kellyville, Emily attended Kenthurst schools St Madeleine’s Primary and Marian College before being accepted into Newtown School of Performing Arts for her two final years. With her path firmly set, she went on to a first class honours degree in vocal performance from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and studies at the Dame Nellie Melba Opera Trust.
However, it is not only about singing. To be serious about opera, singers have to study the languages of opera, so Emily is immersed in studying German, French and Russian — a challenge that would faze lesser mortals.
Once her voice was discovered, Emily moved away from theatre, although she has not discounted doing more acting in the future. After all, acting is a big part of opera, and the buzz of performing in front of a live audience assures Emily she chose the right path.
“Being out on stage during a production, every night there is a new audience and a new vibe that you react to,” Emily said.
With an increasing trend to bringing opera performances to the cinema, Emily is excited that the art form is reaching a wider audience.
While opera singers have never been expected to look like Hollywood glamour actors, it helps when there are young, lovely stars such as Emily, a compliment she accepts with blushing modesty.
“It is becoming more about being the whole package, but for opera performers the singing rather than the look comes first,” she said. “But, really, it is about being fit and healthy and trying to look the best you can.”
In other words, the stamina required by an opera singer means exercising the body is as important as exercising the voice. “You really have to apply the same determination with fitness as an athlete,” Emily said.
As a mezzo, which means half soprano, Emily often plays “pants roles” — that is, male characters, as most female leads are for sopranos, but the young singer is not hampered by that as she says there are still plum roles for mezzos, even those that are intended for sopranos.
So Emily does not totally agree with the world’s most successful mezzo, the Italian Cecilia Bartoli, who has recorded best-selling albums of arias written in the 18th and 19th centuries for mezzo voices.
Bartoli laments the lack of roles written for mezzo singers, but Emily pointed out that while there were more lead female roles for sopranos, there also were “more sopranos around who do not always have the range to sing all those roles”. Mezzos are often called in for a role written for a soprano, so Emily feels she is in a good position.
“There are still some good mezzo leads around, in male and female roles — for example, Romeo in Romeo and Juliet, Delilah in Samson and Delilah and, of course, Carmen,” Emily said.
In Australian opera circles, Emily has already started building her reputation. The classical music magazine Limelight has Emily pegged as a rising star, praising her role of Dritte Magd for a recent Sydney Symphony Orchestra concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra. In its review of her performance, Limelight called the young singer “a force of nature” with a “ravishing” voice. “She inhabits the role with a confidence that belies the musical complexity,” the reviewer cooed.
Emily went on to win over audiences in the role of Asteria in Pinchgut Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet in July.
On a visit back to family in Kellyville before the rigours of her prized gig begin in September, Emily is enjoying being surrounded by loved ones while breathing in the fresh air of the Hills.
“I definitely miss the trees of the Hills, and the fresh air, although I love living in London,” she said.
Despite being an avid reader and self-confessed sideliner in sport, as a child Emily still enjoyed the Hills bush, and was adventurous enough to climb trees, playing with her siblings and cousins.
“We played games in the bush and backyard, went on little adventures and climbed trees, as I recall,” Emily said. “But when it came to backyard cricket, I was always the outfielder — sometimes they allowed me to bat.”
However, from about the age of 10 when studying drama classes in the city, Emily discovered another world. “I knew I had found my people and my true self,” she said. And that life had little to do with rolling down green hills.
Attending Newtown Performing Arts High in her senior years and then going on to the Conservatorium, Emily’s connection to city life continued. So, living in London, and being close to the classical music scene of Europe, the Hills girl is in her element.
“Two years ago I moved to London and I’m loving it. I live in West London, so I go to see theatre productions — we are given tickets to dress rehearsals,” Emily said. “I really love the markets as well, especially the food markets, and going for walks in the park.”
Emily’s other passions are baking, reading and writing. Enjoying London life does not extend to partying hard for this focused young woman. “And I don’t really drink that much, again, for health,” Emily said.
Her parents are high school teachers, and she has a younger sister and younger brother at university studying science related courses.
“Not really sure what their courses are called, actually,” she laughed. All she knows is that the courses have nothing to do with music.
The only real musical talent in the family comes from an aunt who plays the piano and her grandmother, who studied at the Conservatorium to teach music. “And my mother plays the piano a little as well,” she added.
But, needless to say, her family is as proud as can be with her achievements, although they miss having her close. They appreciate how hard she has worked. For it is more than luck that has taken Emily to where she is and a family who has helped in a successful person’s journey knows that the most.
“We automatically say how lucky people are when they achieve something, in sport or whatever field, but luck has little to do with it — it is all about hard work to get there and then to keep up to that level,” Emily said.
Again, the analogy with the athlete, but it is an analogy people can relate to, as the physical regime of a sportsperson is more visible than the blood, sweat and tears workout of our successful creative performers.
Emily Edmonds, looking as cool as a cucumber, knows how to do the hard yards and the goals will continue to be in her sights.
But as for Joan Sutherland-like fame Emily dare not to dream that far ahead, but feels fortunate to be making a living from her craft while winning recognition among opera lovers.