Bo­hème rhap­sody

Ris­ing Kiwi opera stars Julien Van Mel­laerts, Mar­lena Devoe and Thomas Atkins are home from Lon­don for Puc­cini’s fa­mous tragedy.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Rus­sell Bail­lie

Ris­ing Kiwi opera stars Julien Van Mel­laerts, Mar­lena Devoe and Thomas Atkins are home from Lon­don for Puc­cini’s fa­mous tragedy.

What does it take to be a pro­fes­sional opera singer? A voice, yes. Un­wa­ver­ing com­mit­ment and years of train­ing, check. An abil­ity to sing and act in a lan­guage other than your own while play­ing a char­ac­ter from some dis­tant era. That, too.

There are a few other re­quire­ments that be­come ap­par­ent af­ter spend­ing some time talk­ing to three of the young stars of La Bo­hème, NZ Opera’s forth­com­ing pro­duc­tion of Puc­cini’s ev­er­green weepy set in late-19th-cen­tury Paris.

Such as hav­ing sur­vived eye-wa­ter­ing over­seas study fees, then be­ing able to cope with the con­stant re­jec­tion of the au­di­tion process. Once you are on your way, there are the fi­nan­cial haz­ards of the opera singer’s gig economy.

Oh, and there other, more un­usual chal­lenges. Such as be­ing brave enough to wear a spe­cial mask de­signed to keep the bugs at bay and your vo­cal cords hu­mid­i­fied on long-haul flights. Bari­tone Julien Van Mel­laerts swears by them. “No one talks to you and you scare the kids kick­ing the seat be­hind you.”

This pro­vokes roars of laugh­ter from Van Mel­laerts (30), tenor Thomas Atkins (28) and so­prano Mar­lena Devoe (31) as they sit in the board­room of NZ Opera’s Par­nell, Auck­land, of­fices in a break from re­hearsals to talk to the Lis­tener. All three are back from their bases in Lon­don.

All three boast CVs filled with com­pe­ti­tion and schol­ar­ship wins, per­for­mances around the world and roles in opera pro­duc­tions across the UK and Europe.

In La Bo­hème, Atkins and Devoe are in the ro­man­tic roles of poet Rodolfo and seam­stress Mimi. Van Mel­laerts is Schau­nard, one of the Rodolfo’s three bo­hemian flat­mates.

Com­ing home to make their NZ Opera de­buts is a very big deal for them – and not just be­cause Atkins’ mother has re­port­edly bought 37 tick­ets to the Welling­ton shows. This is a chance to show all their home­town sup­port­ers how far they’ve come …

Devoe: We grew up here. We know this opera com­pany. To come back and sing a prin­ci­pal role is a huge deal for me, as is hav­ing my fam­ily be­ing able to come to see me do what I do. That means a lot. It’s a bit daunt­ing as well.

Van Mel­laerts: This is the com­pany you strive to work with when you are grow­ing up in New Zealand.

Atkins: Yeah, we were the guys sit­ting there in the au­di­ence go­ing, “That is what we want to do.” So, why opera?

Van Mel­laerts: Hon­estly, I couldn’t do any­thing else.

Devoe: You’re not qual­i­fied.

Van Mel­laerts: Well, there is that. There has al­ways been some­thing about mu­sic that has at­tracted me and it is some­thing I can never put down. I am sure we could

all do other jobs but there’s some­thing about singing that draws us.

You are al­ways get­ting bet­ter. You’re al­ways learn­ing some­thing, you are al­ways with in­ter­est­ing peo­ple, you’re trav­el­ling the world to do these dif­fer­ent things. There’s some­thing very ex­cit­ing about that. It makes it hard to do some­thing else. I just love singing. There are these sto­ries we get to com­mu­ni­cate and that’s the big thing for me.

Devoe: That’s a big thing for me, too – the mu­sic we get to sing, the sto­ries we get to tell. I mean, we get to ex­pe­ri­ence emo­tions that you don’t get to ex­pe­ri­ence in ev­ery­day life all the time. That’s the rea­son we do what we do – be­cause it’s so ex­cit­ing to fall in love again or to ex­pe­ri­ence a loss. It’s emo­tion­ally drain­ing. But it’s so ex­cit­ing.

Atkins: It’s very rare to love the job you do and it’s not like we go to work ev­ery day. We just live what we do. But there’s also the re­al­ity of the sit­u­a­tion, which is quite dif­fer­ent – the amount of work it takes, the amount of study, the cost of study. Get­ting to where we are now has taken a long time.

What did your friends think of your in­ter­est in opera when you were grow­ing up – did they think you were a bit weird?

Devoe: No. A lot of my friends thought what I did was cool.

Atkins: I still think Julien is a bit weird [laugh­ter]. In my group of mates from school, they were all in the first XV and I was the only mu­si­cian, and no one ever ques­tioned it.

Van Mel­laerts: I was the same. If you’re good at some­thing, they don’t seem to ques­tion it. It was never some­thing I was ashamed of and so they didn’t bother me about it.

And now?

Van Mel­laerts: It’s so out of the norm, re­ally, isn’t it? To the av­er­age Kiwi, this isn’t a nor­mal job. A friend of mine asked last night, “What do you ac­tu­ally do?”

Atkins: A friend of mine was like, “Do you do this full-time now?” What do you mean “now?” What do you think I have been do­ing all these years?

Head­ing to Lon­don is a well­trod­den path for New Zealand opera singers. Does that help?

Devoe: You re­ally do start at the bot­tom there and make your way up.

Atkins: When peo­ple think of Kiwi opera singers, they think very well of them. We have a very good rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing hard­work­ing and tal­ented.

Devoe: If you make the jour­ney across the world, it shows you are se­ri­ous about what you do.

So how bo­hemian an ex­is­tence do you have to live there? Are you dy­ing of cold in your artist gar­rets like the char­ac­ters in the opera?

Van Mel­laerts: I was do­ing that when I was flat­ting at the Univer­sity of Otago. They’ve got dou­ble glaz­ing in most flats in Lon­don.

Atkins: The great thing about Lon­don is the ac­cess to all the art in ev­ery form. There are al­ways tick­ets to all of the West End shows, opera and all the fringe opera and theatre that’s go­ing on, which is great.

So you’re liv­ing monk-like or nun-like lives there to pre­serve your voices?

Devoe: Well, you do have to make some sac­ri­fices. Okay, maybe just one glass of wine tonight … or a bot­tle.

Van Mel­laerts: You find your­self not be­ing in loud places be­cause you don’t want to shout across the room.

Atkins: You only get one set of vo­cal cords. If you’re an ath­lete, you’re not go­ing to go and do some­thing stupid, are you? So it’s ex­actly the same for us. The voice is just a dif­fer­ent part.

Van Mel­laerts: Lon­don is a great place to be, but we work a lot in Europe and that’s im­por­tant for us. You can’t build a ca­reer back home. Ba­si­cally, peo­ple are go­ing to book if they see you’ve been booked by other peo­ple.

Which means au­di­tions, pre­sum­ably, and lots of them. How do you cope with that com­pet­i­tive process?

Van Mel­laerts: Most opera singers face more re­jec­tion in a day than most peo­ple do in a life­time.

Devoe: But there is no point in wor­ry­ing about it be­cause if you’re booked for the job it’s be­cause you’re the best per­son for that job.

Van Mel­laerts: You’re com­pet­ing with your­self. It just so hap­pens that there are other peo­ple out there com­pet­ing with them­selves as well.

Atkins: There is so much go­ing on in opera. The voice is base level. When you go into an au­di­tion, ev­ery­one can sing. It’s ev­ery­thing else you bring.

Like what?

Atkins: Well, it’s act­ing, it’s mu­si­cal­ity, it’s how you com­mu­ni­cate the story, and then there are in­tan­gi­bles such as stage pres­ence.

Devoe: Which you can’t do any­thing about. You have it or you don’t.

Atkins: There are some peo­ple you see on stage who you are drawn to and you can’t ex­actly put it into words, but you know they have some­thing.

Van Mel­laerts: A lot of young singers worry about how to sing and they get very caught up in that. But you have to have the abil­ity to let that go and re­mem­ber that you are just there to tell a story.

Devoe: Hope­fully, with all the work you have put in, it will just be there so that you can for­get about it and fo­cus on telling the story.

So singing pop mu­sic never ap­pealed?

Devoe: God, you do not want to hear me singing pop mu­sic.

Atkins: I’m not pretty enough.

Van Mel­laerts: Your hair could do it. Atkins: My hair could do it. l

La Bo­hème by NZ Opera, ASB Theatre, Aotea Cen­tre, Auck­land, Septem­ber 13-23; the Opera House, Welling­ton, Oc­to­ber 4-13.

Pulled by mu­sic: from left, bari­tone Julien Van Mel­laerts, so­prano Mar­lena Devoe and tenorThomas Atkins.

No or­di­nary job: from top, Devoe, Atkins and Van Mel­laerts.

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