Taking 5 with Rachelle Durkin
Soprano Rachelle Durkin is familiar with taking on the big operatic roles.
From performing as a soloist in Beethoven’s Symphony No 9 to taking on the role of Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, soprano specular Rachelle Durkin has travelled the world performing the best of the best in opera. We sat down with Rachelle to reflect on her journey so far, her pre-concert rituals, and living in New York.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a soprano.
I never listened to classical music growing up. My sisters and I were much more interested in watching MTV or Countdown, and I was obsessed with Madonna, Michael Jackson and Kylie Minogue. I always sang into a hairbrush though, and every Christmas we would put on a ‘Christmas variety show’, complete with comic sketches, singing, and dancing. Our entire extended family got involved and it was really quite something. We all had a great time and it brought our families closer together.
Around 12 years old, I joined the Johnny Young Talent School, and when I was 15, I joined the Tivoli Theatre ensemble in Applecross, Perth. The company put on a fully staged variety show every Friday night. I was often given solos, in particular songs by Judy Garland, but it was mostly an ensemble show performing Musical Theatre standards.The company accompanist would often tell me I should have classical training, but I really wasn’t interested. Instead, I entered into every shopping centre talent quest I could find, and on one occasion I even performed at a nightclub and won. I was underage however, and ended up giving my drink vouchers and the weekend getaway for two to my parents. In my final year of high school, I saw that the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) were having Musical Theatre auditions. I applied, but sadly I only made the first round because I couldn’t dance. I was devastated! All I wanted was to perform on stage, and so I set new sights on singing for the Conservatorium of Music, also at WAAPA. Reluctantly, I began classical singing lessons and I focused on two pieces. A beautiful Bellini song called, ‘Ma rendi pur contento’, and the other, ‘My mother bids me bind my hair’, by Haydn. I really wasn’t confident with this new style of singing and I was extremely green, but in my vocal audition, I did surprisingly well. This only made up half of the audition though, and I still had to sit for a theory exam. I hadn’t the slightest idea, nor did I even know what a treble clef was. I remember sweating bullets and did a lot of staring into space. In the end though, miraculously, I was accepted into the Certificate course.
I had a brand new teacher, a new perspective on classical music and I was determined to figure out this new vocal technique. By the end of the year, I discovered a real love for classical music and Opera, and I wanted to keep pursuing my dream of performing. I ended up with a Diploma of Performing Arts and a Bachelor of Music in voice.
Before you step onstage for a concert, do you have a routine or ritual to get you ready?
Yes, I do actually! I like to get up the morning of the performance at around 8am, have breakfast, and then have a little walk around the block. Nothing too strenuous, but I like to get some sunshine if I can. I’ll have a nap from 1-3pm, wake up and do some vocal warmups. I may sing some arias in just to get the voice moving also, but I don’t warm up too much. After this, I’ll make a carb-filled meal for around 4pm, depending on when I step foot on stage. Singing on a really full stomach gives me reflux, which is why I eat so early. In the theatre, I usually have a cup of hot water and I’ll put a heaped tablespoon of honey in it just to keep my sugar up. I always take a piece of fruit with me too, just in case it’s a long night and I get hungry.
You’ve recently been living in New York. What’s your experience been witnessing the effects of COVID and the Black Lives Matter Protests in the city?
Wow, where do I start?! I’m reluctant to tell people this. I’m really not sure why I feel ashamed in some way, but I ended up with COVID-19. It was at the end of March here in Washington Heights, Manhattan. Initially, Major De Blasio told us that masks were only necessary for people who felt ill, and so we carried on with our daily tasks without one. I remember I was quite reluctant going on a play date for my five-year-old which I had organised the week before, but we had very little information to go on at that stage and so we went. When we met up, the other mother complained of a dry persistent cough. She told me she had no other symptoms or fever, but alarm bells went off when she told me her doctor said she had neither the flu nor strep throat. As I said, this was all new, and information would slowly filter in on the news here.
A few days later, after feeling nauseous, I suddenly came down with high fever. I remember sitting on the couch next to my husband and I turned to him and said ‘I have this! I just know it!’ Right away, I separated myself from my husband and son, put on gloves and a mask, and kept away from them for two weeks. What was to come was just awful. A headache from hell and terrible pain which seemed to permeate from within my bones. I remember waking up in the middle of the night for three nights in a row in severe pain and crying. Nothing could make it stop. Once those three days passed, I just felt weak and I barely got out of bed. Then out of nowhere, I lost all taste and smell. This was the oddest thing that had ever happened to me and it worried me more than the pain. It took a good three weeks for me to gain my senses back. In May, I was antibody tested. I was positive for antibodies, but my son and husband were negative.
April and May was quite surreal here in NYC. We live on Broadway next to two hospitals and so we would hear ambulances tear down the street nearly every five minutes. Sadly, we all knew what that meant at the time. At 7pm every night we would applaud the essential workers. This small action seemed huge for all of those people who put they own lives in danger. Hearing people banging pots and pans, clapping, beeping horns or yelling, made us all feel less alone.
Thank god for Governor Cuomo! He was a real lifeline to all of us, and his words were full of hope, unlike others. The curve had just started to come down, the lockdown was working, then suddenly the murder of George Floyd happened. We all couldn’t believe that something like this could happen again. People were angry, fed up and had had enough. Then the riots happened. We had a curfew here in NYC for 8pm and so we were all shut in…again!! Nothing bad ever happened in our neighbourhood though, and from what we saw, there were only peaceful protests. I actually wished I could go to some, but I was concerned about the virus. I understood all the anger though and I wanted to share in that.
New York has certainly put us through the wringer these past six months, but I have hopes that she’ll get back on her feet again and keep her title as one of the best cities in the world.
For someone who has never been to see an opera live, can you describe what the experience is like?
For me, there’s nothing better than watching a live musical performance. Opera however, is a force unto itself. There’s no vocal or orchestral amplification at all, and so what you get is music in its purest and most unadulterated form. Add to that a glorious storyline, a magical stage set, an accomplished conductor, a fearless director and an imaginative lighting designer, and you’re in for quite the sensory overload. If you’ve never been to an opera, you should make yourself go at least once. You might just end up loving it as much as I did.
If you could have any composer write an opera just for you, who would it be and what would the opera be about?
Well, I think I have the story down. It would have to be about New York City and all the experiences I’ve had during the nearly 20 years I’ve resided here. A part from having a career here, I’ve actually been a part of many historical events. I was here for 9/11, George Bush was President, The Blackout in 2003, Barrack Obama was President, US Airways flight landed in the Hudson River safely, Hurricane Sandy almost blew my windows in, I gave birth to my son, death of Eric Garner, Trump was President, Womens’ protest, COVID-19, death of George Floyd, and Black Lives Matter. I’m certain I have missed some, but I certainly have a lot of material.
Now as for the composer I really can’t decide because I love so many. Perhaps we should go the modern route, so what about an up and coming Aussie? Let’s go!