Young Australian singers do business with Covent Garden

Samuel Sakker tried to give up performing once. After studying at the Queensland Conservatorium and performing on stages across the country — including as a regular chorus member for Opera Australia — the Sydney-born tenor was still struggling to pay the rent.

“I actually started doing a business degree because there wasn’t really enough work in Australia for me as a developing singer,” he told Daily Review. “I’ve had some really terrific opportunities in Australia and in New Zealand but to have the sustainability of a full-time job in an opera company, to fully develop my skills and my talent, there wasn’t really anything there for me …

Samuel Sakker
Samuel Sakker

“I think I’m quite the pragmatic type and I think my mindset was: regardless of whether singing worked out or not, this [the business degree] would be a very good investment in my future either way. Because really, artists have to be business students nowadays.”

Now in London, the rent is steeper. But one of the world’s premiere opera companies has it covered.

Last year Sakker was plucked from a gruelling audition series — some 390 applicants from 58 countries — to join the Jette Parker Young Artists Program at the Royal Opera House. Just five were selected in the 2014 round; remarkably three of them (Sakker, baritone Samuel Dale Johnson and soprano Lauren Fagan) are Australian.

The three Aussies are now salaried members of the The Royal Opera, treading the boards of Covent Garden alongside the world’s finest opera performers.

“I did my debut with Plácido Domingo [as Barbarigo in I due Foscari] and just watching that man move on stage, and watching how he used phrasing and used texts dramatically; it’s a lesson in itself just being able to watch him,” Sakker says over the phone during a break in rehearsals for a new production of The Magic Flute.

“Every single person that is working in this house is at the very top of the profession … At the moment I’m doing The Magic Flute with Sir David McVicar directing and Cornelius Meister conducting. And these are two people who are the very pinnacle of the industry, who are very, very knowledgeable about not only the work, but also of the whole machinations of singers, of orchestras, of the theatres and how to get the very, very best out of the work and all the people involved in creating the work.”

The two-year apprenticeship is very much on-the-job training. The performers are coached in developing their voices and across the disciplines of role interpretation, language and stagecraft and then put it into practice in concerts, recitals and main-stage productions — including covering lead roles (Sakker will understudy the principal tenor role of Tamino in Magic Flute).

“This is a job,” Sakker says. “We’re not students. We work at the opera house. If I could akin it to anything it would be like a graduate program in a big corporation where you are doing an everyday job as well as a lot of professional development to groom you for better positions later on in your career.”

Samuel Dale Johnson in La scala di seta
Samuel Dale Johnson in La scala di seta (Picture: ROH/Mark Douet)

Samuel Dale Johnson, a kid from Nambour in Queensland, was barely out of the Conservatorium at Griffith University before he journeyed to London and endured the three-stage audition process.

“I had also been trying to break into some of the companies back home in Australia but unfortunately to no avail,” he told Daily Review.

Samuel Dale Johnson
Samuel Dale Johnson

“The Royal Opera House is kind of a mecca for opera singers. We all make the journey at some point in our lives … We come here because we know this is the pinnacle of business where the bar is set at its highest, all the best professionals, or all the best within our profession, are here. And you get to see opera as you can only dream of it being done back in Australia.”

It could be seen as an indictment: three Australians acclaimed as the best emerging artists in the world, two of whom at least had to leave Australia to earn a living from their art. Johnson — with upcoming roles in Madama ButterflyLa traviata and Guillaume Tell at Covent Garden — is philosophical: the Australian scene just isn’t big enough.

“It is a profession,” he says. “And the principal artists back home in Australia are completely within their right to take up a role every year and that’s part of what we do. Unfortunately, a lot of the younger singers get pushed to the side because of this process … So it’s only natural that we have to go abroad and hopefully will rise to the surface.”

Sakker agrees: “Really it is just a numbers game and the population of Australia is small enough that the percentage of people that enjoy regularly going to the opera is a lot less to have a sustainable industry for the artists involved in making it.”

Both precocious young men now have opportunities they could only dream of: Sakker is performing a song cycle for Covent Garden stablemates The Royal Ballet; Johnson’s turn in Guillaume Tell in June/July will be relayed around the world via cinema broadcast (including to his family in Australia). “You’ll try and get it out of your mind,” Johnson says, “but once you’ve come off you might go, ‘hey, I just performed to however many cinemas or however many people across the world’ and that’s pretty cool.”

Those operatically long London winters might make him miss the sunshine — “it would be nice to go out wearing some flip-flops every now and again” — but that’s pretty cool, indeed.

Image: Plácido Domingo and Samuel Sakker in I due Foscari (by ROH/Catherine Ashmore)

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