Q & A with Katherine Wiles of Opera Australia’s full time chorus
Author: Teagan Lowe Date Posted:16 April 2021
Hello to all the wonderful readers =D
This week I wanted to treat you all to a little further insight into our wonderful Arts industry by interviewing Katherine Wiles of Opera Australia’s full time chorus. Katherine and I have worked together on many shows now on and off for over a decade and I was thrilled that she agreed to answer these questions for you all.
I hope you get a lot out of this Q & A, and if you have any further questions for Katherine, myself or perhaps future ideas of who you would like to see interviewed here, let me know in the comments below.
Interview with Katherine Wiles…..
- You’re a long serving chorus member with Opera Australia....Talk us through the journey that lead you to this point - is your family musically inclined or performers also? How did your journey as a performer start?
My Mother used to sing growing up so I think I must have been gifted my voice from her. Saying that, family on my Father’s side also learnt musical instruments. I had always sung around the house growing up and was involved in school choirs throughout my childhood. I came second in a school singing competition when I was 12 and shortly after that I started singing lessons. I suppose it just developed from there. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do when I left school so I joined the workforce. I eventually studied for a Bachelor of Music (Honours) Performance at Auckland University and then I took a one way ticket to the UK. I auditioned for and studied for a two years Masters (Opera) at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland. After five years as a freelancer, I decided to move closer to home and try my luck in Australia. My first contract in Australia was the leading role in the opera ‘The Elixir of Love’ with State Opera of South Australia. Shortly before that contract, there were a number of factors that allowed me to secure my first seasonal contract with Opera Australia, and shortly after that I was offered full-time. For me, it was definitely being in the right place at the right time.
- Where did you train for your amateur and professional work? Did you enjoy the experiences of these institutions?
I grew up performing at the Hamilton Operatic Society in New Zealand and I have so many fond memories of this time. No payment, but pure fun and discovery in a supportive environment without the pressures of the professional Industry. I then started singing in the Chorus with New Zealand Opera when I moved to Auckland. They only used to present three Operas a year so it wasn’t regular employment, but I was able to work with this Company alongside my University studies. After travelling to the UK and completing my study, I began performing with small Companies around the UK, and started being cast in principal roles with New Zealand Opera. Alongside the full stage productions, I sang many oratorios and concerts throughout the years which offered me a platform to gain more experience and widen my repertoire. Every contract I secured was a great experience. Some more than others, but they all allowed me to work on my craft, learn from my mistakes, challenge myself, and achieve personal goals along the way. You learn from every performing experience, whether it be good or bad. You learn what to take away, what to perfect and what to leave behind.
- Did you always envision yourself as an opera singer?
No, not really. Early on I didn’t even know what it was, and my voice was late to develop so it wasn’t something I was working towards when I was younger. It wasn’t until I had taken singing lessons for some years, that my voice started to suit more operatic repertoire. To be honest, it was a natural progression. Our muscles change as we grow, and the voice is essentially muscle tissue. I try and describe it as this. If you are an athlete you may have a certain predisposition to be either a long-distance runner or a sprinter. That may be as a result of your muscular structure and the way your muscles have developed over years of training, or maybe it’s in your DNA. I liken that to the vocal chords. I think it was predestined for me too. I’m not sure, but I do miss belting out a good musical theatre number!
- What have been some of your career highlights thus far?
So many. Of course, being engaged to sing principal roles with New Zealand Opera and perform for my home crowd, singing every night at the Sydney Opera House, and being directed by Dame Julie Andrews for the Australian Tour of ‘My Fair Lady’, and the moments I have had my family in the audience. These are the obvious ones, but some of my favourites have also been little intimate concerts or events that for some reason pull at your heartstrings. Singing a performance of The Elixir of Love in a
Women’s Prison outside London, and being thanked by an inmate at the end of the performance, where she said while watching the Opera, she felt like a free woman. Watching the reactions on people’s faces as we perform. Teaching vocal exercises to my Mum’s Parkinson’s Choir a few years ago, or judging singing competitions and seeing the face of a young child when they are awarded First Place and their family jumping up, crying and clapping like crazy.
- What do you wish someone had told you at the start of your career?
So many things! Learning never ends. There will be highs and lows, lots of lows, where you need to brush yourself off and get back up again. That there are many ways to be successful in your field. Try to walk your own path. Don’t compare yourself to others - though this is difficult and we all do it, but it is a life lesson.
Say thank you, be gracious and grateful. Enjoy the moment and give the gift. Julie Andrews said to us one day, “the ballet offstage is just as important as the ballet onstage”. Treat everyone with respect - it takes a village to put on a show and we are all equal.
- What is the most / least enjoyable part of your job?
The least enjoyable part of my job is putting my hair in pin curls every night and then taking out all those pins at the end of the show. I detest Bobby Pins - ridiculous I know. Sometimes the hours can be relentless which can get exhausting. A full time schedule doesn’t always allow for you to attend important family and friend events, so you use your spare time very carefully to maintain outside friendships and relationships. There are so many enjoyable aspects from performing and hearing a live orchestra every night playing exquisitely. I relish being in the Chorus and standing amongst my colleagues who are all tremendous. We certainly create some incredible musical moments, it can reduce me to tears. The enjoyment of making this wonderful music with some very dear friends is so rewarding.
- What are common misconceptions or myths surrounding the opera / performing world?
I think there are quite a few people that see Opera as elitist, that is an art form they may not be able to understand, that it is old-fashioned and because it is in a foreign language they won’t understand it. There are surtitles in English so the audience can follow along with the story. The technology used in some operas today is groundbreaking which makes them anything but old-fashioned. Opera Australia and various discount ticket outlets do offer tickets at competitive prices so the opportunity to experience Opera is much more accessible than it used to be.
- How do you manage nerves for performance?
I think I’d be concerned if I didn’t get nervous. We are able to turn our nerves into positive energy and I think it gives us the fuel we need to get through a performance. A lot of singing is reliant on good breath control, so you need to learn to calm your breathing and settle it, otherwise it will interfere with your vocal production. It does depend on what I am performing. I don’t usually get nervous singing in the chorus, but I can if the music is technically difficult and I want to get it right. I’m always nervous before singing a principal role, and I do tend to have a routine once I get to the theatre, and this repetition calms me. There was a time in the UK that I suffered from quite serious performance anxiety. It just seemed to creep up from nowhere and started playing havoc with my mind. It tended to physicalise itself into a feeling of nausea, so every time when I was on stage and was about to sing, I would have this strong physical sensation of wanting to vomit. I found it helped if I chewed gum or had a mint in my mouth to detract from the sensation. I never let it beat me and I struggled through performances. Eventually the feeling disappeared and thankfully it has never returned thank goodness, because it was terrifying.
- What, in your eyes, separates good performers from great performers?
I think what separates good from great is something that can’t really be taught. You can see it in a child at a dance concert where you just can’t take your eyes off them, or you are moved by a vocal performance because the singer has taken the words of the song and the music off the page and performed from the heart. It’s the X Factor I suppose. I do think you either have it or you don’t. Stage craft can be learnt and perfected and give you the foundations required to be a successful performer, but stage presence is something that comes from within. Maybe when we experience that, we are seeing someone do exactly what they were put on this earth to do. They are ‘home’ and their entire being is involved in the performance.
- What cities / countries provide the most opportunities for aspiring opera singers?
I have only studied and performed in Australasia and the UK, and the teachings in these countries, the foundations they offer and the opportunities are immense. Being from ‘Downunder’ we feel as though we need to travel to Europe or America to extend our opportunities and skills, but due to the recent Pandemic, I hope people realise the opportunities open to them in their own backyard. We should learn as much as possible from the many Industry professionals we have here in Australia. I have always considered Europe the pinnacle due to the many Opera Houses it offers and the ability to immerse yourself in the many languages we sing in. To surround yourself in that culture is the only way to really learn those languages.
- What do you do vocally & physically to keep yourself “show fit”?
Ummmmmm, probably not as much as I should. In terms of vocally fit, I hum every morning before going to work. I see this as a way of warming up the muscle, just like a dancer does stretches and barre work, I do humming and some vocal exercises (though not the latter every day). Physically, I am not the fittest person around, but I try and walk as much as I can - but I can always do more! I have recently got back into Pilates and I think that will be essential for my body as I’m getting a little older. My body does suffer from singing on raked stages, wearing heels, corsets, etc so I do try and be kind to myself and have regular massages, and I’m usually at the Physio every couple of weeks!
- What advice do you have for kids who want to be performers / opera singers.
Do it! I think the most important thing for children is to enjoy whatever singing or dancing they choose to take up. Of course, practice and try to do your best. If you are travelling this journey with friends, encourage each other and learn from each other. Congratulate each other’s successes and give hugs when things may not go the way they had hoped. Not everyone is going to make a career out of singing or dancing, but the fulfilment it brings into your life is wonderful and for that reason alone, embrace it and have fun along the way. It’s a wild and wonderful ride!
- You were fortunate to work with the great Dame Julie Andrews on ‘My Fair Lady’ what were your highlights from that experience and others like it?
To work with Dame Julie for nine weeks was definitely a huge dream come true for me. She is one of the most gracious, humble and appreciative human beings I have ever met and so many people could learn from her grace. She taught us to give the gift, to send it out and tell the story. She taught us that every single word we sing has purpose and is there for a reason - never skim over the small notes. Every single rehearsal was a Masterclass in everything Theatre. I wanted to give 150% in every single rehearsal and performance she was present for, and I wanted to be the best performer in every aspect I could possibly be. She has a wicked sense of humour, an infectious giggle, and told the most wonderful stories. I can honestly say that I enjoyed every single one of the 281 performances I did of ‘My Fair Lady’. I was so proud of the show we created, the history behind it, and I felt a sense of responsibility to Julie to give of my best every night. I will never forget this experience.
- Are you planning to be in any other musical theatre shows in the future? Or is there a particular show / role you have always dreamed of performing?
Regarding the Musical Theatre question, I never thought I would get to do a ‘proper’ musical again before ‘My Fair Lady’ came along. I was fortunate enough to do ‘A Little Night Music’ for Opera Australia which I thoroughly enjoyed, and I enjoy doing operetta (light Opera). Who knows what the future may hold. Because I am operatic, vocally speaking, I would need to pick and choose that the musical was right for me and not compromise my voice. Never say never though! I have always wanted to sing Tatiana in ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and would love the opportunity to sing Despina again in ‘Cosi fan Tutte’. I desperately wanted to be Liesel in ‘The Sound of Music’ growing up and The Narrator in ‘Joseph and his Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’. Obviously I missed the boat on both of those which was devastating so I’m not going to wish too much. I will be grateful for whatever roles come my way in the future and just enjoy the opportunity to bring them to life.
- What would you say are greatest strengths and weaknesses? And how have you used these to your advantage throughout your career?
I think my greatest strengths were to never give up and to take chances. I left New Zealand on a one way ticket, with no contract or scholarship in my hand or no entry into an Academy. I arrived in the UK and was determined to make it happen. Never in my life did I ever think about giving up singing. I opened myself up to new opportunities which then opened new doors and new experiences. I moved to Australia only knowing two people and the second move is always easier than the first. I have done my best to believe in myself and my ability. I knew I was never going to have the big solo career, but I knew I was good at my craft and I had something to offer. I joined the Opera Australia Chorus full time in 2007 and it is the best thing I ever did. I am living my dream of singing for a living and making my hobby my job.
My weaknesses. I think this is a hard one to answer. I don’t like to think that I have many. When things have been difficult or I have been unsuccessful over the years in gaining contracts, I have just picked myself up and kept going and I see that as a strength. I’d like to think that whatever could be seen as a weakness I have turned it around and used it to my advantage. I wish I had learnt the piano from an early age, so I see that as a personal weakness as it is much harder to learn as an adult. A weakness I think we all have is our inner voice planting doubt and uncertainty into our minds regarding our craft. I think we all need to talk to ourselves with much more kindness, support and self-love.
- Talent or hard work - Or both? What do you think it takes to succeed in the performing arts industry?
Definitely an element of both, and sometimes, just being in the right place at the right time. Absolutely you need to have the talent, and you need to have a good work ethic and apply yourself as diligently as you can. The hard work pays off and so does the ability to keep yourself open to new ideas and the realisation that you spend this entire journey learning. We can never learn enough and our talent grows as we grow. We can always do better. I think we need to be thick-skinned and be able to roll with the punches. But we also need to be able to learn from our mistakes and accept criticism - be it positive or negative. I think at the end of the day we need to be adaptable, keep an open mind and always be willing to give everything a go, whether that be a new concept or a new way of interpreting something. Perseverance is important and self-belief. Success comes in so many different forms, and everyone’s interpretation of that is different and that’s what makes us unique.
- Have you ever experienced an on-stage catastrophe or something that made you laugh hysterically?
Teagan, you know me. I am a complete corpser on stage. Dame Judi Dench calls it “exquisite agony” and that is exactly what it is. When you know you’re not meant to be laughing but you just can’t control it. I try to think of sad situations or dead animals or something so sad but sometimes it just doesn’t work. There are too many examples to list here and sometimes all it takes is a look from someone, a piece of jewellery disintegrating on the stage, or if I’m over tired. It is the most unprofessional ailment to be a victim of, but it is real and it is something I have battled with my entire life. I never get it in a scene that is meant to be funny - it’s always in the serious moments. I admire those colleagues of mine who never crack a smile - I don’t know how they do it, but I have come to the conclusion that that is an unreachable goal for me.
- For people who perhaps aren’t a fan of opera, is there a particular album, aria or show that you would recommend that might change their minds?
This is a hard one because everyone’s musical tastes are so different. I think there are definitely a few operas that are worth seeing - The Big Five, like La Traviata, Tosca, Carmen, La Boheme and Madam Butterfly. Opera has been used in advertising campaigns and in movies for years so people have been exposed to the art form without them probably realising it. It’s always good to start with something that is popular and you may even recognise some of the tunes. I say just give it a go, don’t spend a lot of money but allow yourself to be taken for a ride. It’s only three hours out of your life if you are experiencing it for the first time. If you like it great - you might then find yourself giving another one a go. If you don’t, that’s okay too. At least you opened yourself up to the challenge and tried something new.
- And of course I have to ask this...is it really possible to shatter a glass with your voice?
Yes you can and I can say that from personal experience. This happened many years ago. I was in a rehearsal for a concert on behalf of Opera New Zealand. The event was held in a spacious ballroom at a Hotel in Auckland and all the tables had finally been dressed and the staff of the Hotel were completing the finishing touches to the room. I stood on the stage and proceeded to sing an aria from La Boheme. When I reached a particular note not very far into the aria, there was a small pop sound and an explosion that lasted a millisecond. All of a sudden the staff were running towards one of the centre tables. I realised I had completely shattered the large vase which was the centrepiece of the table - it had been decorated and I can’t now remember with what. But, the vase had not just cracked but exploded into tiny pieces. Apparently, it requires a combination of a few elements. They think this was the last vase out of the dishwasher so it may still have been warm. Every object has a resonant frequency which is the natural frequency at which something vibrates. To be successful at shattering glass, the singer’s voice has to match that exact frequency or pitch and the object needs to have some tiny defects, so in my case, a possible hairline crack or chip? I did feel sorry for the staff as they had to strip the table, vacuum and redress the table again. I was pretty chuffed though and everyone around me was pretty astounded, least to say myself. I don’t think it will ever happen again, but that moment was definitely bucket list material.
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