Annie Aitken on portraying Nellie Melba and the rigours of an eight show week

Australian superstar Dame Nellie Melba was, and still remains, one of our countries most celebrated song birds. But behind the glitz and glamour of every success story, hides many trials and tribulations: especially in the 1880’s.

Annie Aitken Headshot
Annie Aitken | Photo by Chris Parker

I got to sit down and chat with a new rising superstar, Annie Aitken who is currently starring along side Emma Matthews in Nicholas Christo and Johannes Luebbers’ Melba. I got the inside scoop on portraying such an iconic Australian legend, process and routine for the eight show week, and why this show is so relevant now. And it really is. I’d like to thank Annie for taking sometime out to chat with me. And laugh. She’s a character and treat to chat to.

If you haven’t already, get along to the Hayes Theatre and see this show. It’s a must for all music theatre and opera buffs alike.

So Melba. A score combining Musical Theatre and Opera. What preparation was needed for you to combine the two forms?

In this show I stick mainly to music theatre material and Emma takes the bulk of the Arias. The way that the show is written, I show her [Nellie Melba’s] private life and who she was as an individual out of the spotlight, and Emma portrays her public life. I perform smaller parts of the arias in the show, which I’ve never had to do before.

For the show I had a classical singing teacher who helped me with the Italian and the technique required for the Arias. I also worked closely with my music theatre coach – the material is all based on a classical sound so it’s not an entirely huge shift in style throughout. Its been a unique challenge for me because not only am I incorporating a different language and working through operatic repertoire, the amount of scene to song work is huge. I’ll go from a high stakes scene into one of my numbers, back into dialogue and then into a second number and so forth.

This score in particular has required me to use most of the registers throughout my voice; theres a lot of coloratura work, I use my soprano range, my mix as well as belting so its a pretty challenging thing. It’s more so about making the right choice in where I want to place things. It’s about finding ways to navigate where is best for each particular night.

Emma Matthews, Annie Aitken and Genevieve Lemon in Melba
Emma Matthews, Annie Aitken and Genevieve Lemon in Melba | Photo by Clare Hawley

Tackling a role such as Nellie Melba is no easy task. How has it been portraying such an iconic Australian artist? And what kind of prep went into your character development for the role?

I suppose anyone who’s every played a role based on someone in history would know that it comes with a sense of pressure. We actually had someone in the audience recently who was a descendent of Nellie and had met her just before she passed away at St Vincent’s hospital. Apart from this individual, there wouldn’t be many people seeing the show who have met Nellie in person or have had first hand insight into her life. I suppose that element takes a bit of pressure off me personally – everything I’ve read and researched is only one perspective of who Nellie was. But it’s kind of a nice thing to have all this information about your character given to you or to choose from. That’s the plus side of portraying someone in public light: there’s so much information out there! I haven’t struggled to create the character at this particular time in her life.

She was living in very different times to know. The expectations on women – their roles in society were so vastly different, not to mention the many many many more restrictions placed on them. During her time in Paris, Nellie got divorced. That was hardly heard of back then! It was such a scandal making front page news. Things we normalise today were nothing short of scandalous back then so context played a huge part in my research.

It’s set in the 1880’s so finding the right balance of life for a woman back then was important. Christo and Luebbers’ Melba is based on the book I AM MELBA by Anna Blainey, but Nellie actually wrote her own book based on her memoirs which gave a very interesting insight into her personal life. This really helped me in the characterisation of her life behind the scenes. But there’s also a mini series and a couple of documentaries so yeah, I haven’t been short on stimulus.Interestingly enough a lot of the researched I gathered conflicted with each other, even in terms of story line and events. The biggest thing for me was to take what I needed for our story of Melba, and the small snippet of her life we’ve decided to tell.

You’ve mentioned before you have a particular passion in Australian works, particularly new Aussie pieces. Was it a collaborative process in the rehearsal room?

I love Australian works. We got to do a lot of that at VCA which is where I think I found my passion for it. Not just because you’re working on stimulus that use places you’ve lived, and people you’ve met, but I suppose also because we’re seeing an increase of new Aussie works right now, meaning you get to put your own stamp on the work.

I’m about to start work on Muriel’s Wedding with STC and even working on James Millar’s A Little Touch of Chaos. That particularly was a collaborative process and I had a voice in the rehearsal room. Many of my cohort’s ideas were used in the actual performance. You just don’t get the luxury of that in other well established shows. It’s exciting.

With Melba, there were instances where lines were being changed and exerts included very close to opening and you just have to role with it. It’s not about you, it’s about the character and the show. It’s for the better of the entire piece and no reflection on you. We had a bit of that with Melba once it was on the floor. Its all apart of rehearsals and it’s an important and integral part of being a performer.

I loved having the fabulous Nick Christo in the room. It’s not often you get to have the writer in the room with you so to be able to have him there as a reference point was invaluable. But with new works it can also be a challenge. When you have something that is new on its feet, a lot of rehearsal time can be used in making changes and seeing if they work, and with such short rehearsal periods, it’s hard to factor that in sometimes.

Working along side Emma Matthews. Now that must have been exciting? How did you feel starring along side one of Australia’s most celebrated Soprano’s?

We’re very lucky to have Emma. Not only is she an extraordinary artist, she’s an incredible person. She would come in at 10am and sound just as amazing as she does on all of her recordings! She has the most amazing instrument. But, Emma is also the most humble and generous person, as well as having a brilliant sense of humour – which she won’t mind me saying. She’s just embraced the whole experience from the very beginning.

For me it’s been a very interesting insight into the opera world. It’s quite different from a music theatre rehearsal room. For me never having worked in opera it’s been a really nice way to get an introduction in to the opera world, but also vice versa, I think this has been a great chance for her to see how a music theatre performance works and runs. I know both of us have found different things challenging and exciting but she’s just embraced them all with open arms.

You’re well into your run of Melba at the Hayes Theatre Co. What does a normal day consist of for you to ensure you’re in peak condition for each performance?

Normal can be difficult because everyday is different! Double show days can be particularly challenging because it’s such a big show in every sense of the word. I really don’t leave the stage for the entirety of Act 1 and Act 2 so a ‘normal’ day will always have plenty of vocal rest. My Sunday’s off I don’t speak at all – which is a big challenge for me!

I’m doing audition prep for things coming up so it’s also a balance of preparing for other work but still keeping yourself fighting fit for each performance. So a couple of hours before the show I’ll do an extensive vocal warm up accompanied by some yoga practise and stretch, making sure I warm up all the resonators! Is that a bit wanky?

MM: Nahh! People want to know! Do you stay away from any certain foods? Dairy products or caffeine etc, being such a classical vocally charged show?

AA: Well, I’m intolerant to lactose, fructose and glucose. So yes. But I pack my own meals, just to be safe. If I do take the chance during shows to eat out, if I was to have something that upset my stomach, it just wouldn’t be fun. In regards to other prep, I steam an awful lot! Throughout the day, always steaming. I find it very helpful. Getting enough sleep. You work on a different schedule in a show so when you do get home, you’ll still be buzzing so I try and sleep in when I can to make up those hours. Also everyday I try and immerse myself in something about Nellie to get a little dote of inspiration before each show.

Because the role is so big and with so much material, I would usually try and go over each number and every bit of dialogue before the show to make sure I’ve done it that day. But because there is so much, I try and make sure I’ve done the more challenging parts of the show before my call time – maybe more so for piece of mind, but as long as I’ve revised any tricky bits the night before I just have to trust it’s all there! Once you’re out there and you’re on, you just have to go with it, and listen! It’ll be different every night but we have a great connection as an ensemble so you take what’s been offered and role with it.

With sellout performances each night I have no doubt this fantastic production will tour. Why do you think Melba should be seen by Australian audiences today?

Well! I’ll use what our writer told us on our first day, I apologise if I’m paraphrasing here. But her story really is extremely relevant today. I think it always will be because she’s a female protagonist, who is fighting against a patriarchal society, and is subject to expectations on what women’s roles should be. She is an example of a success story and someone who has fought her way to achieve what she wanted. And there are other musicals here in Australia coming up that have women in the spotlight fighting and finding their own path. She WAS Australia’s first celebrity. But her life was filled with so much pain, and she faced very difficult choices. This story covers family, it covers career, it covers love. I think her story should be told.

MM: You have to what you have to do, right? Especially here. And especially then.

AA: Exactly. Especially here. And especially then. It’s a much smaller industry compared to overseas and I hope people take that away from seeing Melba. If she didn’t make the choices she did, she wouldn’t have become not only the artist, but the person she eventually became. I hope audiences understand that watching this production of Melba.

MM: Brilliant.

And finally, dream role?!

A tricky question! I have, many a dream role. How many roles can one woman play! I suppose all the roles I’d love to play are strong driven females, intelligently written with good writing and women who have a backbone, and have strength.

The reason I fell in love with music theatre? Well there was a young blonde nerdy girl who was obsessed with Kristin Chenoweth who, well, blended a classical sound with a contemporary one and was able to play the comedic roles as well as the serious ones. Glinda the Good Witch is definitely a role I’d love to play. I may be too tall (Never, Annie, never!), but it is a dream of mine. Her performing, “Glitter And Be Gay” from Candide as well, I suppose those kind of roles really inspire me. I HAVE to play a Sondheim leading lady. That is a must. He writes such incredible roles for women. I’d be remised if I didn’t play one of Sondheim’s ladies. And a secret bucket list role of mine for a bit later on is Mama Rose from Gypsy.

And no doubt all of those she shall. Melba is playing at the Hayes Theatre until the 9th of September. Tickets are almost sold out so get in quick. Visit Hayestheatre.com.au

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Author

Raised in rural Queensland, Matthew would use his three minutes of shower time to rehearse a wide variety of audition material. After multiple fights over water usage and noise complaints, Matt made the move to Perth to study at WAAPA’s Music Theatre Course. During his time in Perth, he likes to think he perfected the art of quick changes, last minute line learning, and a variety of accents. Time off for him means hitting the beach with friends, a glass of wine, or perhaps the combination of both. Matt is currently playing Rudy in the Australian tour of Cabaret and will play Paris in Jon English’s Rock Opera, Paris: a Rock Odyssey in July. Follow Matthew on Instagram at: @matt_manahan

Matthew has written 4 articles on AussieTheatre | Read more articles by

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Annie Aitken on portraying Nellie Melba and the rigours of an eight show week
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