A performer’s versatility is not only important in maintaining an interesting and rewarding career, but crucial in being able to continue as a working artist. Yet being able to swing from screen to musicals to opera requires a wide set of skills and techniques, as well as the ability to overcome preconceptions that artists can and should remain in one field; a stigma that is (thankfully) slowly being overcome. Not many people can pull this off. But this woman can.
Antoinette Halloran is a great example of an artist who can swing between genres easily, with a long and varied career in opera and music theatre.
Antoinette is currently wowing audiences across New Zealand as Mrs Lovett in New Zealand Opera’s season of Sweeney Todd, after her Helpmann-nominated performance in last year’s Melbourne season.
Among a long line of the great opera roles (including the title roles in Tosca and Madama Butterfly and Mimì in La bohème), her CV includes a number of great musicals (Sunday in the Park with George, A Little Night Music, Forbidden Broadway).
Apart from her successful career, Antoinette’s immense generosity, wisdom and wicked sense of humour mean she has quickly become one of my favourite people I have ever worked with. Not only was inviting her on this ‘Coffee with…’ column a means to hear about her wisdom and experience in the opera and music theatre worlds, but also just a good excuse to spend more time with this wonderful woman.
A career in opera or music theatre
Graduating from ‘Opera School’ at 20, Antoinette found that there were potentially more roles for someone so young in the music theatre rather than opera scene.
“My voice just wasn’t ready to do operatic roles. I wasn’t the sort of girl that could go into the Despinas and the Johannas, the girly roles, because I always had a truck of a voice. It was really unusual because I’d walk into an audition and blow the panel away with this wild, crazy instrument that wasn’t quite cooked. So then I found my way into Music Theatre Land.”
“I never really put big lines between the two. I learnt my classical technique like a ballet dancer does, and I used that technique to do everything else that I do.
“I suppose the biggest thing for me is not to put up any barriers. Not even to say this is music theatre now, because even in some elements of Mrs Lovett I’ll occasionally sneak in an ‘opera note’. So I think the thing I always have in my head is that, ‘I’m a singer who also happened to be classically trained.’ But just like a dancer who happened to be classically trained, you can do many different styles from that basis. If you started as an amazing tap dancer, that doesn’t mean you can’t do hip-hop. I think a foundation of some sort of solid technique is important.”
“I’ve often wondered whether my career isn’t what it should have been if I had just done Opera. I’ve done the main roles in the main houses of Australia and New Zealand, and some in Asia. But I haven’t broached Europe or America and therefore haven’t had the real international opera career.
That’s because of the draw of the other kind of theatre that always pulls me away from that straight classical path. I have come to the conclusion that I am a much happier artist with the sort of chamber career that allows me to go to almost every facet of performance. So that’s my happy place. In fact, that place was born in me very early on. It’s not something that’s come of circumstance; it’s come because I’m an actor-singer/singer-actor, more than just a classical opera singer.”
When she was first entering the industry, Antoinette also describes the increased number of opportunities for Australian opera singers compared to the amount available now.
Regarding the topical discussions in the Australian music theatre industry about imported artists, Antoinette says that you can “multiply that by 20, and that’s the opera world.
“85% of the operatic lead roles go to internationals. That leaves 15% of roles for Australians, with about 2% left that they’re actually eligible for. So that’s what’s happened in opera.
“And I can see the Music Theatre contingent worrying about it in their industry, and so they should, if there are people here in the country that can do the role.”
Using a microphone
While the lines between the form of opera and music theatre continue to blur, the use of enhanced amplification (or not) seems to remain one of the major differences between the genres. And it takes a skilled performer to fully utilise the advantages of both possibilities.
“With a role like Mrs Lovett, there are no two ways about it. You have to use a mic. But I love that it means I can whisper and do tiny floats on notes, or do the growly/belt-y stuff without thinking about it getting to the back of the theatre.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean using a mic allows you to employ more vocal features though.
“You can find more ‘actor-ly’ colours on a mic, but when you’re doing a role like [Madame] Butterfly or Tosca, the colours you can find using your own body without amplification are really rich as well. It’s a different palate, I suppose.”
“Saying that, there’s more of a technique required without a mic. Singing to a 3,000-seat theatre outdoors, like I did in Italy for Torre del Largo without a mic; that’s an extreme sport. So you have to get the voice right in the mask of your face and use a lot of air to get the sound out there.”
“As long as people keep the theatres unenhanced, I’m really hoping that continues. But I know more and more theatres are being acoustically enhanced with sound, and that’s what’s worrying me about Opera at the moment. That we’re losing the whole reason why it is wonderful, and that’s because it’s not acoustically enhanced. And that’s why it is different to music theatre. And both of them are as legitimate as each other and both of them have their place.
“But when we start enhancing Opera and losing the immediacy of the unenhanced voice on the audience member, then that will be the death of Opera.”
Stylistic acting approaches
When asked if there’s a difference in her approach when acting in an opera rather than a musical, Antoinette responds that “it depends on the role. The style of the music and the style of the piece dictate the performance. For instance, when I did the Stepmother in Into the Woods, it wasn’t dissimilar to doing Fata Morgana in the The Love for Three Oranges. They were both these crazy, alpha-female, witch types, and I drew from the same role really.”
“It’s like acting for screen; you need to know where the camera is to know how far to pitch the performance. And I think with opera, where you are unenhanced acoustically, and you are playing bold emotions, you can pitch the drama really high.
“Whereas in our gorgeous scene in Sweeney Todd (‘Not While I’m Around’ between Tobias and Mrs Lovett), it’s almost like the camera comes right into us and we can be very small in that scene, and that’s what makes it so beautiful, I think.
“And there are other times, like the final scene, where Mrs Lovett is enormous and the camera pulls to the back of the theatre at that point, and you’re giving it your all.”
Antoinette really supports the developing viewpoint that there shouldn’t be such a difference between an ‘opera-actor’ or a ‘music theatre-actor’.
“The thing that I would impress on everyone is to take people individually [rather than as a genre-aligned performer]. It also depends on experience. If you get a singer that’s only ever done opera, it’s going to be really tricky for them to pull a music theatre piece out of their bum. [Sweeney Todd] being a case in point though- all the artists here and the ones in the Melbourne season, are opera singers that are extraordinary actors.”
Swinging between both genres
While the versatility of an artist who can perform in both opera and music theatre should be celebrated, Antoinette describes the unfortunate stigma that still exists against those artists.
“Even when I’m singing Mrs Lovett and people come and see that, the opera world would find it very difficult to understand that I can also sing Madama Butterfly. You are sort of cutting off your nose to spite your face in some respects. I had a repetiteur at Opera Australia say to me, ‘how can you expect to be cast as Tosca when you’re singing Mrs Lovett?’ And it’s disappointing. Just because you can cross over, it doesn’t mean you can’t cross back.”
Two days before joining us in New Zealand to start Sweeney Todd rehearsals, Antoinette had been in China performing as Tosca. While it has taken years of experience and training to be able to readjust to the different styles, she describes it as something that now only takes a few days for her voice to settle into.
“It’s like singing We Will Rock You vs. The Sound of Music. Most music theatre artists can probably do both. It’s just to do with technique and placement of the voice.”
“I think the two worlds (of opera and music theatre) are very much closer than people think.
“Particularly these days, more theatre directors are crossing over into opera and demanding a more ‘actor-ly’ performance from everybody. Really, the most important thing is to do with realising the score and script in the best possible way you can.”