Soprano Jessica Harper on body image, realism, funding in opera

A CANDID INTERVIEW WITH THIS SYDNEY SOPRANO

BY SPENCER DARBY

 

I’d like to preface this interview with a disclaimer.

I am a friend and fan of Jessica Harper. I have worked with her in a professional capacity, and seeing her in action is what made me want to write about her.

The Sydney soprano has proven herself an all-in, dedicated, and deeply passionate artist, who is committed to creating great art every time she takes to the stage.

Jessica graduated from the ANU School of Music with First Class Honours in Classical Singing. She has been broadcast on ABC Classic FM. She has scored places in leading Australian awards, including coming runner up in the prestigious Herald Sun Aria competition, winning the Sydney Eisteddfod Arete Zantiotis Award and the Patricia Fagan Operatic Aria at the Cowra Eisteddfod.

Very few singers have the ability to capture audiences and their fellow colleagues like Jessica does. And for those starting out in their careers while working their way through their mid-20s, it can be even more challenging.

So settle in for this chat with Jessica, where she tells us what she thinks the future should hold for the opera industry in Australia.

 

What made you want to start singing?

I cannot ever remember a time when I didn’t want to be singing. I was that unbearable kid at school, home, everywhere who hummed and sang to myself (or anyone who would listen) all the time. The sensation of making sound has always been wonderful and fascinating for me, so a career as a performer was a no-brainer.

There is an increasing focus on aesthetics in the art world. How do you feel about the impact of personal image on your music in an era of continuous personal documentation – such as the rise of the selfie?

This is a tricky one because I think all singers need to have some level of self-love in order to function in this industry, and even just to present themselves in front of people. You have to believe that you have something special to share. Of course, from a publicity perspective, you have to tread the line of engaging in social media enough to keep people interested, but not so much that you become obnoxious.

Personal documentation can be invaluable– it helps others to understand your experience, and maybe decide whether or not they wish to go on an audition tour to a particular country, or study particular repertoire.

One is advised by one’s mentors on the importance of personal image – you dress a certain way when you perform and audition. In the modern world, we have to manage ourselves for the most part, and conduct ourselves as a product worth consuming.

Having seen you perform, you present your on-stage self and your characters with grace and passion, and a relentless musicality. Yet, you’ve told me many people feel it appropriate to comment on your physique. Would you mind elaborating?

You are very kind, thank you. Yes, it has been suggested to me from some industry professionals that it would help my chances of succeeding in this business if I were to lose weight.

One tries not to take these things personally, and instead see that sort of advice as a form of encouragement. But one also hopes to be ‘enough’ for colleagues and audiences alike by being stage-fit, having the necessary stamina to cope with the rehearsal period and performances, and being able perform the role and deliver the story with conviction.

We are living in a time when humans are increasingly sexualised because that is the quickest way to sell a product. Unfortunately, this manner of thinking has now seeped very deeply into the world of opera, and all the women are expected to be slight, and the men buff.

Don’t get me wrong – I think that physical health is an absolutely vital part of being an opera singer; you simply cannot pull off the Olympic feat of singing an entire opera role, a recital, or any type of performance if you are not physically healthy and fit. Where we have lost our way – both in the opera world, and more broadly in society – is in acknowledging that healthy humans come in different shapes and sizes.

The moment opera houses start casting people because they ‘look right’, or because they are younger and therefore cheaper labour, is the moment the artform dies. Younger and younger voices are being cast in roles far too heavy for them, and not only does that destroy what could be a Stradivarius of an instrument, it denies the lushness of storytelling that comes with a mature voice and person.

Of course, this doesn’t happen all the time, but we seem to be seeing it more and more, which worries me.

Do you see a correlation between dramatic realism and a person’s physical appearance? In an artform like opera, are audiences capable of suspending their disbelief of a character’s age, gender, race or physical appearance, if the singer’s artistic interpretation is truthful?

Absolutely, audiences can suspend disbelief! You won’t see an actual 17-year-old sing Madama Butterfly, for example, and nor should you. Puccini wrote for a far more mature instrument.

I saw a wonderful testament to this when I watched Bell Shakespeare’s production of Richard III recently, as the title role was played by a woman (Kate Mulvany – look her up and go see her perform. You’re welcome), instead of a man as is written in the text. This casting choice both transformed and had no effect whatsoever on the story – as it was still about how humans crave power and victory. But the gender definitions were barely visible in the context, and it was outstanding. You saw them all as people in their own right, not as wife or husband, or daughter or father, etc.

What are your limitations on stage? You appear to have a no-holds-barred approach to performing, but where would you draw the line? Swearing? Violence? Nudity?   

I don’t think I have a line anymore, really. I can’t stand it if anything is gratuitous, but if it serves the art and the story then I’ll pretty much do anything. I do draw the line at actual violence though – stage combat exists for a reason, and I don’t think I could live with myself if I accidentally hurt a colleague because I was careless with that sort of thing.

Thinking about budgetary constraints, programming, and attendance, how do you see the current landscape of art music in Australia?

There is indeed a deplorable lack of funding to the arts in Australia. While it’s great that there is so much art everywhere, often the actual artists aren’t getting paid for their services. You can’t devalue people like that, especially when the artists have probably put thousands upon thousands of hours and dollars into their education and nurturing their craft every day.

Australia needs to follow Europe’s lead in terms of the government subsidising classical music performances so that companies can afford to offer $5 or $10 tickets. That would solve so many problems on its own. That, and I would love to see three to five  minutes of every news program dedicated to a brief arts news rundown. There is a great chunk of sporting news already, but why can’t we have both? The ABC certainly used to do that in the recent past. This would normalise a dialogue about culture and music for the entire nation.

That said, while we seem to read a lot of doom and gloom in the papers these days, I actually think we have an absolutely thriving – albeit, unpaid for the vast majority – classical scene, and certainly in Sydney. I love that you can find classical music literally anywhere around Sydney on any given weekend – it’s wonderful.

What other changes in the industry would you like to see?

I crave the day when it’s socially acceptable for everyone to wear whatever they wish while performing and attending concerts. While I love the sense of respect that comes with dressing up to perform in and attend the opera, it does create barriers for many people in the population, and can make us look ‘elitist’, which isn’t the point. Music is for everyone. It is the most unbearably human and beautiful thing – it should be accessible and welcoming to all.

 

Learn more about Jessica Harper on her website. You can also catch her at the Sydney Eisteddfod Opera Scholarship final (16 July), Sydney Eisteddfod Opera and Arts Support Final (21 July), German Australian Opera Grant Semi-final (11 August – Melbourne), and the Sydney Song Prize Final (13 September).

 


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