BEFORE SHE TAKES THE STAGE FOR THE INCREDIBLE SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE PREMIERE OF DEBORAH CHEETHAM AO’S PECAN SUMMER, WE CAUGHT UP WITH ALUMNA SHAUNTAI BATZKE TO FIND OUT MORE ABOUT HER PREPARATION.
This opera is an incredibly exciting one for a number of reasons. Tell me how you came to be involved in its development during the premiere performance in 2010?
In 2010 I was cast in Australia’s first Indigenous opera written and composed by an Indigenous person, Deborah Cheetham AO, with a great number of Indigenous performers, after completing a Spring Intensive the year prior with the Wilin Centre at the Victorian College of the Arts. What an incredible moving, emotional and thrilling experience it was. I was in the chorus and playing Elizabeth, a minor role but a major opportunity indeed! We gave the world premiere at Maroopna on Yorta Yorta country to an audience of elders who had actually experienced this extraordinarily resilient story of the Walk Off from Cummerragunja Mission. In the audience was also one of Australia’s most celebrated artists, the late Jimmy Little, who was a baby at the time of the walk off. It was through the Spring Intensives and world premiere of Pecan Summer that I gained new family members: we are all known to each other now as the Pecan Family. What a beautiful gift that has been.
That first performance of Pecan Summer was your operatic debut. How has your opera career evolved since then, and how did you come to be involved with Short Black Opera?
In 2009 my husband and I were invited to see the Gondwana Children’s Choir in Concert at Angel Place Recital Hall in Sydney. By serendipity, as it were, my husband saw Deborah Cheetham across the room during interval and said “I think I know her, let’s go say hello’, and pretty much the rest is history! Meeting Deborah that night led me to being accepted into the 2009 Wilin Spring Intensive at VCA, where I was introduced to the world of opera and classical music. I discovered music and an experience in singing I have never been introduced to before. Coming from a gospel, inspirational soul background, singing music emotively was the norm but learning to sing unamplified and with a resonance I was yet to discover was exciting!
After being bitten by the bug, as they say, we made the move to Melbourne the following February after my operatic debut in Pecan Summer. I became a Melbourne-based company member of Short Black Opera and started in the SBO development program. My studies included completing a Foundation of Performance in Music at VCA, a Bachelor of Music at Melbourne Conservatorium VCA & MCM and then two years at Melba Opera Trust under the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship and the Mel and Nina Waters Award. Since that first encounter with the world of opera and classical music back in 2009 and through completing many incredible programs, I have had the privilege of working with some of the world’s best in masterclasses and private coachings, have travelled to New York for further training, have collaborated with the finest artists and companies, and have sung in some of our most celebrated venues, including Government House where I sang ‘O Mio Babbino Caro’ at the Honourable Ms Linda Dessau’s inauguration as Victoria’s first female Governor. I am now heading back to New York and making my Sydney Opera House debut in September. Has my career evolved since making my operatic debut? Dramatically. And apparently, that is also a word that could describe my voice! I have been told I am leaning towards becoming a dramatic soprano. It has been a roller coaster ride and one that I want to continue for many years to come. The journey of continuing to find excellence in my craft and never coming to a place where I have ‘made it’, but instead continuing to strive for beauty, emotion and influence in my voice, performance and relationship has and will continue to be a great gift to me and hopefully to the rest of the world.
You will be making your Sydney Opera House debut with the upcoming Pecan Summer season, an enormous achievement for any Australian performer. What does it mean to be performing on such an esteemed Australian stage?
Firstly, to have come this far and be where I am now vocally and mentally as an aspiring opera singer, that itself has been a massive achievement. Throughout my journey I have had to face many turmoils, tribulations and triumphs behind the stage, too. I have found much sacrifice coincides with much success in my journey so far. So to get to a point where I will be making my Sydney Opera House debut in an Indigenous opera, telling stories of our people, our struggles and our triumphs, is one of the greatest privileges I will ever receive in this lifetime. My mentor and dear friend Deborah Cheetham and her partner in music and life, Ms Toni Lalich who is also my vocal coach, friend and mentor, have helped guide me down the operatic path from day one. To achieve this opportunity as a developing artist in their opera company, is a jewel and reveals the fruits of their investment.
The Sydney Opera House is one of the world’s most celebrated and coveted opera houses in the world. Pecan Summer will be performed in the Concert Hall, the very same room where Deborah first saw the great Dame Joan Sutherland perform and it was there where her love for opera and Joan was born. There are so many reasons to celebrate singing at the Opera House! Honestly, I am bubbling with excitement to share my craft with Sydney in this beautiful house.
Next month you are heading back to New York to participate in the Belle Arti Center for the Arts L.L.C’s esteemed program Cantos de las Americas! Tell us about the program and what you hope to get out of your time in New York.
Yes, it’s actually only nine days before I head back to one of the world’s most loved cities, New York, New York! I am so thrilled to have been asked back by the faculty at Belle Arti Center for the Arts. My experience there last year was one of great joy and development. The teachers were welcoming, encouraging and brought the best out in us within such a short time. Canto De Las Americas was a strong program for all levels of development. The focus was on technique, stage craft and acting. During the first session the teachers were able to articulate the areas I needed to work on straight away and each session drew me nearer to my true and free sounding voice. The nine-day workshop culminated in a live performance at Steinway & Sons, where we were able to showcase what we had worked on over the week. To have the privilege of working with such highly esteemed, internationally renowned technicians of voice and stage and be a part of Belle Arti Center for the Arts was an opportunity too good to miss! This workshop clarified my career aspirations, developed my voice and stagecraft and has helped create new relationships with both fellow artists from around the world and industry professionals based in New York.
You spent two years with Melba Opera Trust as the Harold Blair Scholar across 2014-2015. What were some of the highlights during your time in the program?
My highlights during 2014-2015 were of course my trip to New York, the masterclasses provided by Melba Opera Trust and performing as the featured soprano in RICERCAR with Present Tense Ensemble with Nate Gilkes whom I met during a workshop at Melba when he was a mentor in 2015. This year, I am no longer scholar, but as an alumna of Melba have been so grateful to have been invited back to participate in a weeklong coaching with the extraordinary Chuck Hudson, and a masterclass with the beautiful Daria Masiero. Both of these mentors have contributed greatly to my development.
Being a recipient of the Harold Blair Opera Scholarship has played a significant part in my career and I hope it has inspired other young singers as well. It was my desire to take the opportunity given and run with it, and I believe I now have the tools to pursue and attain a successful career in opera. With the support of Short Black Opera coupled with Melba Opera Trust, I am standing on some firm foundations. I will forever be grateful for the hours, words of encouragement, funds and opportunities provided to me from Melba Opera Trust and my personal benefactors who helped me in my development. I now hope others will take the opportunity and follow in my footsteps.