It has been nearly two years since soprano Alexandra Flood has performed in her home country of Australia.
Since the rising star launched her global career in 2014, Flood made a pledge to return home annually to both perform in Australia and share her experiences with fellow emerging artists. The former Melba Opera Trust scholar has regularly mentored young opera singers to prepare them to traverse the complexities of an international opera career. But when the pandemic hit in 2020, the soprano was forced to cancel all her engagements and could not return home.
Flood has performed at such prestigious venues as the Paris Opera and soon debuts at the Teatro Real de Madrid and has become one of the most in-demand young sopranos of her generation. Now she is back in Australia to give a homecoming tour which will see the soprano exploring new repertoire and keeping on her mission to give back to her native country.
OperaWire spoke with the soprano about her tour, challenges of COVID-19, and her new repertoire.
OperaWire: Congratulations on your upcoming tour. Australia has just been in lockdown recently. Why do you think this is the right moment to do a homecoming tour?
Alexandra Flood: Thank you! This tour was planned late last year and early this year when Australia seemed like a kind of COVID-free paradise, so planning a concert tour here seemed like a great idea. Of course, I was aware of the risk of plans falling through, but I felt, particularly as a freelancer, that I simply had to push on with making plans and hope for the best. I made a commitment when I left Australia in 2014 to come back every year to do work that was meaningful to me. I always want to be invested in the industry here and after breaking that commitment in 2020 for the first time, I knew I had to try this year. Also, I feel that now, more than ever, we need music. We need art. Fortunately, only two events have been canceled so far. Fingers very tightly crossed for the rest.
OW: Tell me about the locations that have been chosen for this tour and what you look forward to when performing for these venues?
AF: The first invitation came from Opera Queensland. After inaugurating OQ’s new recital series in 2019, the company invited me and Alex Raineri back immediately, which was wonderful. Southern Cross Soloists and I had also been searching for a possible concert date following our wonderful collaboration in the QPAC Concert Hall ‘The Nightingale’ in 2018 and so we were finally able to commit to something! Once I knew I would be coming home to Australia, I started to explore other opportunities and was thrilled to be invited to give a recital and masterclass at the new National Opera in Canberra (now sadly canceled). I knew of course that I wanted to do a performance in Melbourne and was so happy to be able to program a recital at the Melbourne Recital Centre. The Primrose Potter Salon is such an excellent venue for chamber music and I knew it would be a great venue for an art song recital with Alex Raineri. This MRC event has now been postponed to 2022 due to the extended lockdown in Melbourne, but I’m so happy to be able to offer a duet recital with Jeremy Kleemann and Alex Raineri for the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall Series on Sept 14th. I know it’s not the same as a live performance, but I’m hoping it will be a small consolation to Melbourne audiences especially. Further Queensland appearances then cropped up, including a chamber recital at Lucas Parklands with violinist Yena Choi, pianist Michael Ierace and young Queensland pianist Ruby Luck. I’m so looking forward to that. I was also thrilled that a last-minute travel plan change meant I was able to “jump in” to the Opera Queensland 40th Anniversary Gala last weekend in Brisbane. It was a truly bombastic way to end a 14-day quarantine with little to no human contact!
OW: Is there a location that you are most excited about?
AF: Each venue presents its own set of challenges of course, but I particularly enjoy performing in the QPAC concert hall. The acoustic is just brilliant. You can risk a ‘true’ pianissimo! I, of course, was looking forward to performing in Melbourne as that really is my home audience. The OQ studio is also a fantastic venue in that it is very intimate. I can see the facial expressions of all the audience members, which is something you don’t get in a massive hall. I love seeing the sparkle in their eyes. Lucas Parklands will also be fantastic. I’ve never performed in a rainforest before! And it will be excellent to sing with Jeremy Kleeman, one of my oldest friends, in our Duet concert with MDCH.
OW: Tell me about the repertoire that you chose for this tour? Is there anything new you are singing for the first time?
AF: The repertoire on this trip is almost entirely new. Last time I performed in Australia I presented some of the “hits-and-highlights” of my career. Basically just a mixed bag of my favorite tunes. This time I knew I wanted a challenge for myself, and to take the chance to perform lesser-known works to home audiences. The recitals with Opera Queensland will feature incredibly sensual, virtuosity, and exotic works by Debussy, Ravel, Szymanowski, and Rachmaninoff. I also like to feature contemporary composition, so we are including Jake Heggie, Peggy Glanville-Hicks, and Kate Miller-Heidke in the mix.
The Lucas Parklands recitals feature more classical and romantic chamber repertoire (Schubert, Strauss, Fauré) and with Southern Cross Soloists we will feature two virtuosic arias, Händel’s “Da tempeste” from “Giulio Cesare” and “Ah non credea” from Bellini’s “La sonnambula,” as well as the 4th movement from Mahler’s Fourth Symphony. Big singing! The repertoire for the duet recital with Jeremy is romantic and beautiful. Classical Schubert songs are paired with duets from the Romantic era, full of longing and pathos.
OW: When you are putting together a tour what is the biggest challenge? What kind of preparation goes into it and how does it differ from the preparation when you are singing an opera production?
AF: The biggest challenge is really that the buck stops with you. Of course, the companies with which I collaborate provide enormous support and resources. But ultimately I am responsible for the production and quality of the recital. That’s scary, but also exciting. In an opera performance, one feels more like a cog in a huge machine which is exciting in its own way. I do enjoy having creative control over the performance presentation, and of course, relish the intimate music-making with a pianist that art song necessitates. The scheduling can be difficult but the companies and promoters here have been so accommodating. Everyone understands freelance artists want to work as much a possible at the moment! I was also so happy that the team was able to pull together the Melbourne Digital Concert Hall event so quickly. It was a huge logistical challenge but we all banded together to make it happen, thanks largely to the support of Opera Queensland, who are providing the recording venue.
OW: Is there a piece you are looking forward to performing more than any other?
AF: The Dvořák songs are particularly fun to perform. I think Ravel’s ‘Shéhérazade’ is however the most exciting for me. We will be performing the first movement ‘Asie’ which, at over 9 minutes long, is a kind of epic tale. There are several sections that require different phrasing, expression, and colors complete with a dramatic arc. The piece is like a little opera in its own right. That’s exciting to me.
OW: Tell me about your collaborators and about creating music with them?
AF: I cut my performance teeth in the world of opera, where there can literally be 100 musical “collaborators” in any given moment, including the conductor, orchestra, and fellow singers. The symbiosis of that mammoth team effort is magical. It wasn’t until later in my training that I began to understand the completely different but equally magical chamber music collaboration that is Art Song performance. The artistic intimacy and trust required when one singer and one pianist weave together a classical Art Song is arresting and deeply moving, and my partnerships with Art Song pianists are some of my most treasured relationships. Art Song accompaniment provides a completely different challenge to the pianist, compared with for example playing a concerto. Unending attention must be paid to the singer’s breath, phrasing, and dynamics, and vice versa.
Ideally, the relationship is one of free-flowing communication and constructive criticism. There is no soloist. Only two equals creating something together in real-time. It is a true collaboration. I had the pleasure of working with Graham Johnson at SongFest in Los Angeles who humbly refers to himself as an “accompanist”. Mr. Johnson taught me about the balance between liberty and partnership. The singer and pianist are always, always listening and responding to one another. That connection then gives rise to an enormous potential for expressive freedom. The Art Song pianists with whom work have a deep love and respect for singers and singing as a craft. They study the poetry and invest in developing a profound personal awareness of the meaning of a particular song. When I work with a pianist like that, I feel like I am in the presence of something great. Something spiritual and god-like. Of course, on stage, it is often the singer who literally steals the spotlight and is revered as somehow superhuman. But that apotheosis can only occur if the pianist is providing the kind of musical support that allows the singer to transcend challenges of breath and phrasing. It is the best example of when two people are worth more than the sum of their parts. That connection is transcendental for me.
OW: Finally, after so many cancelations throughout the past year and a half, what do you hope for this season?
AF: The industry has changed so much due to the global pandemic. The cancelations have been devastating and so many of my colleagues feel that their careers have ground to a halt. Especially emerging artists and performers who – like me – were about to make major debuts, I feel it has been especially hard. You feel like you have lost momentum. On the other hand, it has been exciting to see how individual artists have evolved and found new avenues for expression. I made lots of recordings during the past 18 months, which was exciting and interesting. I have also observed a shift in the way performance opportunities are generated. The lockdown gave me the confidence and wherewithal to pursue opportunities by myself, rather than waiting for the phone to ring. This Australian tour is certainly the result of that hustle mentality. The industry is changing so much. I hope the pandemic will show us how we can continue to evolve and move forward.