Opera Singer Michelle Ryan
Belonging. Home. Identity. Fashionable cultural buzzwords, but what do they mean, really?
For northern NSW native and rising opera star, 27-year-old Michelle Ryan, these words conjure images of sugarcane fields stretching for kilometers under a hot northern sun, river running wide alongside and magpies calling from the branches of the giant fig that shades her Harwood home. So far from Berlin, Munich, Prague, Weimar, where she sang in Italian to the opera lovers of Europe, yet this is where she returns, coming full-circle to find respite in the place she calls home.
Harwood is a tiny village on the banks of the mighty Clarence River, sugarcane country. I drive to meet Michelle, navigating a narrow road that threatens to fall into the Clarence before it turns inland, through green fields. I stop to allow a two-meter python safe passage across the road. 500 meters on, a long, dirt driveway leads towards a classic Australian homestead set high on stilts, with a tractor parked alongside and a corrugated iron shed leaning gently in the sun. I have arrived at the home of one of Australia’s rising opera stars.
Michelle Ryan is a diminutive brunette, certainly no Wagnerian cliché, softly spoken, with a warm, light-hearted tone that belies the richness of her singing voice. Her humble demeanor is devoid of any diva-like attitude. Indeed, listening to her version of events you might assume that she found her way to the opera theatres of Europe entirely thanks to others. But the credit lies with her talent and determination.
Image of Michelle at home by Elize Strydom
After graduating from the Sydney Conservatorium in 2015, Michelle headed to Europe, to the Bel Canto in Munich, a program that teaches singers how to audition.
“It’s not like here,” Michelle says. “The auditions are very business-like. You walk in, you sing, you walk out. They judge you from the moment you arrive, so you don’t just switch on as the piano starts. You need to be…not a diva as such but it’s important to show how much you love your art. I’m naturally very shy. Receiving some cool feedback gave me the confidence to start stepping out, but that goes after a while because in this world everyone is a good singer. You can’t rely on affirmation all the time – you have to find the belief in yourself.”
Michelle is a high soprano, which means she easily reaches a high C, soaring to an E or F for particular roles. She started singing classically in church and her continuing faith has helped support her through challenging times. Like her initial experience of preparing for her first big role while being so far from home.
“It’s assumed that you’ll know the role before rehearsals start. I was playing Despina in Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutti, for the Weimar Lyric Opera Studio Winter Season in Germany, but because of visa problems I was living in Manchester.”
The enormous difference in culture and environment between sunny Harwood and England was also a strain on Michelle. “Winter can be depressing. I had to come to terms with being inside all the time: it definitely took a lot of motivation. Then I got really sick with flu! You don’t sing with flu – you can damage your voice – so I had to learn the role in my mind. When I got to Germany I nearly pulled out. I went back to the hotel after the first day thinking: I can’t do this – I’ve never actually sung any of it, I just know it in my head.”
Sometimes, home can be a phone call. “I called my Mum that night who then called my teacher in Sydney. My teacher phoned me and said: Don’t you dare pull out, you can do this!”
Michelle drew on her remarkable reserves and pushed through, mastering her role and earning the admiration of the director. “After the dress rehearsal, he came to me really surprised and said: ‘I don’t even know who was up there!’ He was used to me being the one struggling. I knew I was behind, but I also knew I had the ability if I gave it everything. I just had to get over myself!”
The role was a great success for Michelle, albeit touched by homesickness. “It was sad that my parents weren’t there to see me perform. There were no familiar faces in the audience, but I got flashbacks to when I was at home in Harwood and dreamed of being on the stage in Europe.”
Michelle’s family have been farmers for generations, so they were a little bemused by her love of opera until a family historian told them about her great-great-aunt. In Harwood she’s known as Maggie Gard; in Europe, as Margherita Grandi, a legendary diva from the 1920s to the 1950s.
From Weimar, Michelle traveled to Prague for the Summer Nights Festival, singing Zerlina in Don Giovanni, after which she returned to Australia to sing in the Cantillation of the prestigious Opera Pinchgut. She loved this company, but Europe still called. Michelle sang again with the Weimar company and auditioned with the Royal Academy in London for a Master of Opera.
She was accepted, with a sought after partial scholarship, but still, the expense of living in London was prohibitive. “To go overseas you need huge support, just like a surfer, but surfers have sponsorship behind them. You don’t make enough money to live on as a singer until you become really successful. Now I’m back in Harwood, I think about Europe every day.”
Michelle was helped by a regional grant from Arts NSW. She has been invited back to the Prague company and awaits news of a scholarship that will provide finance for the trip. In the meantime, she is performing professionally and entering competitions, recently becoming a finalist in the prestigious Lady Fairfax New York Scholarship.
“I was really pleased with my result. Just being a finalist means that you deserve the award. There are definitely days when I am doubtful, but I find passion in the music. Before loving the singing, I loved the music itself. When I found out that you can sing along with an orchestra…well, that was incredible!”
And so is she. We wish her luck and look forward to hearing from Michelle, next time she comes full circle.
You can find Michelle on Facebook here.