As a special holiday edition of the podcast, and the final episode of this current series, I’m joined by Internationally acclaimed Mezzo-Soprano, Deborah Humble.
She is highly regarded for her Wagner roles, and has performed in opera houses around the world including Paris, London, Sydney and Hamburg.
She’s also been a friend of mine for over 35 years.
Born in Bangor, Wales, Deborah grew up in Adelaide, Australia. She received her musical and vocal training first at the Elder Conservatory of the University of Adelaide and later at the University of Melbourne.
Deborah was a member of the Young Artist Program of the Victoria State Opera, and in 2002 became a principal artist with Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House. She was also the winner at the beginning of her career of the prestigious Dame Joan Sutherland Scholarship in 2004, and the following year, she became a Principal Mezzo with the State Opera of Hamburg.
In 2008 she was a finalist of the International Wagner Competition of the Seattle Opera.
In 2009 she was included in the Who’s Who of Australian Women.
Since 2010 she has been a freelance artist and she has performed over 60 operatic roles worldwide.
In 2016, after 25 years living in Europe, Deborah returned to live in Sydney, and today she’s coming to us from Brycefield estate in the Hunter Valley where she lives with her Partner Dr Bruce Caldwell.
Like many performers, Deborah has had to adapt to multiple cancellations and changes brought about by the global pandemic.
In this podcast, Deborah looks back on her 25-year career as a Mezzo-Soprano and also looks at how she has adapted by becoming a winemaker, created a show channelling Julia Child and a look behind the scenes at how Operas are made and what can go wrong, alongside a look at how different cultures respond to Opera.
In this fascinating chat, we literally covered Wagner to Wine:
- Deborah’s journey from Wales to Australia
- When did you decide to become an Opera singer?
- Why pick Opera as the genre to focus on?
- How Opera singers project their voice
- The preparation required for a huge Opera
- The experience of living in Hamburg
- Being an Australian in Hamburg
- Why did you return to Australia?
- The need for resilience
- The Brycefield Music Festival
- The Hunter Valley region
- Becoming a winemaker
- The need to change direction during the pandemic
- Becoming Julia Child
- Performing at the Bennelong Restaurant at the Sydney Opera House
- Stories from the life on the road
- The story behind Opera costumes
- Performing for different audiences
- Dealing with negative feedback
- German vs English vs Australian audiences
- What’s next?
- Career highlights
More on Deborah
Welcome to the Actionable Futurist® Podcast, a show all about the near term future with practical and actionable advice from a range of global experts to help you stay ahead of the curve. Every episode answers the question, “what’s the future?” with voices and opinions that need to be heard? Your host is international keynote speaker and Actionable Futurist® Andrew Grill.
Andrew Grill 0:30
My guest today is one of Australia’s best known Mezzo Soprano opera singers, Deborah Humble. She’s also been a friend of mine for over 35 years. Born in Bangor, Wales, Deborah grew up in Adelaide, Australia. She received her musical and vocal training first at the elder Conservatory of the University of Adelaide, and later at the University of Melbourne. Deborah was a member of the young artist programme of Victoria state opera, and in 2002, became a principal artist with opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House. She was also the winner of the beginning of her career of the prestigious Dame Joan Sutherland scholarship in 2004. And the following year, she became a principal Metso with the State Opera of Hamburg. In 2008. She was a finalist of the International Wagner competition of the Seattle opera. In 2009. She was included in the who’s who of Australian women. And since 2010, she has been a freelance artist, and she’s performed over 60 operatic roles worldwide. In 2016, after 25 years living in Europe, Deborah returned to live in Sydney. And today she’s coming to us live from Brasfield estate in the Hunter Valley, where she lives with her partner, Dr. Bruce Caldwell. Welcome, Deborah.
Deborah Humble 1:45
Thank you, Andrew.
Andrew Grill 1:46
A huge career there. There’s a lot to unpack. There’s actually some stuff we didn’t discuss. And I’ve known you, as I said, for 35 years when we both finished school in Adelaide, Australia. So you were born in Wales. What’s been your journey to Australia?
Deborah Humble 1:58
Well, I was born in Wales. My father, who is from Adelaide, was living in the United Kingdom during the 1960s. And studying surgery, he did a fellowship of surgery in Edinburgh, and he met my mother who was an English nurse. And so they were working, they were married and working at the time that no hospital and I was born, not far from there in St. Davids Hospital in in Bangor. And four months after I was born, I decided to return to Adelaide. And that’s where I grew up.
Andrew Grill 2:30
Singing is a very definite career, it’s been a lifelong passion for you. When did you decide to become an opera singer?
Deborah Humble 2:37
Well, it was fairly early on. Actually, I was always interested in music. I started learning the piano when I was seven. And I sang in school choirs. And I always had an interest in music. I’ve always wondered where the urge to be an opera singer came from since we weren’t a particularly musical family. And then later on when I was studying, my colleagues would tell stories about how they used to stand around the piano and have sing songs at home. And I thought, well, we never did anything like that. We never went to the theatre as a family. We did have a record player. And I think there was an Elvis Presley album. And maybe, maybe surely Bessie album something by Helen Reddy, anonymous, scary. But that was about the extent of it. And music was only listened to on very special occasions. I’m not quite sure where this urge came from. But it was it was very definite. And there are a few opera singers in my father’s family. And I always wondered if it was perhaps a little bit genetic. And in fact, recently, I was asked to partake in a genetic study being done by some researchers in Melbourne. And so I’m eagerly awaiting those results, because I’ve always wanted to know the answer to that question.
Andrew Grill 3:45
So as someone who likes singing, there are different ways you could take you could have been a pop singer, you could have sung classical opera is a very definite genre of singing. Why did you choose the opera route?
Deborah Humble 3:54
Yeah, that’s a good question. I had a big voice. I was a teacher there for a while, while I was training in opera. And I remember some of the students used to put their hands over their ears. And I obviously had quite a loud voice. So maybe it was something to do with that. I was also quite interested in languages. And obviously opera is something that utilises that passion, that skill if you like, I guess I just fell into classical music. I’ve never been a big pop music fan, I have to say,
Andrew Grill 4:22
I suppose you write about having the big voice because I was on some opera here in London recently. And one of the principals actually wasn’t able to sing they had someone substituting for them and they said they’d just been declined born and their voice was worn out. I was reminded that the whole way that opera singers sing you have to project your voice because back in the day, they didn’t have amplification and in in many pure operas these days, you will hear the voice as is, what’s the technique like to train to throw your voice to the very back of the auditorium?
Deborah Humble 4:49
Well, actually, we never use amplification in opera. And a very great deal of training does go into that. A good opera singer shouldn’t should never get worn out in fact, because if you have a really good technique just taken years and years to build. And if you have good stamina and good control over your voice, then you should be able to sing what you need to sing. And it’s it’s one of the most wonderful thing or the most exciting things I think about live opera is that a lot of people think it is amplified. And it is it is not. And you have to work out how to throw your voice and project the story that you’re telling at the same time right to the back row of the of what can sometimes be very large auditoriums.
Andrew Grill 5:27
I’ve heard you sing live many times. And it is a real skill to be able to throw that as a public speaker, we cheat because we use amplification, but it’s always about how do you project your character to the back of the room. And I know for my role in speaking, there’s a lot of rehearsal and preparation that goes behind that before you see the 40 or 50 minutes on stage, from my point of view, and several hours from your point of view, take me through what’s really required, yo u know, a huge thing like Wagner’s Ring cycle, what level of preparation is required from the day they say, right, you’ve got the part?
Deborah Humble 5:54
By the time the audience sees the live performance, the final product, it has taken months and sometimes years to get to that point. So first of all, if you’re learning a role, for the first time, a foreign language role, it can take months, sometimes years in that kind of repertoire. And Wagner is actually considered by many to be the pinnacle of the romantic repertoire. And so you would start by doing the memorization, and that can take months and months, and then you have to sing it, what we call into your voice. So you know, you got to get the body underneath. And it’s all about the stamina, and you’ve got to go to a language coach. Because if you’re like me and English is your first language than singing any of these operas in the vernacular is foreign language. And it takes years and years to hone those skills, then you have to do some background reading, you know, where does the story come from? What’s vogner about what’s Norse mythology? Who are the other characters? What are you saying? What are they saying to you, there’s all of that. And then there’s music rehearsal, maybe up to two months for a ring cycle of rehearsal production with the director, music with the conductor and various coaches and pianists. And then, of course, there’s costume fittings and makeup design and set design and set manufacturing. And there are hundreds and hundreds of people that go into putting on such a large scale event.
Andrew Grill 7:16
I think we don’t realise it’s the same with big set pieces for theatre, there’s so much behind the scenes. Next time you complain about the price of that ticket, think about all the work that’s gone in and as you say, sometimes literally years of rehearsal. So you spent a lot of your career in Hamburg, one would say the home of opera, and you were very lucky that you work with the acclaimed Australian conductor Simone young, Was it exciting as I would have thought to live and work in the centre of Hamburg, tell me about the experience there?
Deborah Humble 7:41
It was like a dream come true really It was something like a small child in a candy store. I mean, as you would remember, growing up in Adelaide, you know, culture, shall we say or opera in particular was was not a big thing. I think when I was growing up, there might have been two, possibly three operas put on in South Australia, a year. And certainly there was not the money in Australia at the time to bring famous artists from all over the world. And so unlike people I met in Europe, I didn’t grow up hearing my favourite artists, I had to go out and buy a CD if I wanted to do that. And listen, and all of a sudden, there were these people that I’d been listening to all my life, standing on the stage next to me, and was like having a singing lesson every night of your life, to be to be honest, in the most wonderful way. And then of course, as time went by, it became a little less overwhelming. And suddenly, one day I was considered a colleague of these people. But the the whole opera world is completely different. opera houses are taxpayer funded, for example, there’s a lot of lot of funding. There are over 400 opera houses in Germany, there’s an opera house and every small town in every village. In the large cities, there are two or three opera houses. So there’s an awful lot more work around and then there’s an awful lot of opportunity to go out and see what everybody else is doing and took to learn by watching and I think I realised that along with the music history, you could go to the church and it were back had composed a cantata, you could go to the place where Marla had composed a symphony, or where vogner had written pacifier. And it can’t do any of that here in Australia. And I realised that that’s what I’ve been missing really is a sense of real connection to the to the history of what I was trying to learn.
Andrew Grill 9:40
And I know being an expert in London, I’ve been here 15 years and you’re overseas for a lot longer than I was. It takes a while to become accepted, especially if you’re from as you say, an English speaking country. What was it like being an expert? And was it unusual for an Australian Mezzo to be in Hamburg or was it expected?
Deborah Humble 9:56
I think when Simone Young took over the management of the Hamburg Opera Company, there were two of us, actually, that were on contract. There was another soprano actually, also from Adelaide, Miriam Gordon Stewart, and she was a contracted soprano. And they were various Australians that were coming as guest artists, life wasn’t very easy for us, I have to say when we got there, because I suppose in some ways, we we’ve taken jobs that perhaps it was considered that a German might have gotten, and mine did tell us, you’re not going to have to be just good, you’re gonna have to be really, really good. And I expect 110% effort, which is what I always tried to give her. They called us the kangaroo club. I’m not sure they meant that, always in in the nicest way. I remember saying I’m going to live in Hamburg. And everyone said, Oh, dear, that’ll be terrible with the people up there. They’re there, as cold as the weather. And in fact that it wasn’t much more formal culture. And I made a lot of mistakes when I first arrived, because we as Australians, were very informal nature. But I have to say that when people got to know you, I made some of the best friends I’ve ever made in my life in Germany, and their interest in culture and mine interest in their language and culture. You know, it was it was a really nice reciprocal experience.
Andrew Grill 11:13
I’ve always said that the expats, people that leave a great country like Australia, you don’t come over here to fail, you come to be even more successful. And yes, it’s a lot harder. I was at an event on the weekend with a bunch of other Australians and the ones that are there really have that that spirit where we want to make a golfer, you know, I love Australia, but I may never go back to live. You’ve done that. You’ve had your stint overseas, what was the trigger to head back towards?
Deborah Humble 11:34
Well, I met Bruce in 2015. In some ways, I’m very glad I came back when I did that bearing in mind what’s happened recently? Was it a good career move? No, not really. At the time, I thought, of course, it doesn’t really matter where I live now. Because I can travel. And people established enough in my career now that I can still go and do my overseas engagements. And of course, that’s all been rather scattered. I guess the most difficult thing for me about coming back is the mindset. You know, I look at a map and I think, Gosh, I’m way down there. I felt so connected with the world. When I lived in Europe, I felt like I was in the centre of the universe, if you like and I miss things about that. I missed the geographical meanness of everything, being able to get on a plane and go somewhere to a different country for the weekend, somewhere with a different language with a different culture. I mean, history and architecture and, and music. I miss people’s knowledge of all of those things. Life is more simple here. Everything’s easier. When you familiar with the culture when you’re familiar with the language. There are definitely aspects about living in Europe that I really miss.
Deborah Humble 12:44
Well, that’s one of the reasons I’m here with the lockdowns here in London, we were forced to stay local. And so I’ve done a lot of walking, I think I’ve walked every radio from South Kensington known. But one thing I did was I started looking up and I started looking at the architecture around London, I started buying these guidebooks that would self guide you around this, I absolutely agree with you. While I love Australia, most things are fairly new that are in the built environment. Whereas here things are 1000s of years old. You touched on the issues of the last couple of years. We’re recording this in September 2021. If people listening in the future, want to talk about resilience, you thought you’d be able to just fly back and forward to Europe to perform and clearly at the moment, that’s not possible. How have you been impacted? And how have you really worked around those challenges that you’ve had?
Deborah Humble 13:26
I think resilience is a really good word. And I think it’s something that when you’ve lived I’ve lived in, in Paris, in Bologna, in Hamburg. So I’ve lived in three different for England for different countries, three different languages. It has been wonderful and wonderful, exciting, fulfilling life. But there have also been moments of great loneliness, and struggle, really, I think that, you know, this all makes you much stronger. And I think, you know, artists are, by nature, quite creative. We are also used to rejection and we used to criticism, and we used to not always being able to do exactly what we would really like to be doing for whatever reason, almost survived COVID. Like everybody else, it’s been hard to be in lockdown for this long. I have had all my work since the middle of June, almost to next Easter has just been cancelled because we can’t travel interstate, if we live in New South Wales can’t be in close venues. In fact, at the moment, we can’t really do anything. Fact aside from Bruce, I haven’t seen anybody for the last seven weeks. So what have I been doing? Well, I think we start to think outside the box. Artists have to start thinking, well, if we’re not going to be able to sing for 3000 people in a large theatre, how are we going to earn a living and so I think we’re doing smaller scale works. Were thinking about more more into venues with smaller audiences. And I don’t think that that necessarily means that it’s it’s it’s worse or better. Just it’s different, in some ways, you know, they call it a crisis. And when what’s a crisis, a crisis is a turning point, you know, you can go one way or the other. And I think, I hope for the arts that when I hope we’re able to recover, and I hope that we’re able to move in different directions and continue to, to express ourselves the way we need to.
Andrew Grill 15:21
Now I know one thing you did a while ago, when the restrictions were a little bit more open, you actually established the brassfield Music Festival. Tell me more about that.
Deborah Humble 15:28
We have a 50 acre property here. And part of our vision when we bought this estate three years ago, it was music, music, friends, food and wine. They’re the things that, you know, they’re our passions and our hobbies. And so I thought, Well, now’s a good time to do it, numbers were restricted, you could only have 20 people in your home, when I put the first festival on, really what I wanted to do was employ unemployed artists and colleagues. I’ve done two festivals since then. And luckily, the second time we didn’t have the number restrictions. And I’ve managed to get 25 artists, local artists back into employment, cause everyone couldn’t wait to be back in the audience. And it was it was all rather emotional, to be honest. But that’s part of our vision here for the for the future, larger scale music events, bringing people together and introducing the community out here to things that perhaps they’ve never heard before. We did a an opera lunch at one of the local wineries. And a lot of people came up to me and said, We’ve never heard opera before. When’s the next one? You know, that’s important. It’s not about dumbing it all down. But it’s about it’s about making these sorts of things accessible, I think to your community. And that gets Bruce and I involved in the community gets the community to know who we are and what we’re about. And it’s only been positive really.at
Andrew Grill 16:51
Now I’ve been fortunate to visit Brycefiled at the beginning of 2019. I think you’d newly moved in there for those of our listeners that don’t know where you are. Tell us a bit mor e about the property and about the region you’re in – the Hunter Valley.
Deborah Humble 17:03
The Hunter Valley is a little over two hours north of Sydney, 45 minutes from Newcastle and Newcastle is the biggest city in Australia. That’s not a capital tourist area. There’s over 190 cellar doors out here acres and acres of vines. There are restaurants and cafes and a lot of people get married up here. It’s it’s a real weekend destination. So lovely community, we inherited 18 acres of derelict and neglected vineyard.
Andrew Grill 17:32
Well, I want to use as a segue to going from Wagner to vines. Tell me more about the vines. You said you’ve rejuvenated them. You’re now a vineyard owner, you’re going to make wine. Tell me more.
Deborah Humble 17:43
When we saw the property back in 2017. And had actually it only had two owners. So there was the original owner builder. And he had sold it to a Chinese chap actually, who had never really lived at the property. And so the house was a little unloved and the vineyard had been completely neglected. So we had 18 acres of Verdelho, Semyon and Chardonnay, we only grow white wine here. Part of the project if we wanted the house, you know, we had to really take on the the renovation of the vineyard which I have had absolutely nothing to do with I adore the house and the music Bruce took on that project. We just produced one of Australia’s most pecorino wines this year, vintage 2021, which is an unusual Italian wide variety, which he had the foresight to plant as well in hot climates, we have semi on and Chardonnay coming. He’s planted Fiano, which is also another unusual Italian variety. So where we have plans for maybe a small cellar door and of course, we can use the wine at musical events. So really, it’s a lifestyle, I guess. And because I was on the road all the time during my career, I said to him last night, I have never spent so much time at any home I’ve ever had in my life until until now, because I was always on aeroplane somewhere else. In some ways, it’s quite pleasant, because I’m able to do some of the things now that I wished I could when I was working like be at home at night and cook a nice meal, have a glass of wine, tend to a garden there was no point having a garden before go never home to look after. So there are all sorts of bonuses that have come with this strange period in all of our lives, I guess look at the positives.
Andrew Grill 19:23
And also you’ve done some branding given it’s a brand new wine, it’s got the brassfield name, you’ve even done some logos and some bottle designs. We talked about resilience you’ve done things you probably never would have done before had the lockdown not forced you to do something different.
Deborah Humble 19:36
Part of thinking outside the box so I’m not able to work at the moment. So my teachings all moved online. So there’s plenty of time to think think creatively and that’s been one of the big pluses. So we came up with a logo for the wine label versus a surgeon so we had a snake insignia and we superimpose that on to a winged helmet for say why a winged helmet Well, the Norse winged helmet is a common symbol used for Wagnerian opera singers. It’s a reference back to Norse mythology. And so you know, it’s a symbol of I combined passion and commitment for what we’re doing. And the fact that you know, I professions are extremely different. But as Barry said, we both work in a theatre.
Andrew Grill 20:20
Now now one of your other passions is cooking. And I know from firsthand experience, you’re a wonderful cook. But you’ve actually mixed your singing with cooking, you did an opera channelling Julia Child, and many people have seen the movie Julia & Julia, tell me more about that.
Deborah Humble 20:34
And that was a project born of this COVID crisis. A couple of years ago, a friend and a colleague of mine sent me a YouTube clip and he said, have a look at this. It’s an American Mezzo soprano, singing an opera called Bon Appetit, which was based on an episode of Julia Child’s cooking show, which was called the French chef. And I had a look. And I was highly amused by this short half an hour opera just with piano, but I had all sorts of other music to learn and I put it on top of the piano and sort of lifted there for a while. And then in lockdown last year, I thought, you know, I’m gonna learn this because this is a small scale opera. It’s short, I can do this in people’s kitchens. I can do this in restaurants, I can do this in Cabaret venues. And so I started rehearsing. The kitchen was an absolute mess for several months, while I tried to work out how on earth to bake a chocolate cake, the ghetto or shockula Lemons balloon while I was singing at the same time, and I had to try and fit in all the actions in the short space of time that the composer had given me to perform them. So beating egg whites and tempering chocolate and sifting flair and greasing cake pans. We did get a couple of performances of that in before this Karen lock down opera Australia made me a great wig, I thought actually looked not not that dissimilar to Julia Charles. We did it a couple of food festivals. It’s quite nice because there’s an intimacy and that sort of performance that we don’t get when we’re on a big stage where the audience is so far away. And when you’re so close to people, you can see their reactions and if they laugh, or if they react somehow you can respond and like all good life theatre and like all good cooks will tell you not everything always goes according to plan. And when you put the two together, things very often go a little bit haywire. And that’s part of the fun, you know, the improvisation and I’m looking forward to rescheduling those performances. We actually had one at Bennelong restaurant at the Sydney Opera House planned and there’s a very famous chef there called Peter Gilmore. I was being asked how I felt about that quite large restaurant and doing it there and I thought my main concern was that my chocolate cake wouldn’t be up to Peter Gilmore standards. There are quite a few bookings Fern future so I’m looking forward to channelling Julia again.
Andrew Grill 22:52
I’ve had the pleasure of eating in that restaurant. For those of you not from Australia. It’s in the small shell of the Sydney Opera House. If you look at it, how did that come about? Because that’s a pretty prestigious place to perform a crazy cooking opera.
Deborah Humble 23:05
Bennelong is run by the think group. And I think I’ve met in the past because when I’ve worked at the opera Australia in the opera house or in the concert hall with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, she has often hosted dinners for sponsors and principals in private dining have been along and then I noticed that she very creatively, I thought was planning a classical music concert series at the restaurant. So they were doing jazz on Sundays and classical music on Wednesday evenings. Another colleague alerted me to these and said why not go Hannah? So I did and she was just so enthusiastic. We were just bitterly disappointed that it didn’t go ahead in July. Both sides are really keen to do this again, maybe more than once it’s sold out. I think it’d be a good night’s entertainment. I do a second half of the show. And I’ve learned a lot of songs about food and wine. I didn’t know there were so many songs to sing about food wine, and some of them are quite funny and entertaining in keeping with the mood of the evening. My favourite one is lime jello marshmallow cottage cheese surprise by Cadbury called out as Skoda William Bolcom. I’ve learned songs about giant marrows. I have learned songs about Pomeranian and pain, all kinds of strange things that we’re sort of putting together into like a like a cabaret style show.
Andrew Grill 24:23
So we’re both performers and things can go wrong. And you have to be very, very dynamic about when things go wrong and recover. You must have a heap of stories about things that have happened during performances.
Deborah Humble 24:33
Ah, things can and do go wrong all the time. In fact, I used to say to my parents, if you knew what went on, you would never pay the money for a ticket to see a performance. Part of being a performer, of course is covering all those things up if you can, sometimes you can’t. There’s a very famous story actually about a performance of Tosca. I think at the Chicago opera, the Lyric Opera, she At the end of Tosca, the soprano jumps off the ramparts of the castle and kills herself because her lover Mario has just been shot. Usually, I guess you jump off onto a mattress and you practice that stagehands put a mattress there. So it’s all occupational health and safety. The stage crew decided to help this soprano by putting a trampoline there and making it a little bit easier for her. So she jumps off the ramparts in this so dramatic moments such a dramatic moment at the end of the opera and fell quite heavily and bounced up straight over the top of the ramparts not only once, but twice. Which was and everyone laughed Of course, so you know, it was like this whole three hour build up to this moment was was completely ruined. That’s that’s quite a famous story. There was a very small role I did right at the beginning of Korea, I mean, literally three short lines in electronics so quick, and the music is very, very difficult. And it’s very dark and bloody on the stage. And it’s not very nice. Seen the stage manager said right, Deborah, go now and I ran on this stage and all I looked in the orchestra pit and all I could see was a conductor looked like it was doing this, I had no idea where we were and I thought, you know, I better sing because in a minute, it’s gonna be not gonna have done anything. So I fished me out, but the and ran off the other side of the stage, having sung nothing, my big moment, gone. And the really sad thing is no one even noticed. What I of the other things that comes to mind is, yeah, I think it was even of maybe production of My Fair Lady, and a beautiful costume on and a long strand of unknotted, pearls been up close and personal with a male singer. And he had large buttons on his jacket. And as I moved away, it must have been at my strand of pills and got caught and one of the buttons of his jacket. And as I moved away, there’s the pills broke, called and broke. And they just all dropped on the floor and rolled down the stairs, the grand staircase. And I thought I know they’re gonna fall into the orchestra pit. But it’s amazing that you can think of all these things while you’re still performing. And of course, I guess that’s what makes life theatre exciting to audiences because let’s face it, if you want some sort of perfection, you can go out and buy recording, and listen to it at home. And people are usually fairly generous when it comes to things that go wrong.
Andrew Grill 27:24
Now, one thing about being an opera singer and I deliberately call you a Diva, you’re a lovely Diva, though, are the costumes, you must have worn some of the most amazing outfits do they get chosen for you to get to design them? Tell me how they come about.
Deborah Humble 27:35
Wearing a costume should feel good. I think you know, it’s hard enough to get out on stage and sing in front of 1000s of people as it is without feeling bad about the way they look. And I think not all costume designers I’ve encountered. Understand that. Look, I’ve worn everything. I’ve been bald. I’ve been a boy. I played Hansel in Hansel and Gretel. So I’ve one little late lederhosen. I’ve been a 101 year old Chinese soldier with a big, big beard. In fact, I looked in the mirror. After about four hours of getting ready for that role and I there was no way I could have recognised myself. I’ve been an Egyptian princess Metso sopranos don’t get the glamorous roles. Andrew, we’re not the person at the end of the opera that gets to drop die dramatically or gets to walk away with the tenor. We say witches bitches and breaches from it. So sopranos, so we’re often the ugly sister, the Wicked Witch. You know the old maid the nanny breeches refers to a thing called pants rolls. So Metso sopranos often played boys in some periods of opera. The most famous example of that is probably karabiner in The Marriage of Figaro, where a midsize soprano plays a 15 year old page boy. And so which is beaches and bridges. That’s what we say. So, midsize sopranos, there’s the unglamorous side of the female operatic repertoire.
Andrew Grill 28:55
You perform an opera all around the world, are audiences the same in how they watch and react to opera or their cultural differences?
Deborah Humble 29:03
I think there are very much cultural differences. And that was another shock when I got to Europe, because audiences in Australia profoundly polite, they clap politely, whether if they think it’s good, and I clap politely, if they think it’s not so good, they’re pretty well behaved, the average Australian audience and then you go to Europe, and all of a sudden, people are booing, if they don’t like their production, or they don’t like a particular singer, they stamp their feet, they shout, they jumped to their feet. If they love something and give a spontaneous standing ovation. They are really much more passionate about their opera, I guess, because they they grew up with it. The other thing I noted about European audiences is that they were younger. Not all prayers are suitable for families and for children. But there were always a lot of young people, young families, they’re with their parents. And so I think the culture of going to the theatre starts at a much younger age and tickets are also much less expensive in Europe than they are here. It’s a very expensive night out, if you go to the Sydney Opera House, that’s one of the really good things that I noticed that this whole, this whole culture of, of the art starts a lot younger. So educating the next generation, if you like, I think the weather also plays a part. If it’s snowing, and it’s minus eight degrees, it’s really lovely to go and sit in a nice warm theatre and listen to wonderful music on the weekend. Whereas here, I think, you know, the sun is shining, people would probably much rather go out and have a picnic or go to the beach. So there are there are definitely differences. Yeah, it was it’s pretty exciting. Even if you get booed. I remember once in Germany, the production of something I was in not the singers, but the production was terribly booed. They clearly hated this production. And we were side stage after having bowed. And so mine said, right off you go again. I said, I’m not going out there again. She said I Yes, you are. She said it. This will be on page two of the newspaper tomorrow and all publicity is good publicity. So and she was right, this production that everybody hated my my pretty much headline news.
Andrew Grill 31:15
What do you do in that situation? Do you use that as feedback? Or do you understand why they didn’t like it? Was it obvious? Or was it just the style? How do you turn overproduction around from being booed to adored?
Deborah Humble 31:26
You don’t most probably, I mean, there are two aspects of production. There’s the music and the singers. And there’s the set design in the production concept. In Europe, audiences distinguish very much between those two things. So they’re quite happy to clap the singers and the conductor and the music and acknowledge that that was well done. And then when the director comes on, all hell breaks loose. And occasionally, there’ll be a singer that they’re not happy with either. It was just that passion that I’d never seen before. In an audience, it really fires you up and makes you feel like you really are part of this culture, and part of something important, and doesn’t always feel like that. I think in Australia, it can also be very political. In your eye. Remember that one of the productions of Hansel and Gretel that was happening in Germany. Of course, Hansel and Gretel catch the witch and put her in the oven. And that production was closed down the next day with headlines of nationalism rearing its ugly head, again in Germany and production had to be shut down and reworked to make it socially and politically acceptable to the public. And so, of course, things like that here. I’d also never encountered
Andrew Grill 32:36
You spent a lot of time in Hamburg and it’s obvious the German culture the operatic culture is quite passionate, as you said, but other parts of Europe, even the UK, are there real differences there because you’re a bit further away from Hamburg?
Deborah Humble 32:46
I haven’t sung in an opera house in England for a long time. I’ve mostly done concerts recently in the in the UK, but I think the English are a bit like the Australians to be honest. And I showed it Last Night of the Proms, which was on last week, I think and in people get pretty excited. But know I’ve found English audiences also fairly polite. And I’m probably got English colleagues who might vehemently disagree with that, or have their own stories to tell.
Andrew Grill 33:10
You reallyare a dynamo, you’ve really shown I think, in this episode, how resilient you have to be if you’re a performer and use all of your talents, it really is a Wagner to vine story. What’s next for you? And what advice would you have for young musicians that want to become an opera singer?
Deborah Humble 33:24
I’m not sure what’s next, we have to come out of this lockdown. And then we have to see what the roadmap is back to some kind of normal life. Do I recommend it to young people, I’d recommend it to some young, talented people, what I’ve really learned is that it’s not just about having a great voice or having some vocal ability really depends what kind of lifestyle you want to leave. If you want a home and a family and you don’t want to miss out on special events and family occasions. And you would like to have a dog and, and a nice house and stay in one spot and have some regular routine in your life, then I wouldn’t suggest still most of the time to be successful. We have to go overseas, you need certain qualities, you have to be able to cope with rejection and cope with criticism. You need quite a thick skin. I think you need a certain type of personality as well. You need to be good actress, or at least to be able to learn to act. Is it for everybody? No, it’s not. But if it is for you, then it can be the most rewarding, wonderful life.
Andrew Grill 34:26
Has there been one aspect of your career that really has been a defining moment for you, your favourite maybe?
Deborah Humble 34:31
it’s funny how that real creeps up on you. Because one moment you’re auditioning and you get 99 rejections out of 100 right at the beginning and I’m thinking what shall I do with all these pieces of paper that are telling me I’m not good enough? And then all of a sudden you audition for something and say, well, we’d give you this part but you’re not old enough and your voice is not mature enough. Then all of a sudden here I am and it’s like, well, we’d give you that role, but you can’t really get past that now have you thought of doing Something else I’m not quite sure where the top 25 Years went. Of course, there have been highlights but there have been lots of highlights. And I guess my pulse rate still goes up when someone rings up and offers me a job that I’m really keen to do. I know it will be time for me to stop when I get a phone call one day and nothing happens. I can’t wait to get back to work. I can’t wait for the phone to ring. It is my passion and all these other things are wonderful. But that’s that’s what are trying really hard to do. And that’s what I want to get back doing.
Andrew Grill 35:28
I know you’ve got a website, DeborahHumble.com. You’ve got the divadiary.website I know you’re on Instagram (@HumbleMezzo). We’ll put all those links in the show notes. Deborah, thank you so much for your time. Thank you for your friendship over the last 35 years. I can’t wait to see you in person again. I can’t wait to hear you perform again. And good luck with everything you do and stay resilient and stay a Diva.
Deborah Humble 35:45
Oh, thank you, Andrew. It’s really kind of you to invite me to do this and it’s been really great chatting with me and I value the friendship.
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