New Zealand soprano Katherine Wiles (MMus Advanced Opera) graduated from the Royal Conservatoire in 2002. She has just celebrated a decade as a full-time member of the Opera Australia Chorus, during which she has performed many principal and minor roles.
Katherine recently blurred the lines between opera and musical theatre during a mammoth 287 show season of My Fair Lady. The show gave her the opportunity to work under a British Broadway star, as Mark Good found out”¦
How do you reflect on My Fair Lady?
KW: I remember my final audition. There was a panel of 14 and right in the middle sat Dame Julie Andrews that was a moment I will never forget. As soon as she spoke, it was the voice of my childhood. She can make you feel like the most important person in the room and gives you her complete attention when in conversation. She had wonderful stories, which we relished at every opportunity, and her sense of humour was infectious.
I look back on this experience with such fondness and complete humbleness. It was definitely a oncein-a-lifetime opportunity and I treated every day with Julie as such a gift. On the very first day, we sat in a large room and everyone introduced themselves. Julie was last and she said: “and you can call me Mum”. That summed her up perfectly. Being in the rehearsal room with Julie was like a masterclass in everything ”˜theatre’. In notes sessions she would speak the text of the music and the script, and give every single word or note its purpose, which I found invaluable.
On opening night she said to us: “Give the joy tonight, keep it real and crisp and just hand it out. Don’t think about yourselves just give the gift”. She didn’t want it to be about her, it was about the show and telling the story.
How did you find the transition from opera to musical theatre?
KW: This was a real learning experience for me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Vocally, I had to learn to sing numbers like Get Me to the Church on Time with a mix of head and chest voice, still achieving the sound they wanted for the cockney style but not to the detriment of my technique. Opera productions don’t usually require excessive movement so the breath remains relatively low and supported. The church number required a large dance section with very heavy costuming so the breath became much higher and shallow, making singing at the end of the song more difficult.
It took a while for me to become ”˜show fit’. I’ve never taken official dance classes so perfecting dance moves and learning them alongside trained dancers was a new challenge.
The biggest challenge was doing the same show eight times a week a total of 287. I’ve only ever done a maximum of 35 performances of one particular opera, which is usually interspersed with four or five productions running concurrently, so every night is different. The musical theatre performance schedule requires a shift mentally, physically and emotionally.
Congratulations on your anniversary at Opera Australia. What have been some of your highlights from that period?
KW: Thank you so much. Ten years seem to have gone by so fast. There have been many highlights. The opera house is an iconic landmark and I feel very lucky to call it my office. The view from the principal dressing rooms looks across the harbour and it is just breath-taking. The benefit of being in the full-time chorus is being able to cover both principal and minor roles, and being cast in various roles over and above the chorus responsibilities. My favourites have been Valencienne (The Merry Widow), Gianetta (The Elixir of Love), Mrs Nordstrom (A Little Night Music), Papagena in Julie Taymor’s production of The Magic Flute, performing with Opera Australia at the Edinburgh International? Festival in 2010 where I also sang solo on-board the Royal Yacht Britannia, and touring Australia singing Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni.
The Joan Sutherland Theatre stage has given me so many memories. I’ve had some exquisite musical moments with my fellow choristers when 48 people sing as one voice I find that magical and emotional. When I returned to my Opera Australia family after touring with My Fair Lady for 15 months, so many people said “welcome home” and that is what it feels like. It’s one big family that I am so proud to be a part of. I hope there are many more wonderful memories to be created.
Looking back at your studies, how did the Royal Conservatoire come upon your radar?
KW: I was a Young Artist in Residence at New Zealand Opera in 1999. British tenor Alan Oke, and Welsh conductor, Wyn Davies were both in New Zealand at the time working for the company. Alan had studied at RCS and spoke very highly of it, as did Wyn. I had British residency so I left New Zealand in the October of that year on a one-way ticket. I auditioned for a number of conservatories but chose RCS based on previous advice and encouragement, and the recommendation of studying with Patricia Hay.
How do you look back on your studies at the Royal Conservatoire?
KW: I think the most important part of any education is finding the right teacher. When I met Pat, I knew it was the perfect match from day one. She stripped my technique right back and we started building the foundations correctly. I think without this constant hard work and her support, my career might not have continued the way it has.
There was a wonderful team spirit at RCS and we were given the best preparation. My languages were minimal when I arrived so I was able to focus on that element and improve that aspect of my study. I made lifelong friends and, although I was so far away from home, I look back at two very happy years.
Do you have any particular highlights from your time as an RCS student?
KW: I have many highlights some personal and professional. The camaraderie of my fellow colleagues and enjoying our times together, both at RCS and socially, was definitely a highlight. Others include performing at St John Smith’s Square with the Masters Opera students, performing our triple bill at the Usher Hall in Edinburgh, working with the late Lee Blakeley in La Calisto, performing the soprano solo in Bach’s Magnificat and B Minor Mass with the RSNO at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall and my lessons with Pat.
The realisation that I could perhaps forge a career in this industry only became a possibility during my studies at RCS and I think this developed through an increased belief in my abilities and encouragement from my tutors.
Is Patricia Hay someone you can still turn to for guidance?
KW: Absolutely. Pat was not only my teacher, she became my biggest support and provided me with constant guidance, both musically when I was studying and professionally when I left RCS. I was London-based for five years after graduating and I would travel to Glasgow to prepare my roles with Pat. We have kept in touch since I left the UK in 2006 and I have phoned her for advice on many occasions. When I had secured an audition for My Fair Lady, I rang Pat about my song choices.
What advice would you give to an opera student who is looking to follow in your footsteps?
KW: Increase your skill-base take dance classes. I can’t stress this enough. My final dance audition for My Fair Lady was the most terrifying hour of my career, being in a room full of dancers, learning a routine so quickly, performing in front of everyone and having to add in my own improvised section.
Be prepared commence your engagement with the score off-copy. Make sure you know your translation and the translation of every character in the opera you associate with. Be a good colleague there’s no place for diva behaviour.
Know your product play to your strengths and know what audition arias are going to show you off best. Know your limitations and don’t take every job offered just to be in employment. Think of the big picture, longevity and how you wish to be seen in the industry.
Be realistic I knew I wasn’t going to have a long career purely as a soloist. When I moved to Australia I took the offer of a full-time job in the Opera Australia Chorus. I’ve been able to perform and cover wonderful roles, buy two properties, be financially secure and sing for a living.
Don’t compare yourself to others this is extremely difficult, but remember everyone is on their own journey. Plan yours, work hard and remember every contract is a gift it’s what you’ve worked so hard for. The good times definitely outweigh the bad. Be gracious and enjoy the opportunity to do what you love.
Would you like to go under the spotlight?
Contact Mark Good, Communications Officer (Alumni):
Phone: 0141 270 8367