When Australian soprano Alexandra Flood headed off for Europe in 2014 to launch her opera career, she made a vow that she would return home every year to perform in Australia and share her experiences with fellow emerging artists.
Last year COVID put paid to that, so she is thrilled to be back in Australia, where she will give a series of performances over the next few months.
When she talks to Limelight, she is in the Howard Springs Quarantine Facility in the Northern Territory, where she has few days remaining. Asked how she’s coped and whether she has been able to keep singing, she says that her neighbours have been lovely.
“They’ve been really happy to hear me sing. I think they tend to put single women in an area with the families, so I’ve got families all around me. So, there’s lots of laughter and joyful noises anyway. So, I don’t think that I’ve been too disruptive,” she says over the phone.
“I’ve done lots of lip trills, which the kids love of course because I stand on the balcony and they think it’s hilarious. But for me personally it’s hard, because the room is so small. When you close the door it’s just so live, I haven’t felt that I’ve been able to really let the voice go because it’s such a small room to have a proper sing in.”
Instead, making a positive out of the situation, she has taken the time to work on diction. “I’m learning a lot of Slavic music at the moment; Polish, Czech and Russian. If I was in my regular practice room at home with my piano, I’d probably be singing these songs earlier in my learning process, but now I’m taking the time to really do the sometimes tedious work of working out phonetically exactly how everything is pronounced. But I think that that’s actually really interesting, to have that slightly different angle on how I approach things. It’s probably ultimately a good thing that I’ve had this time where I can’t just open the mouth and let the voice fly [and so have focussed] on the text which has been really cool actually.”
Making a video diary of her time there, she sends Limelight a selection of highlights.
Born on Phillip Island in Victoria, Flood (31) is now based in Munich. However, her partner Alexander York, an American baritone from Wisconsin, has just completed a three-year contract with the Paris Opera so she has spent a fair amount of time in Paris.
She recently made her Paris Opera debut in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia and in July appeared at the Aix-en-Provence Festival, performing Mozart arias in concert with the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble and Thomas Hengelbrock.
After a series of engagements in Australia, Flood returns to Europe at the end of October. “I’ve been there for seven years now and I feel very invested in my industry over there, and in my networks. I’ve a really good relationship with my agent, and we really see eye to eye on my growth and what sort of repertoire I’m going to sing in the future. I do feel invested in Europe just because of the sheer volume of work over there,” she says.
“Having said that, ever since I moved to Europe in 2014, I’ve come back to Australia every year to do really meaningful work, whether that’s been smaller recitals I’ve put together myself or whether that’s been leading roles with a state company, or with a symphony, it’s remained a big priority for me, and it will continue to. I feel in Australia, the audiences are so open to hearing all kinds of interesting things, and I love discovering weird, odd, little pieces in Europe and then bringing them back and performing them here and sharing the sort of things that I discover as I go along my journey, and continuing to reinvest in learning [about] the Australian scene.”
Returning this time, with the coronavirus still spreading through communities around the world including Australia, she says she knew she was “taking a calculated risk. I was aware that things might be cancelled. One thing that surprised me was that I didn’t realise how difficult it would be [because] the state borders would be closed.”
“Australia is the only country in the world that I’m aware of that has internal border closure. You know something like that is unimaginable in Germany, for example. The idea the Bavaria would close its border with its neighbouring state, it just wouldn’t happen because there’s just so much flow within those state borders. It’s just something I didn’t [anticipate] and that’s my own fault, I didn’t realise that those border closures were going to present such an issue to me.”
“But my philosophy with COVID the whole time really has been I have to plan as if I’m going to work. Maybe that’s naive, [but] I need psychologically to think that things are going to be okay, so I move forward with the hope that things will work out, and even if half my gigs get cancelled, I still want to know that I took the chance to try and make it work. That’s been important to me. Even before I started planning this trip to Australia last year, I knew that things could get worse, but I just had to move forward because – especially as a freelancer – I need that motivation to get out of bed every day, even if everything gets cancelled.”
Not surprisingly, some of her program has been cancelled. Her first gig was a recital for the newly minted National Opera in Canberra on 5 September and a masterclass the day before, both cancelled because of the COVID lockdown.
It would have been the first masterclass she had given and she admits she was surprised initially when Peter Coleman-Wright, the Artistic Director of National Opera, offered it to her given that she is still a relatively young artist herself.
“Then I look at my CV or resume and I think that I probably do have something valuable to share, especially to young Australian singers who are five or six years younger than me. [It had me thinking] ‘what do I wish I knew back then?’ I think it’s really interesting to hear from singers 40 years ahead of you in their career, but to hear from someone who’s maybe five or seven years ahead can be really informative,” says Flood.
“A lot of people helped me when I was starting out, notably Siobhan Stagg who is only a few years older than me. I followed a couple of her initial career steps. I was visiting her at the Salzburg Festival when she was a Young Artist there in 2013, and she said, ‘You should audition while you’re here’, and I said, ‘Are you crazy, I’m a nobody, I don’t have a music education, I’ve just been singing as a hobby, I haven’t really made proper inroads into pursuing it properly’. And she said ‘pull up your socks!’, and she made me an appointment to audition at the Salzburg Festival.”
“I’d never done a professional audition in my life, and I did this audition and they offered me the Young Artist position on the spot. I think young artists, young Aussie artists, helping each other out, especially overseas, is just huge, and so when I come back, I relish the fact that I can pass on the opportunity that Siobhan gave to me. So much of those first steps is just information – it’s just knowing what the standard audition arias at the moment are, which houses pay well, which house is going to push you very hard, those kinds of things are hard to find out just doing a google search. So, I was really thrilled to do this masterclass, and when it was cancelled it was devastating, but they’ve already asked me to do something in the future.”
Last Saturday, Flood performed at Opera Queensland’s 40th Anniversary Gala, 40 & Fabulous. On 14 September, she will join bass-baritone Jeremy Kleeman and pianist Alex Raineri in Duets in Song for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall. It was to be have been recorded in Melbourne with Amir Farid, however, both Flood and Kleeman are in Queensland and not able to fly to Victoria so after some juggling the recital was recorded in Brisbane with Raineri stepping in.
“Chris Howlett [at MDCH] has been fantastic, so flexible. It has been amazing how COVID has changed our industry,” says Flood. “I feel like in the past, before COVID, if there had been any major clash something would have been just been cancelled or postponed, but I feel like there’s a lot of willingness to just try and make things work, and a flexibility that I wasn’t used to before COVID happened, and that’s been really sort of heartening.”
On 17 and 18 September, she performs in a recital called Eastern Promises with Raineri for Opera Queensland.
“We’ve got some really niche pieces in there by Szymanowski, Dvořák, Jake Heggie, Kate Miller-Heidke and Peggy Glanville-Hicks, so that’s going to be a really fun evening,” says Flood. “[I’ll be] singing in Polish in public for the first time. I would glad if a Polish person was in the audience, but I would be glad if they came with a very forgiving ear!”
Flood and Raineri also perform together at Melbourne Recital Centre on 9 October. Other engagements include a concert at Lucas Parklands Concert Hall on 25 and 26 September when she will perform with violinist Yena Choi and pianists Ruby Luck and Michael Ierace; and in Heavenly Life with Southern Cross Soloists at QPAC on 24 October.
Flood will then return to Europe where she has various engagements lined up, including a recital in New York City at the start of December, featuring music by Karl Weigl – “an incredible Jewish Austrian composer, who was one of those composers who was displaced because of the war. He had to flee due to Nazi occupation, and although he’s a fantastic composer, his career never really recovered after he moved to the USA and he fell into obscurity and was forgotten,” says Flood. “I’ve got a project at the moment where I’m trying to shine a light on his works, and eventually we’re trying to make the first collected recording of his complete songs.”
She sincerely hopes that Australia manages to get on top of the current spread of COVID, and shares the frustration of artists and other sections of the community who had significantly affected.
“I think the slow organisation around vaccines has been particularly hard to watch because Australia did such a good job last year, and then to lose a lot of that progress has just been really sad,” says Flood. “I do know several incredible, very high profile musicians who are choosing not to come to Australia at the moment, so culturally there will be a gap where Australia won’t be as attractive as a destination, not just for music, it’s happening in science and medicine, in engineering, where people just don’t want to come, or are here and are wanting to leave. It does feel like an urgent issue, and I hope that there’s a resolution soon.”
Alexandra Flood performs with Jeremy Kleeman and Amir Farid for Melbourne Digital Concert Hall on 14 September; in recital with Alex Raineri in Eastern Promises for Opera Queensland on 17 & 16 September; at Lucas Parks Concert Hall on the Sunshine Coast on 25 & 26 September; in recital with Alex Raineri in Homecoming at Melbourne Recital Centre on 9 October; and in Heavenly Life with Southern Cross Soloists at QPAC on 24 October.