Christopher Curcuruto. Photo: WinkiPoP Media
Christopher Curcuruto, Finalist in the 2018 Sydney Eisteddfod Opera Scholarship, explains in detail everything from how he discovered his operatic voice, to revealing some of the great opportunities he has been and continues to be involved in. He also reveals his tips and tricks on how to 'play the room' effectively.
What inspired your passion for opera?
Oddly enough, The Simpsons! I was absolutely captured by the episode where the family are in Italy and Sideshow Bob (voiced by Kelsey Grammar) sings Canio's aria from the opera Pagliacci. The emotion in that piece, without knowing what it was about at all really affected me. Even today, Pagliacci is still in my top 10 operas.
what inspired you to start singing?
The residential college I lived at while I was studying produced an annual musical. When I arrived I had never been onstage before. At that time, I didn't really have any interest in theatre or music, having studied neither in high school, nor really being exposed to them at all. That was all about to change. The musical director insisted that all the "fresher" or first year students had to audition for her musical, West Side Story. I ended up playing the role of Chino and loved everything about the process and the feeling of being onstage so much that I changed my major to Theatre and ended up doing an Honours degree before going on to study opera.
How did you discover your operatic voice?
The first time I sang opera in public was for a performing arts competition at college. It was part of a special dinner and in front of an audience of about 400 people. At that point, I was very much "self-trained" (I had sung a LOT in the shower... and in the car), having never had a lesson before. I sang the prologue aria from the opera Pagliacci. It's a great piece, but incredibly challenging and one that I wouldn't even go near now, let alone as a rank amateur. But, I got up in front of that audience, put on my backing track, and I let it rip. I can only imagine what it must have sounded like but that said, this was not necessarily a discerning audience, or so I thought. I returned to my table to enthusiastic applause, and my Mum and Dad had been sufficiently moved by the whole experience. I remember a bald-headed tradie-type coming up to me with a tear in his eye and exclaiming that "if you don't win, it's rigged". A friend of mine came to me and told me her mum was sitting on the other side of the room and wanted to see me. Now, had I known her mum was there, there was no chance I would have gotten up and sang because her mum was former Opera Australia Principal Peta Blyth. Peta was very moved by my passion and apparent enthusiasm for opera and she believed that I definitely had a voice. She offered me free lessons and encouraged me to seek out further training so I guess that is where I started on the path to discovering my operatic voice.
Who inspires you and why?
I think I am most inspired by good performance. There is nothing more energising for me than seeing theatre done well. It is not uncommon for me to leave an opera wanting nothing more than to head straight to the practice room.
Tell us a little bit about one of the pieces you performed at the Semi-Final and why you chose it.
One of my go-to arias is "I'm a lonely man Susannah". It's from the opera Susannah by American composer Carlisle Floyd and is the most contemporary piece I sing (written in the 1950's). It is based on the biblical story of Susannah and the Elders about a young girl who is caught unawares bathing in the river and then accused of seducing the townsmen. Reverend Olin Blitch is the new preacher in town. When Susannah refuses to seek repentance for her sins at church, Reverend Blitch makes an unwelcome house-call. In this aria, he wrestles with his conscience and his more primal urges before taking advantage of the vulnerable and worn down Susannah. The music is so stark and could be described as simple, but to pull it off requires immense intensity and focus. It is horrific but so relevant in the current #metoo climate.
Which other performers do you most like to listen to, and why?
So many! I listen to a lot of other basses and bass-baritones. For Russian repertoire, I love Boris Christoff. His "Songs and Dances of Death" by Musorgsky are thrilling and definitely on my wishlist to sing in the future. For Italian repertoire I would go to Cesare Siepi. For a bass he had magnificent "ring" or focus in the voice which gives that really noble sound. I am a big fan of Alexander Kipnis for his even tone and lyricism, Tito Gobbi (although a baritone, not a bass) for his acting, Kurt Moll for the low notes... I could go on. I used to listen to music other than opera but at some point my obsession with opera just completely ruined other music for me. If I'm not listening to opera, I'll listen to a podcast instead.
What is the best piece of performance advice you've ever heard?
The big one that opera singers will hear a lot is to "sing on the interest, not on the principal". It's all about learning to sing efficiently. When you are required to fill a huge hall over the top of a 60+ piece orchestra, it is easy to overdo it and give everything you've got. But if you want to make it to the end of the opera, you need to rely on your technique, you need to pace yourself, and you need to play the room. That is a good one Simon Kenway gave the Pacific Opera artists when we sang for the Canberra Symphony Orchestra Opera Gala earlier this month. The concert was in the Llewelyn Hall, which has a reputation for not being too friendly to low voices. Every room is going to have its pros and cons. Simon's advice was that singing involves two instruments, the voice and the room, and you need to play the room if you want to be heard.
What are you hoping to achieve next?
I really want to realise my potential as an opera singer, to become a singer of an international-standard, and to have a career doing what I love. To do that, I need to keep training. As far as basses go, I am still a baby; our instruments get better with age like a fine wine. That said, you can't rest on your laurels. You need the technical refinement to be able to use the instrument efficiently, to be able to approach all of the repertoire that I will sing as my career progresses. So that is what I am continuing to work towards.