Nicole Car – scatting soprano

The jazz-loving Australian sings Tatyana in the Royal Opera’s ”Eugene Onegin”

Nicole Car
Nicole Car
© Alex Vaughan

One of this year's WhatsOnStage Opera Poll nominees – for 'Breakthrough Artist in UK Opera' – the Australian soprano Nicole Car is already well established on her native shores. She is about to open at the Royal Opera House as Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s romantic opera Eugene Onegin, a role that brought her to the attention of director Kasper Holten when she sang it last year for Opera Australia.

In October, WhatsOnStage caught up with Nicole Car at the Royal Opera House during a break between performances of Carmen, her UK debut, for which her Michaela garnered universal acclaim.

Congratulations! Have you read the reviews?

I don’t read reviews in general; however, they seem to have gone up a lot on social media and my agent has posted some, so I have seen a few. I try not to read them because it can really affect your performance afterwards. If different reviewers have different suggestions about things that you’ve done you start questioning yourself. But I have to say the audience response has been incredible. Overwhelming. To step onstage at the Royal Opera House anyway is an unforgettable experience, but to step out for a bow on opening night and have that response was amazing.

You have to earn it there, too.

I guess! But I always think that while characters like Michaela can be seen as boring, they’re also very sympathetic, so if you can manage to tap into the emotions of the character the audience can respond to that.

Tapping into the emotions is what separates a competent performer from someone special. You weren’t just singing: there was a lot going on there. Is that down to your theatre training?

Sure. When I trained in Melbourne there was a lot of stage time, and then I got plenty more stage time during the young artists programme with Opera Australia. It’s different from a lot of such programmes because you’re not always singing ‘second maiden to the left’. In my first year I sang Michaela, Mimì, Donna Anna… big roles that gave me the chance to explore character. If all you’re concentrating on is the music and the singing, then people could stay at home and listen to recording. But what I like to do onstage is think about where the person I’m playing has come from and what the characters around me are doing.

Nicole Car as Michaela in Carmen (ROH)
Nicole Car as Michaela in Carmen (ROH)
© Catherine Ashmore

Thus far your career has happened mainly in Australia, with a few exceptions. Who brought you over here to Covent Garden?

I am starting to work more in Europe and America, but it was really important for me to have my start in Australia and to do these bigger roles that I wouldn’t necessarily have had the chance to do as a younger singer here. I was fortunate that Kasper Holten came out when we did Onegin together in Sydney. I don’t think he knew quite what to make of me for the first couple of days because Tatyana is a character who’s very close to me and I had some definite ideas about how I wanted to play her. But he enjoyed what I did and asked me to come over here for Carmen and again for Onegin.

So the Eugene Onegin that we saw in here 2013 went on to Opera Australia, and now it’s back. Will it be a reprise of what we first saw or a modification of it?

It is a modification. The set and costumes will be a little bit different and some of the staging as well, mainly because we had many discussions about character-driven choices. The premise is still the same: there are still the dancers, which I know were a little controversial, but I love them. But there are changes in any revival. We have four weeks of rehearsals with Kasper, which is great for a revival. And I’m really looking forward to working with Dmitri Hvorostovsky. To see what he brings to the table will be a great learning experience.

You come to Eugene Onegin as a known quantity – no longer the surprise package that you were in Carmen. Do you feel the weight of expectation?

No I don’t, except that it’s my job in every show is to bring something new. My Tatyana won’t be Michaela! It’s a role that I know and love, and I’ve sung many times before, so I’m just excited to bring it to the public here.

As an Australian soprano you’re part of a great heritage. The comparisons with Joan Sutherland will be out there; how do you go about asserting your own personality?

There are always going to be comparisons to Joan, but I don’t sing the same repertoire. It’s really important to be yourself. She was an incredible artist and I grew up listening to her, but it’s about forging your own way.

Asserting yourself is the most difficult thing. Today with social media it’s not enough just to have a good singing voice. People have very short attention spans these days and you’re only as good as your last set of reviews. It’s about being consistent, yet always finding something new.

Do you prefer to sing in English or in the original language?

The original, for sure. Without a doubt. There is a nuance to the language that’s written into the music. I have so much respect for companies like ENO that are really accessible, but having said that, the genius of Da Ponte [Mozart's most celebrated librettist] really doesn’t need to be tampered with. It also underestimates what an audience is capable of understanding. There is language written into the music, so you can hear a line sung by the Contessa, say, and have no idea what she’s saying… and yet you know exactly what she’s saying. That’s the most exciting part. I love singing in Russian and you don’t need to look at the surtitles to know how Tatyana’s feeling.

Anyway, it can be hard to understand what’s being sung even in English, so why do it? The vowel sounds are clunky, even in a good translation.

What are your dream roles?

One day I really want to sing Tosca. It’s the first opera I ever saw and she’s such a complex character. Desdemona [in Otello] would be a lot of fun – she might come round a little sooner. There are some great Verdi roles that I think are underestimated because people always focus on the music. I cannot wait for the day I feel ready for Elisabetta [in Don Carlo].

I don’t think Donizetti and Bellini are my repertoire, but I love Strauss and to sing the Marschallin [in Der Rosenkavalier] one day would be amazing. I’d like to sing another Mimì soon, in La bohème. Age is your friend in opera and there are things you can do with Mimì at my age now – nearly 30 – that I couldn’t do at 25.

You’re still a relatively new name to the British. Tell me something about yourself that we may not already know.

Well, I was a jazz singer before I was an opera singer! At home my dad loved rock music, but at high school my teacher was a jazz singer. I fell in love with Nina Simone and Ella Fitzgerald – I just adored what they could do with their voices. I was good at scatting, and it helps with the coloratura today!

Nicole Car‘s debut album is released on ABC Classics in February (Australia) and March (rest of the world). It includes famous arias from some of the operas she discusses above – Carmen, Eugene Onegin, Faust and La bohème – as well as pieces by Massenet, Cilea, Verdi, Smetana and Rimsky-Korsakov.

Until 31 December 2015 you can vote for Nicole or any of the other nominees in the WhatsOnStage Opera Poll. Follow this link.

Eugene Onegin opens at the Royal Opera House on Saturday 19 December and runs in repertoire until 7 January (six performances).