Soprano Cathy-Di Zhang is starring in Bohème on the Beach, a State Opera South Australia production coming to Glenelg beach for one night only, this weekend. We told you about this production a few months ago (read our earlier article about it here). Cathy-Di Zhang chats to us about the State Opera South Australia production of Bohème on the Beach.
Bohème on the Beach is a one-off beachside State Opera South Australia performance of La Bohème, an Italian language opera set in France. Tell us a little about what audiences can expect from Bohème on the Beach next weekend.
Audiences can expect the full opera experience, but at the beach! It is a perfect opera for opera lovers and newcomers alike. We just started rehearsals and this production by the wonderful Stuart Maunder is full of life, joy and of course, love. Be prepared to laugh and cry! Simon Bruckard, incredibly talented young conductor and composer, will lead the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.
You’re in the role of Mimi in State Opera South Australia’s Bohème on the Beach. Can you tell us a little about this role?
Mimi is a young seamstress who, one magical night on Christmas Eve, meets and falls in love with her neighbour, the poor but passionate poet, Rodolfo. However, their love is complicated and Mimi is tragically ill, but this is a love story till the very end. The score is gorgeously lush and lively but it will also break you heart at the end.
Also, you played the same role in La Bohème for Opera @Stone in Berlin. How does this production differ to the Berlin production you starred in?
That production was also not in a theatre, but in a brewery! It is always a pleasure to revisit a role and to discover new things, in a new production and with new people. I’ve also never sung an opera on a beach before!
How does performing an opera outdoors, such as State Opera South Australia’s Bohème on the Beach, differ to performing in a theatre? Do you have to perform differently?
Of course, there are more challenges to performing outdoors. We are at the mercy of the elements, rain, wind, temperature, noise and so on. I remember doing an outdoor concert in a beautiful part of regional Tuscany in Summer but you couldn’t hear a thing because of the thousands of deafening crickets! We will also be mic’d of course, which is probably the biggest difference. With a mic, it allows you to do more things in a way, as you know you will always be heard, so you can experiment with vocal colours and singing very softly, but at the same time, you don’t have an acoustic to work with. Indoors, every theatre will have its own unique acoustic, which gives a certain character to the sound.
When did you first know that you wanted to be a singer, or more specifically a soprano? What drew you to opera?
I always loved to sing, since childhood, but I never really thought about it as a career until later. I sang for myself mostly then, and I sang pop, musicals or church music, not opera. In high school, I enrolled in singing lessons after school and it just so happened that the singing tutor was an opera singer. Though we sang many other genres, she taught classical technique and she was the one who told me my voice was more suited to classical and opera. I have to say I wasn’t sure at first, but she slowly and gradually convinced me over the years to give it a go. I was sold when she took me to see my first ever opera at the Sydney Opera House when I was 20. I was stunned. I was so moved by the storytelling, the sheer power of the voice and orchestra together and also so entertained by all that was going on onstage! She told me early on that I was a lyric soprano, and she was right!
Do you come from a musical family?
Not at all! My dad was in business and my mum is an accountant.
Even though you have a long list of singing credits, you also hold a Bachelor of Commerce from UNSW. Have you ever practiced commerce, finance or accounting? Or is it a fall-back degree?
Well, I didn’t come from a musical family, and although I enjoyed singing and thought about pursuing studies in music, my parents were hesitant and encouraged me to complete a “proper” degree first. During uni, I worked as an intern at Deloitte as an auditor for the financial services sector, where I was then offered a graduate position, and I was also singing as a young artist for Pacific Opera at the same time. I realised singing was my true passion and therefore started my official training in postgraduate studies in London.
As my website is about all things French and francophone in Australia, I noted with particular interest that you undertook the Mozart Residency at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence. Could you please tell us a bit about this residency and your time in Aix. Also, did you need to speak French to undertake studies there?
The Mozart Residency was one of the best experiences for me as a student singer. It was in 2013, and I had auditioned in London and then in Paris. They chose 12 singers from all over the world for a 2 week intensive at the Festival studying alongside the best, watching the best and working on all Mozart repertoire! Being one of the best Opera Festivals in the world, it is truly an international scene so it was all in English (but of course most people there could speak many languages). It was wonderful to be immersed in the French culture. Aix is one of my favourite places in the world. I returned in 2019, singing in their new production of Weill’s Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny and spent the best month there! It has to be my favourite Summer Festival.
Similarly, you’ve trained at the Verbier Academy in French-speaking Switzerland. Could you tell us a little about that training?
Yes, that was the year after in Summer 2014. I first completed the Solti Accademia in Italy and then we all went on to the Verbier Academy for more masterclasses and a concert. Again, all the best young talent were there studying, and the biggest names were there performing. I saw the most incredible performance of Berlioz: Le Damnation de Faust there. Verbier was completely different to Aix, but beautiful nonetheless, I was mesmerised by the snowcapped mountains. I hadn’t seen anything like that before then!
Last year you sang in two French language operas in Opera Australia’s Carmen and Pinchgut Opera’s Platée. Do you have a preferred language to sing in?
Yes, I did an entire national tour of Carmen for 4.5 months! It is definitely one of my most favourite operas, just so much fun to perform! I first sang in the chorus of Carmen at Glyndebourne as a student in London so I know it quite well! Platée, on the other hand, had never previously been performed here in Australia so it was such an incredible experience bringing that to life. It was a crazy French comedy and one of the most bizarre things I’ve ever done! I definitely prefer singing in French and Italian. The first concert I did coming out of COVID was a French chanson and Piaf concert for the Castlemaine Festival in Victoria, as that was what I was mostly singing for myself at home during lockdown! I love the sensuality of the French language.
You’ll also be returning to Sydney’s City Recital Hall for Pinchgut Opera’s performances of French librettist Charpentier’s Médée. Tell us a little about this role?
Again, this will be an Australian first and I’m really looking forward to it. The mythological tale of the sorceress Medea is so perfect for a grand operatic tragedy and Charpentier’s five-act work is a true masterpiece. It is full of fierce characters, and is incredibly demanding musically and dramatically. I will be singing Princess Créuse, the role of the “other” woman. When Médée discovers her lover’s betrayal, she murders Créuse, and her own two children. It is going to be epic.
Other francophone places you’ve performed in include Nice (Nella for Les Azuriales Opera) and as a soloist in concerts with Ayrton Desimpelaere and the Orchestra of the Opéra de Liége – Wallonie, with Arie van Beek and the Orchestre de Chambre de Genève and with Marius Stieghorst and the Orchestre Symphonique d’Orléans. Tell us a little about these experiences.
Singing in Geneva was definitely a highlight. We did an all Mozart programme at the beautiful Victoria Hall. I just stood on that stage, looked around taking in its beauty and almost forgot to open my mouth to sing! In my early days as a young singer studying in London, one of my sponsors and supporters was (the late) Jacques Dessange and his wife Sally. They loved music and I would often go to Paris or their country home with other young musicians and we would play chamber music and soirées for them, their friends and family and guests. They organised the concert I did with Marius for the Rencontres Musicales de Chaon Festival. Singing Nella in Gianni Schicchi was also memorable as we performed in the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Nice, an idyllic location. It was my second Schicchi, and in a different role, the first being Lauretta. With the Orchestra of the Opéra de Liége – Wallonie, I did two concerts in Belgium, in Namur and Brussels, as part of winning a competition there. I sang arias from bohème and Gounod’s Roméo et Juliette!
You’ve also won prizes in France and in French-speaking Belgium: 2019 Grand Prix in the “Concours International d’Art Lyrique de Namur”; and the 2016 Audience Prize in the Les Azuriales International Singing Competition. How did your entry in these competitions come about?
Competitions and auditions are often a very important part of every young singer’s journey. They can be terrifying and seemingly torturous experiences but they really help you build nerve, teach you about dealing with and performing under pressure, and it’s a good opportunity to sing for industry figures. So I did many competitions in my student days anywhere and everywhere! I had a great experience in Namur, Belgium. I stayed with a host family there, and I still keep in touch with them till this day. They spoke very little English, so I learnt some French whilst I was there and of course, winning was a great outcome! As I progressed through the different rounds I think my host family were more nervous than I was about it all! The Les Azuriales Competition was in Nice, and the beautiful location actually took the stress out of the competition! Maybe that’s why I won the audience vote, as I was just so happy and relaxed to be there!
What’s been your career highlight so far?
Probably my last production, Platée. It was the most challenging role I’ve performed to date and it was in a completely new style for me (French baroque). But I completely fell in love with the music and we had a luxurious 6 weeks to work with the brilliant Neil Armfield and create the madness that was the show!
What sort of training do you do in the lead-up to a performance? Do you have a pre-performance ritual?
Obviously, the preparation starts a long way in advance! All the practise and vocal and musical preparation is all done before the first day of rehearsals. On a show day, I don’t have any particular rituals as I want to reduce stress as much as possible. I try to have a good long sleep the night before, and have a quiet day to conserve voice and energy. I like to revise the score and the production in my head so I feel as prepared as possible and maybe I’ll do some gentle stretching/yoga so I’m feeling physically relaxed and ready for the night ahead. A little meditation or breathing exercises to calm the nerves. I normally don’t have a heavy meal beforehand, just something light but filling, but I always go through a fair amount of sugary treats!
Who is the State Opera South Australia production Bohème on the beach best suited to?
Everyone really! La Bohème is a favourite for seasoned opera fans as well as a perfect introduction to first-time opera goers. It is such a great tragic love story that everyone can relate to and Puccini’s music alone will break your heart!
Why should people come to see State Opera South Australia’s production of Bohème on the beach?
Glenelg is such a stunning location, and with the water and the sunset, it will be an evocative backdrop for getting lost in 1930s Parisian bohemian life. There will also be giant screens capturing all the action so everyone will have a great view. Fireworks, a fantastic cast, full chorus and children’s chorus, all accompanied by the brilliant Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. Definitely a unique night out to remember!
Anything else you’d like to add?
Thanks for having me!
We thank Cathy-Di Zhang for this interview.
KEY INFO FOR STATE OPERA SOUTH AUSTRALIA’S BOHÈME ON THE BEACH
WHAT: Bohème on the Beach by State Opera South Australia
WHERE: Glenelg Beach
WHEN: 26 March 2022
HOW MUCH: Ticket prices start at $30 for general admission tickets and go up to $160 for Premium tickets. Children under 16 years of age enter free.
A Reserve; $130;
B Reserve: $100;
C Reserve: $60,
Under 30s: $30, and
Children under 16: FREE
Corporate and Platinum packages are available via State Opera Suth Australia
HOW: Buy tickets via this link:
DURATION: 2h 30m (including 15 min interval)
Have you ever attended an outdoors opera performance before? Have you seen previous productions by State Opera South Australia?