When Nicole Car stepped onto stage in Germany wearing a strapless sage green ball gown layered with glittering tulle, the director of the Neue Stimmen Vocal Competition raised one eyebrow and said:
“So, this is the dress for a nun, huh?”
Nicole Car was about to dazzle the judges with her rendition of Puccini’s “Senza mamma”, sung by a cloistered nun in Suor Angelica.
In true diva-style, she’d picked the fanciest dress she could find among a gown collection that’s growing nearly as fast as her singing career.
“I like to think that if I had small feet, I’d have a fabulous shoe collection,” Nicole explained. “But I don’t, so instead I’ve got a massive gown collection.” Lucky for her, it’s quite a practical obsession for a rising young soprano. “The first big competition that I sang in, I got Melbourne designer Linda Britten to make me a gown. Then the next one came along and I thought … well I can’t wear the emerald again…!”
But glittering gowns and glamorous gigs are only part of the picture for the young soprano hitting her stride in the opera world, both at home in Australia and overseas.
Balance and burnout
Already in demand on the Australian stage, her recent win in the prestigious Neue Stimmen Vocal Competition has catapulted her into the world spotlight. As offers fly in from opera houses around the globe, Nicole has much more than the next dress to worry about. From this point forward, every decision she makes and role she accepts will shape her career. Say yes too many times and she risks burnout and vocal damage. Say no too often and she misses opportunities.
“It is really hard to say no, it’s just not trained into a singer’s brain. I see an opportunity, and I want it! But I think it was (baritone) Michael Lewis who told me that the times I say no in my career will be more important than the times I say yes,” Nicole said.
“There are too many roles out there that I want to do. I think there’s time for all of them, but I don’t want to get to the point where I realise I’m not capable of singing something anymore because as a young artist, I did too much too soon.”
Nicole has a busy year in 2014 and a big one in terms of career development: for Opera Australia, she will reprise Mimi in La bohème and make role debuts as Tatyana in Eugene Onegin and Donna Elvira in Don Giovanni. She goes on to sing with Victorian Opera and will make her US debut at the end of the year.
“It’s really busy, but it’s also very balanced,” she said. “I have this highlighted calendar on my fridge where everything is colour-coded and I have gaps planned in. You have to approach it in a businesslike manner. There’s always space to cram something in, but if that means you won’t do the best job for the next gig or the gig after that, it’s not worth it.”
A year of opportunity
After a few months in Europe on the competition and international coaching circuit, Nicole is itching to get back on to the Sydney Opera House stage, which she’ll do when La bohème opens on New Year’s Eve. “I love, love, love Puccini and anytime I get the chance to sing ‘Mimi’ I’m a very happy girl. This production of La bohème is so beautiful; it will be really fun to attack it again.”
After the doomed Mimi sings her last, Nicole Car will take on the role of Tatyana in Eugene Onegin, a co-production with the Royal Opera House directed by the visionary Kasper Holten.
“Tatyana isn’t in the general repertoire all of the time, so it’s a role I can really take ownership of,” Nicole said. “There’s not a heap of recordings, there’s not a heap of DVDs I can watch, so I can just create the character I want to create. And vocally – she’s a gift of a role! In the letter scene you are on stage for fifteen minutes just singing your heart out. It’s very rare to have that opportunity.”
While the Royal Opera House’ production was filmed for DVD release, Nicole is determined not to watch it. “I don’t want to absorb what other people have decided is their Tatyana. I want to take my own life experience into Tatyana, so she can be a little more innocent than the older, wiser woman characterisation.”
The next few years are shaping up to be a defining time in the young soprano’s career, as she pursues opportunities overseas and develops new roles. But Australian audiences need not fear they will lose Nicole to the lure of the European stage.
“Ideally, I’d like to work a couple of seasons here every year and a couple of seasons overseas every year. I think it’s really sad when people mouth off about Australian opera, because actually, Australian opera has some amazing singers. We have truly world-class singers and we attract truly world-class singers from overseas and it’s truly amazing to get to work with them.”
Despite her rapidly rising star-power, Nicole still has the wide-eyed joyful wonder of the 17-year-old jazz singer who saw her first opera in Melbourne and thought, “Far out. People can make sounds like that?”
Her love for opera is still founded in that moment – (Deborah Riedel singing the title role in Opera Australia’s Tosca) – and it all comes down to the power of the voice.
“It was the only opera I’d ever been to. And it made me feel. When you talk about crazy Wagner fans, it’s the same thing. It’s because opera makes you feel. It doesn’t matter if you’re feeling the same thing as everyone else is feeling, it’s still your own heart that’s moved. And there’s something very special about that.”