Scottish-Australian tenor Longmuir discusses the competition circuit, Mozart as medicine and the $2 video that changed everything.
The first thing you notice about John Longmuir is his hair. It’s impossibly luscious, standing up a full 10 cm above his hairline, framing an expressive face well-suited to the stage.
Then comes his accent – a lilting Scottish-Australian colouring a high tenor tone.
The bel canto specialist is performing as the exotic Prince Tamino in The Magic Flute, and has a busy year ahead: making his role debut as Narciso in The Turk in Italy in Melbourne’s Autumn season and singing the difficult role of Ernesto in Don Pasquale in Melbourne’s Spring opera season.
All this follows a whirlwind trip to New York, studying with the likes of Marilyn Horne.
It’s a strange turn of events for the former West Australian teenager who grew up listening to Billy Joel and the Flying Pickets and spent his high school years listening to Anthony Warlow and dreaming of a life in musicals.
He credits the bargain bin at Target for his change of plans, when as a teenager his “cheap Scottish side” spied a Joan Sutherland video for $2. Years later, he found it in the back of a cupboard and put it on. “I was just mesmerised: the costume, the music, the scenery, her voice,” he said. “That was it. I just thought, yes, I can get into this.”
La Stupenda was singing a Donizetti aria, and Longmuir immediately decided that if he was going to be a singer, he was going to sing in that style – “Donizetti, Bellini, all the showy stuff. It’s tuneful and full of high notes. I like high notes!”
But the road from that moment to the Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House was a rocky one. He did the rounds of singing competitions in Sydney, Melbourne and New Zealand without winning a dime. He auditioned for Opera Australia and West Australian Opera without success. His first audition to the Opera Studio in West Australia also failed.
“I was worried,” Longmuir says. “If I couldn’t even get into the Chorus … maybe I needed to rethink what I was doing.”
But just as his doubts began to gather speed, he won the Herald-Sun Aria Competition with a $35,000 prize. He gave up all his other work and began to focus solely on his voice.
He packed up and moved to Berlin to work with “anyone who would listen” and saw as many productions as he could. Just two months later, he was offered a spot in the Opera Australia Young Artist program and hasn’t looked back since.
“It wasn’t until I stopped doing everything else that my voice started going anywhere. You could tell there was a voice, you could tell it could be good, but I had to train and train and focus on singing before it could be useful.”
His first show for Opera Australia was singing Almaviva in The Barber of Seville. “It was probably the hardest, longest, highest role that I’ve sung so far. Just getting through it was an accomplishment! And then singing a second season of it in Melbourne and finding it was easier … that was a real high.”
As a young singer, Longmuir is acutely aware that his light, flexible tenor may get heavier as he gets older. “I think there will be a point where I have to say goodbye to Rossini and Handel. But I’d like to keep singing Mozart and Bellini and Donizetti. One day, maybe the Duke in Rigoletto, Faust and Romeo in Romeo and Juliet.”
Right now, Longmuir’s voice is sitting squarely where it needs to be: singing the classics of bel canto repertoire and plenty of Mozart.
“It’s quite old fashioned, but I think everyone should be able to sing Mozart. If you find the right role, you should be able to come back to it again and again. It’s good for the voice, it’s sort of like medicine. If you sing something big and can go back and sing Mozart, your career will be longer.”
Longmuir has big ambitions and a long list of dream roles, but he’s not going to be choosy: “All I want to do is work. If I can have a 40-year career singing opera, I don’t care where I’m doing it. As long as I’m doing this, that’s fine by me.”