A rising young baritone tells of the sacrifices and satisfaction involved in pursuing his dreams.
Throughout history, there has been no more effective catalyst than waking up with a hangover. It’s a common human experience, and one that has inspired everyone from playwrights to athletes to make solemn vows of self-improvement!
Combine that with a 30th birthday and a relationship breakdown and you have the recipe for a complete life overhaul.
“If you want to hunt for development, there are certain questions you just can’t have answered,” Dundas said.
That’s the story Samuel Dundas tells of his transition from an ambivalent twenty-something casual opera singer to a man on a mission devoted to a single cause: to be an opera star singing to the very best of his ability. He gave himself a year to see if he could ‘make it’.
It was October 2012, and Dundas was rehearsing for Opera Australia’s La bohème. He’d already had a big year: taking on Mozart’s famed seducer in Oz Opera’s touring production of Don Giovanni and performing at the Sydney Opera House in OA’s Cosi Fan Tutte (for which he was officially declared a ‘Barihunk’).
Playing Marcello in La bohème should have been the crowning role in Dundas’ year of successes. But it was actually the role that nearly derailed his thus-far very charmed career. During a coaching session, an Opera Australia coach bravely told him his Marcello was “awful”. At around the same time, Dundas was rejected by the famed Merola Opera Program.
“It was an enormous wake-up call. I realised I had some over-inflated ideas of my skill set and where I stacked up. Singing had always been secondary because I didn’t really know how to do it. I just did it. People kept giving me stuff without me really trying, so I didn’t know anything was wrong.”
When Merola turned him down, Dundas emailed them looking for answers. “To this day, I cannot thank them enough for not getting back to me,” he said. “If you want to hunt for development, there are certain questions you just can’t have answered.”
Dundas tried to fill his days by going to the gym, but the return of a chronic headache soon put paid to that. “All of a sudden, I just started going to work. I literally just started booking rooms and practising. For the first time in my life, I was singing every day. ”
Dundas decided to give up alcohol until La bohème opened. “I practised so much, I was just totally immersed in La bohème. And I felt a million bucks. I could sing every day, without question, Monday through Sunday. So I thought I’d go a year. It was my year of all sacrifice.”
Since then, the svelte young baritone has become a fixture at The Opera Centre in Sydney. Day in, day out, Samuel Dundas can be found rehearsing music and studying scores in the confines of coaching room 2.
“I have learnt what it meant to work hard,” he said. “I’ve learnt how good it feels. And I’ve learnt how the more you work, the more the carrot dangles, and you just want to go after it more.” With that in mind, Dundas has spent the year relentlessly pursuing excellence.
Dundas had a busy winter approaching: playing the affable Sid in Britten’s Albert Herring, covering two roles and singing the 22-syllable role of the gaoler in Tosca.
“Covering is such a different skill set, as you have to learn a part without really rehearsing it. So when I got the call to step up and play Dr Malatesta in Don Pasquale, well it was like being thrown in the deep end. What do you do? You just have to swim. You put the blinkers on and just go for it. And when I saw how successful Don Pasquale was, it just vindicated making all of those sacrifices.
“Now the ball seems like it’s rolling in such a way that I don’t want it to stop,” Dundas adds.
It’s coming up to Dundas’s 31st birthday and the end of his “year of all sacrifice”. Has it paid off? Has he made it?
“I think for most opera singers, actually working is the end goal. Lots of singers have a bucket list of what they want to sing and where they want to sing. But for me, that’s changed. It’s about how I sing. That one educates the first two. I’ve found this really happy peace this year, where I know that I’m working as hard as I can. If things happen for me, they happen. There’s nothing more I can do.”
Things are certainly happening.
Dundas will shortly head off to New York, after winning the coveted Lady Fairfax Scholarship which offers young opera singers $42,000 to spend over six weeks in pursuit of opera training. Next year is a big year: he sings Papageno in The Magic Flute, Prosdocimo in The Turk in Italy (wearing only bathers!), Ceprano in Rigoletto, Belcore in The Elixir of Love, and reprises Dr Malatesta in Don Pasquale, all for Opera Australia. He also gets to cover the lead role in Eugene Onegin (“a great developmental role”).
“I don’t want to stop now,” Dundas says. “I don’t know what else I would do. I always talk about Sundays as my lonely day, because I can’t go to work. Sunday’s the day I realise I don’t have a normal life. But then Monday rolls around, and I go back to doing the things that I love!”
While his career goes from strength to strength, Dundas is careful not to let his ego get ahead of him. It helps that in his own circles, he’s far from famous. The musician in the family is his brother Toby – who plays drums in Aussie band The Temper Trap. The trophies and awards that line the walls of the family home are all Toby’s.
“He’s definitely more famous than me,” Dundas says. “Except in the over-65 demographic. I’ve got that wrapped up.”