This month in Melbourne, Taryn Fiebig makes her role debut as Pamina in Julie Taymor’s hit production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Fiebig, who began her career as a light soprano and became a household name as Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady, has lately been charming audiences as Musetta in La bohème, and moving them to tears with her rich, beautiful portrayal of Mozart heroines such as Zerlina and Susanna.
Speaking to Allerta! in a rehearsal room at the Sydney Opera House, Fiebig, friendly and relaxed in jeans and a feminine top and with her blonde hair tied back in a pony tail, tentatively agrees that her voice has shown noticeable progress with each new role that she’s taken on.
“For me, the difference lies in the evenness of tone and the increased volume that I’ve acquired.” She attributes the development of her voice to practice and singing a variety of roles. Not that she took for granted that it would happen. “Of course you want your voice to improve. But mine has changed significantly. It used to be a light baroque voice; it’s become more dramatic; it’s a good lyric now. It’s surprising how much we can develop the potential inside us if we’re given the right roles and direction.”
Fiebig has had many mentors and each one has helped her in a different way. But more than mentors and a good voice, a singer needs the maturity to take criticism on board. “That’s probably the main thing that’s changed in me,” she laughs. “The ego is not so strong any more and criticism no longer threatens me.”
Vocally, Pamina is well within Fiebig’s range and capability; the challenge of Julie Taymor’s Flute lies in the fact that the production has been cut. “You don’t have as much time to establish Pamina’s character, yet the audience still has to believe that she’s madly in love with Tamino.”
Having started her career as a cellist in West Australia, playing My Fair Lady and Evita among other things, Fiebig works from a solid musical base. It’s a background that has given her a much better understanding of opera. “The score is the foundation of everything we do. I would be nervous without knowledge of how it works.”
She learns her roles by playing her part on the cello, and before coming to opera she used to accompany herself on the instrument at concerts. Yes, audiences loved it. “It’s a bit like… “ (she pats her head while rubbing her stomach)“…doing several things at once.”
|Taryn Fiebig as Zerlina in Don Giovanni 2011|
Besides doing concerts, in the early years Fiebig performed small roles in plays and kept up her ballet training. It wasn’t until she was 31 that a director friend, Talya Masel, suggested that she tried opera. “’Tassie’, she said, ‘All the disciplines that you’ve done culminate in opera. You should go to opera school.’” Mazel promptly organised for an audition at the Australian Opera Studio, where she was teaching. Fiebig laughs when remembering her reaction: “I thought, ‘You must be joking, I’m not good enough for that.’ So I didn’t turn up for the audition.” But Mazel rang and said, “Get your arse down here! We’re not leaving until you’ve been!” Fiebig did the audition and was accepted. After two years with the Opera Studio, she moved to Opera Australia.
“I came to opera late, but all the things that I’ve done came together in opera. And now they’re beginning to blossom.”
Was she lucky? She doesn’t think so. “There’s luck in an opportunity, but if you’re not ready to take advantage of it, not all the luck in the world will help you. I was lucky to have been the understudy in Pirates of Penzance when Emma Matthews fell ill and was unable to do the performance, which was being recorded for DVD. I went on within six hours, sang Mabel and was on the DVD. As a result of that I was offered Eliza in My Fair Lady. All that ‘luck’ would have come to nothing if I hadn’t been ready.”
Doing covers has enabled Fiebig to acquire a wide repertoire, but it’s also led to her opera career being all-consuming. “Work is 80-90 percent of my life,” she says. Having gone freelance at the beginning of this year has left more time walking the dog (a daschund called Malcolm - pictured below right), cooking, going to cafes and catching up with friends.
She plans to do a few overseas auditions at the end of the year. “It’s time, and hopefully something will come out of that. But I’m realistic.” She laughs, embarrassed. “There are a lot of sopranos out there.”
Having been in all four OA recordings for DVDs and films is a big advantage. “Since they’re really one take, they’re a true representation of what we do live. I hope that they will carry some weight."
|Taryn Fiebig with her daschund Malcolm|
Making the films was a wonderful but at times sobering experience. “When you’re on stage, the pit is between you and the audience, which means that there’s a little leeway for wrinkles and out of place hair…whereas in film, knowing that the camera’s …there (she holds her hand in front of her nose and stares hard at her middle finger)…can get into your mind a little.” The first time was the easiest because she did not realise how close the cameras were. When she saw The Marriage of Figaro, she grasped that every hair follicle was exposed.
“With subsequent films we made a lot of mistakes in the first run because we were all so self-aware.”
Having come a long way in a relatively short time, Fiebig’s advice to young singers is to take their time.
“Perfect all the different aspects of what makes an opera singer - acting, movement, dancing, singing, language. You can’t learn those things in a room at the Con; you have to practise them in performance. The good thing is that as opera singers we have the luxury of time. By age 35, a singer’s career is only beginning.”