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Meet the young Australian singer touted as the next Joan Sutherland

Written by
Ben Neutze

It’s inevitable that any Australian soprano making waves on the global opera scene will be compared to Joan Sutherland. No local singer has reached her level of superstardom since she broke through in the late 1950s, and Australian opera fanatics are constantly on the lookout for an heir to the throne.

One of the most promising contenders to attract the comparison is 32-year-old singer Nicole Car, whose career is going from strength to strength. She made her debut at London’s prestigious Covent Garden in 2015 and has now performed three leading roles there, including Mimi in the company’s new production of Puccini’s La Bohème. Later this year, she’ll tick another dream off the list when she makes her debut at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, singing the same role.

But back home in Oz she’s about to take on one of the roles for which Dame Joan was well known: Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. What’s more, Car will be making her debut in the role at the Sydney Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre, where Sutherland and a long line of leading singers have performed the role.

“Kiri Te Kanawa has done it here,” Car says. “Then there’s Joan [Sutherland], obviously, Emma Matthews, Deborah Riedel, who I admire very much, Cheryl Barker – all these huge Australian singers have made their mark on this role. I think to take it on you have to have some guts, and it took some time to think I might have the right fortitude to do it.”

Nicole Car in 'La Traviata'
Photograph: Prudence Upton

The singer, born and raised in Melbourne, only started in opera when she was 17. Before then, she had aspirations of being a jazz singer, but everything changed when she saw Tosca and was inspired to explore the more operatic parts of her voice.

But it wasn’t until recently that Car seriously considered playing Violetta, one of the most celebrated and challenging soprano roles in the canon. In fact, when Opera Australia’s artistic director Lyndon Terracini first floated the idea, Car asked if she could put off making her debut in the role for a few years.

“Vocally it’s tough, but not undoable,” she says. “But character-wise, she’s so intense and multifaceted that I wanted to make sure I had the appropriate amount of time to prepare. I’ve died in opera before, I’ve fallen in love and all those things, but Violetta is such an interesting character.”

La Traviata is based on La Dame aux Camélias, a novel by Alexandre Dumas, which tells the tragic story of a young courtesan who falls into a deeply passionate but ill-fated love affair with a member of the bourgeoisie. The first act of the opera sees Violetta on top of the world, floating around a wild Parisian party and flirting with all her guests. It also features some of the opera’s showiest singing, including the epic aria ‘Sempre Libera’, a piece of music so joyous and popular it appears in a pivotal scene of The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

The second and third acts are significantly heavier – both vocally and dramatically – and Car says she feels much more at home in this territory. Part of the young singer’s success in the 21st-century opera world is down to her first-rate acting skills. She’s certainly not an old school “park and bark” singer, but always immerses herself in each role that she plays.

“We’re in an HD world right now,” she says. “The last two productions that I did were filmed live in HD for cinemas and will be released on DVD. With the close-ups you have, if you’re not engaged one hundred per cent with the character and what you’re doing, people will see.”

And that’s not only true for cinema broadcasts: Car says grounding the character in emotional reality means the performance translates and resonates for audience members who may be sitting in the very back row a large theatre.

“I think it can be harder for slightly older singers to really inhabit that, because the way of teaching they had was that it was all about the voice,” she says. “And it still is about the voice – sadly maybe not as much as it used to be – but you do have to have the drama behind it and the intention behind it, and the acting skills to portray the character. It doesn’t matter if you’re five foot tall and five foot wide or eight foot tall and one foot wide, you have to have real connections with people on stage.”

She says it’s particularly easy to have those connections when she’s performing at home in Australia, with singers who she’s known for many years. And while she may be in high demand at opera houses all over the world, she’s committed to returning to her home turf, where she feels comfortable enough to leap into new and challenging roles.

“I’m Australian. This may not be my physical home, because I don’t have one right now, but this is where I grew up. I love the house here, I love the people here and I love the audiences here. To get the chance to return – it may not be able to be every season, but I wouldn’t do two seasons without doing at least one production here.”

It will also allow Car the time to connect with family and ensure that her newly born son will get to know the country his mother grew up in. But for the most part, Car’s life is now lived on the road, working between Europe and North America, taking as many opportunities as possible to sing opposite her husband, leading French Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis.

“The next four or five years is almost set, so you then have to start looking at what’s being offered after that. The roles that they’re offering mightn’t be appropriate for right now. So you have to think: will I be able to sing this in five years? Will it be comfortable for me in five years?”

Although the plaudits keep coming and Car is now able to build a career between London, New York, Paris and Australia, she shrugs off comparisons made with the greats that have gone before.

“I think if you believe in yourself too much, then you stop learning and you stop trying to better what it is that you do, and that’s when things stagnate. I kind of hope I never believe any hype that might be going around. I hope I just plod along and trust that the people around me are telling me the right things, and trust that my voice is doing what it should be doing and I’m doing what I should be doing.”

La Traviata is at the Sydney Opera House from March 1 to 27.

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