It is a grey January morning in the chill of Berlin’s coldest month. Mildura-born soprano Siobhan Stagg, based in the German capital for almost a decade, has been singing up a storm across Europe, and is preparing to fly home.
Growing up, Siobhan Stagg would put on performances in her family living room.Credit:Dylan Coker
Over the past year, Stagg’s work has included playing Violetta in La Traviata in Belfast and singing with the London Symphony Orchestra under conductor Simon Rattle, as well as performing Ravel’s Shéhérazade with the Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in Munich.
This depth of experience ensures that whenever Stagg returns to Australia, which she does most years, her performances earn high praise. This month, following a performance with the Sydney Symphony at Sydney Opera House, Stagg will head back home to Victoria. There she will perform French art songs with a long-time collaborator, pianist Timothy Young, at Melbourne Recital Centre, before singing Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs in the Melbourne Symphony’s season opening gala, Zenith of Life, under the baton of Jaime Martin, whom she is yet to meet.
As part of her new role as soloist-in-residence with the MSO, she will perform a masterclass suitable for everyone, but which provides a particular opportunity for young singers to learn.
Growing up, however, living more than 500 kilometres north-west of Melbourne, Stagg didn’t have many opportunities to attend classical music events. Instead, she staged concerts in the lounge room, “plastering on way too much makeup” and hanging up bedsheets as stage curtains.
Siobhann Stagg returns to Victoria this month for a series of performances.Credit:Dylan Coker
At the end of primary school, Stagg began singing lessons, which included classical, but she lacked the “tapestry” to understand her passion for music could be pursued as a career: she didn’t even know the word “soprano”, though that was where her voice was pitched in her high school choir.
Wearing spectacles and a warm zip-up vest now as she packs her bags, Stagg recalls six-hour road trips to Melbourne, trying to teach her schoolteacher parents and two brothers, who would become doctors, to sing in a round, in which each voice is meant to start at a different point and fit harmoniously together.
“It was not always successful,” she laughs. “They were willing, they were definitely open. My parents were the first generation in their families to go to university, so they really were passionate about education and us having options to pursue whatever we were interested in.”
Stagg did work experience with a vet and with a pharmacy and took a summer job as a journalist with her local newspaper, the Sunraysia Daily. Her best year 12 result was in psychology, but her worst was in music and theatre studies.
So, hedging her career bets, she took up an arts and music double degree at Melbourne University, partly paying her way by waitressing at Telstra Dome (now Marvel Stadium), and living at Trinity College, where she became part of a choir, travelling Europe and Asia, opening her eyes to what was possible.
Stagg’s studies at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music gave her the gift of time, and to understand the instrument that is her voice. In 2011 came her turning point, when she won the Meistersinger competition in Graz, Austria at age 23.
“I could feel it; I was on the precipice of this enormous adventure. What I didn’t predict is how long it would last.”Credit:Dylan Coker
The performance secured Stagg an agent, who got her auditions across Europe, and she won a place in the Deutsche Oper Berlin’s young artist program. She moved to Berlin in 2013.
Having studied linguistics – the theory of language – at Melbourne University, Stagg has of necessity worked hard on her language skills in German and French, as well as the Italian she learned in her earlier years.
She has been required to not only speak but also to think in these European languages, to communicate effectively in the classical music world. Translation is something she does more often when at home in Australia, converting operatic vernacular into everyday English for family and friends.
“I love Australia, but I can’t say it was a wrench to move away,” she says. “I could feel it; I was on the precipice of this enormous adventure. What I didn’t predict is how long it would last.”
To return home is a must, she says, to reconnect and to perform. “I wanted to keep my roots fixed and clear,” she says.
“Dame Nellie Melba always said, ‘If you want to understand me, you have to understand first and foremost that I’m Australian’.
“You can’t deny where you’ve come from.”
Siobhan Stagg will perform at Melbourne Recital Centre on February 20; and with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra for its season opening gala at Hamer Hall on February 24-25. Her masterclass at Iwaki auditorium is on February 28.
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