Seeing Morgan Pearse, Australian baritone, in the second round of the Cesti competition, it was clear he was going to be a winner. You cannot evaluate a musical performance based on measurable units. If you are a jury member or a listener sitting in an audience, you have your inner barometer, either conscious or unconscious, that tells you this was a poor/average/good/great performance. When Morgan entered the stage, he had not even opened his mouth yet and you could see the healthy self-conscious attitude of a mature singer sure of his talents and previous work that made us want to be a part of what he presented. Meeting Morgan after the competition revealed what was behind the success of a winner of the Cesti competition.
D: Why did you choose to become a singer?
M: You do not choose to be a singer. The thing is, with this job so many people want to be singers, but no one ever gets to choose whether or not to be a singer. It is all about someone else deciding. So you have to rely on other people´s decisions to be a singer. You have to work really hard, but there are so many people working really hard! When I was 17, I had my first voice lesson. I studied at University, I did a master´s degree in London, and continued training…
Singing is a combination of having something genetic, natural, that gives you an advantage. Then it is hard work and also lots of luck…
…and to a certain extent you can make your own luck, but lot of the time you have to rely on other people to have a career, and that is kind of what this competition is all about. Everybody wanted to make it to the semifinal and then maybe to the final, but there are 84 singers, and that is after they have already made a pre-selection. I would say at least half of them are really good and could be semifinalists, but in the semifinals there were 18, so much less than a half. And it is not your decision, it is someone´s else decision if you make it through or not.
D: What was your mindset at the competition? What did you focus on?
M: You try to be as perfect as you can, but you can’t think I am going to win, you can’t think I am going to lose. You should think, I have 5 amazing people from the top opera houses in front of me and I’ve got to do 5 auditions at once, and for this you have to do a good job. I am quite a loud singer and some people in early music, they go… “oh… he is too loud”, and I can´t control it.
You have to get used in this job to being rejected a lot, and sometimes you do not even know why.
When you get into a competition you just have to enjoy it and do the best that you can do and just see what happens and not expect anything.
How do you prepare for your job? Do you have any routine?
M: There is no routine. There are some people that work on much more routines than I do. I prefer to work my voice with regularity but not with a routine. I have lessons at least once every two weeks, and then I will see various different coaches as well who are excellent with languages, and I will see a particular coach to help me understand style in baroque music. Nowadays singers are doing all kinds of different things, and in order to survive, we take the advice of others we trust.
D: What were your goals when you started singing? Did you have any particular stage you wanted to sing on?
M: I really wanted to sing in Sydney opera house and I got to do that 3 years ago now. I sang Handel’s Messiah there and my whole family got to be there. You have your dreams and places where you would like to sing. I never thought I would go to London. I would have never thought I would go for the young opera artists program in Houston, one of the best programs in the world. I had a wonderful time there, singing amazing roles. I would have never thought I would ever sing Figaro in Barber of Seville there on the main stage, but then it happened and everything went well. Of course every singer has their dreams, we would love to sing in different places. You have to sing in La Scala.
Well, but still you have to be realistic and hope that someone else is going to say “yeah I like you, I like your sound and I want to hire you to sing in my theatre”, and that is really how this industry works.
So it is not just talent. There are lots of singers and you have to find your way.
D: Have you identified qualities that make you better or that separate you from other singers?
M: I know that technically my voice is rather a lyric baritone, so it is a high baritone voice, but I have low notes as well, which means I can sing early music and still sound like a baritone. I have sort of an extension at the bottom of my voice that is unusual. This is genetics, and it means I have the ability to sing certain roles, especially in baroque music, that other baritones can’t. So that is something I wanted to highlight with the repertoire I chose to this competition. It was not something I would usually feel comfortable singing, but it is something that makes me different from other baritones. Other than that I think it all comes down to a personality.
If you are a casting director you are not going to simply cast someone only because they have a good voice. At the end of the day we are in the entertainment business…
…and you have to make a cast that makes sense for the roles. I am lucky that the lyric baritone roles, character-wise, they suit me often, and the roles are often the way I feel as a person.
D: I saw you singing in the semifinal and final. The difference from other singers was, there was no pose in your singing, no doubtful pretentions. How do you make your performance so authentic?
M: It is 2 things. Having enough experience to choose things that suit you, and everything I have sung in this competition except for obligatory aria I have already performed before. And I also think it is very important to understand everything I am saying. It is a very basic thing, but if you are going to sing something you need to know what every word means. Language is so important.
If you work on the language, you will suddenly see there are so many beautiful things in the language that can enrich your own performance.
And we as singers often focus so much on technique and beauty of the sound, but at the end of the day, language is the most important thing, because it is telling a story. And we have one thing as singers that every instrumental player does not have, and that is words. So we should spend more time on words than anything else, because that is the way you can create a character.
D: How do you pick your repertoire, if we talk about recitals or competitions?
M: For this competition, the first round was 1 piece, so I thought in my head there is a certain number of composers. So I thought, most of the people will sing Händel, therefore I told myself I will sing something different, why not… And I wanted to sing something fast, impressive and short. I think when you are doing an audition, you never want to sing anything long, because if you sing something too long…
Most people can tell if they like you in 10 seconds!
So I just wanted to sing something 2 minutes long that was impressive. In the second round, we get to sing two pieces, so I wanted to make sure that I had a contrast between the two of them, so I chose the very high and very low piece. But that was quite slow, and then I thought, now I want to sing something just high and happy. And then in the final we were told to choose one of the pieces from the Kaiser Octavio, and I chose the one I considered nicer. Whenever you choose the repertoire you need to make sure you have a contrast of composers, languages, and styles. Competition is about distilling your talent, taking the best things you can do and showing them. It’s no good choosing all one style, and then the Händel thing… Then they think you can’t do anything else.
For recital, you need to have variety because you need to think of people. It should be something interesting for them to watch. That does not mean every single piece has to be different, but you need to have variety, otherwise people will get bored.
D: Have you always had a good time practising?
M: Absolutely not! Every singer, every instrumentalist has challenges. Being a musician is about constantly evaluating your qualities, so for me you never finish learning, you always have to keep trying things and keep doing things differently. One of the hardest things for me is arriving to a rehearsal thinking you have learned something, and then the conductor will tell you something you do not agree with, but they are your boss. So that can be challenging: working with people that have very different opinions from you. Then the director arrives and he tells you, you have to do this and wear that or have no outfit! I did a Händel opera once where…
…I had a nude massage on stage, and I was not even singing! I had a soprano who was undressing me while singing her aria…
But I loved the production, we had a great director. However sometimes you do not get along with people. You do not get along with the cast, with the director, with the conductor… and that might be challenging. On the other hand, it makes you appreciate when things work out well! You know, if you get 10 people in room, you won’t like all of them the same. It is like any other work place. Sometimes this might be the hardest. It happens that your opinions about the character might not be what the other people think, so you have to evolve as an artist. It is challenging but it is also fun.
D: How did you choose your teacher? How did you know they were a good teacher for your voice?
M: It is so hard but it is so important! You need to choose a teacher you like, you feel you have a good dialogue with. So many people choose teachers because they heard they are good teachers, but I was so lucky. I met Russell, my teacher in London, when I went there to audition for the Royal College of Music. I was told, you should try this and this and this teacher, and I went there and with Russell it just felt right. So trust your gut, your gut is amazing and it is usually correct. If it is not working, find someone else. If you are a young singing student, you need to find a teacher you feel good with! It is the same with athletes and sportsmen; they need to find a good coach in order to succeed.