SPOTLIGHT ON roxane hislop
One of Australia's most acclaimed mezzo-sopranos.
Roxane shares a glimpse into the world of an opera singer, how school supported her love of music and performance, and how a piece of advice given to her from a great artist made a big impact on her career and outlook on life.
Tell us a little bit about when you came to PLC Sydney, what your school experience was like and what your plan was for after school?
I didn’t come to PLC Sydney until I was in Year 9. I was already thinking about moving schools because I had lots of friends at PLC Sydney, I had just started taking singing lessons at the NSW Conservatorium of Music, and I thought that the College would be a better fit academically and musically for me.
In Year 11 and 12, I knew that in the future, I wanted to go on the stage in some form but not completely decided as to how or when. At that time, I was taking Speech and Drama lessons with Miss Audrey Keown at school as well as continuing my singing lessons at the Conservatorium and studying piano and music theory. I was involved in the Drama Club as well as the school choir and madrigal group.
How did your career unfold after you graduated from Year 12?
My time at PLC, Sydney definitely guided me into my singing career. Both Principal Dr Freda Whitlam and Miss Keown were extraordinary influences in my life. In my entrance interview with Dr Whitlam, I was telling her about how I’d just started taking singing lessons at the Conservatorium as a single study, and I remember her saying “right, well we will encourage that!” Even from my earliest days at the school, she really kept an eye on that aspect of my life. She pushed me to make the most of opportunities, take on solo roles and represent the school in music competitions.
However, even though I auditioned for the Conservatorium to do an undergraduate degree immediately after school, I decided to go to Sydney University. Freda had always said that if you’re going to have a career on the stage, it's good to have something behind you as well. I enrolled in Law at Sydney University and switched over to a combined Arts Law degree after the first year. All the while, I kept on singing.
At the end of my Arts degree, I did a summer clerkship at a law firm and thought hmm… I’m not sure if this is for me! [laughs]. I had also auditioned for the Opera School at the NSW Conservatorium and won a scholarship to go there for three years. I thought I’ll just take one year off law [laughs], and that was that. But I was very glad that I had at least completed an Arts degree because the mid-career I went back to uni and did a Masters of Education in Arts Administration which would ultimately make my later career move into teaching at university much easier.
After I graduated from Opera School, I joined Opera Australia and was lucky to have an ongoing association with the company from 1985 till 2016. I was initially a member of the chorus, but after winning the Sydney Sun Aria competition and the Metropolitan Opera auditions which led to studying in London and New York made my principal debut with the company in 1988. I was a resident principal mezzo-soprano with Opera Australia until I married in 1995 and moved to Melbourne and then continued working with them as a freelance artist.
I have a repertoire of over 60 roles with the company and as a freelance artist have been lucky enough to perform with every major Opera company and Symphony orchestra in Australia. I did think about pursuing work overseas and was offered work in Germany, but my sister Glenice became ill with breast cancer which eventually claimed her life and I did not want to move away during her last precious years. In retrospect I am glad I didn’t pursue an international career, it is very hard on family life, and I was fortunate that there was so much wonderful work in Australia at that time.
What does a typical workday look like for you?
I started teaching about twenty years ago, and initially, I would have one or two students as I was travelling a great deal with my performing work. Around 2016 I started to transition more into teaching rather than performing. It was quite a natural progression. Over the last two years, I would definitely call myself a teacher rather than a performer.
I teach at the Conservatorium at the University of Melbourne, and I usually have around fourteen students that I teach one-on-one, ranging from undergraduate to Masters programs. I also teach an Acting for Singers class which I love and give several masterclasses on performance and repertoire for the whole faculty several times per semester. I work Monday to Thursday and Friday is my chance to catch up with friends or have coaching on my own repertoire if I have a performance coming up. COVID-19 has posed some interesting challenges and changes to this normal working week and all of us have had to quickly adapt to teaching online which, whilst challenging, has been remarkably successful. In the case of Acting for Singers, it meant redesigning the programme over one weekend to be able to deliver something the following week. Luckily I was co-teaching the subject with a colleague, and we managed to come up with a good alternative, but neither one of us got much sleep that weekend.
I'm sure anyone reading this who also teaches, would have been through a similar experience and I am very much looking forward to returning to face-to-face teaching!
What’s the most significant piece of advice that you have received in your life and who was the person that shared it with you?
I was given this particular piece of work-related advice quite early on in my career. The music industry is competitive, and there’s always competition for the same roles, particularly when you are young and less established. I was doing some vocal work with one of Australia’s best sopranos - Rosamund Illing. I can remember asking her advice on what to do especially with there being so much competition in the industry. She advised me to look for the areas of repertoire I did better than anyone else. "Find your niche,” she said.
I’m a mezzo-soprano, and those roles encompass playing the role of young boys,” colourful women” or the companion or mother character. The other mezzos were much more boyish than I was, so Rosamund suggested I concentrate on the more feminine roles.
Whenever I presented for an audition, I would sing arias from Carmen, Samson and Delilah or Werther - all very feminine roles which not only suited me vocally but also my appearance and personality. I tried to stay away from a repertoire that suited others better, and that seemed to work in my favour.
What has been your proudest career moment to date?
Singing Carmen with Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House. It still feels like a dream, and I often pinch myself that I had the opportunity to do that. I was fortunate to sing the role in two separate productions during my time with the company.
If you could travel back in time to your 20-year-old self, what advice would you give her?
Always strive to be the best you can be and never give up. Be kind to yourself because not everything will go to plan. Keep on pushing to be the absolute best that you can be and don’t be disappointed if things don’t necessarily go down the pathway you think. You’re often taken down a different path which proves to be as good or better. You’re in a competition solely with yourself and nobody else. Make everything you do better than the last time you did it. If you can forget about all the noise around you and focus on that - I think it saves a lot of time and angst.
Being a teacher and an opera singer, time must be a challenge, and I can imagine when you’re performing, finding balance in life is always challenging too. What tools or tips do you have that you go to for balance?
When I was travelling a lot for work, it wasn't easy being away from the family, but when I was home, I just tried to make them my main focus and be as normal as possible. I would fly home whenever I had a few days off and slip back into normal family life for that time. I was so fortunate that my husband Peter was incredibly supportive and capable of carrying on with little disruption to our son James schedule, and I realise how lucky I was to have such support. When I began to teach more, I tried to keep my hours limited to when James was at school, and I have never taught on weekends.
What are some of your favourite memories or moments that really stand out to you from your time at PLC?
I had a lovely circle of friends at school, and though I don’t live in Sydney anymore, enjoy catching up with them when possible. Fortunately one of my friends from school, Linda Davie (Cambridge, 1977) now lives in Melbourne. I’m godmother to one of her daughters, we spend Christmas together, and she lives just around the corner. Some of my favourite memories revolve around my musical experiences; it was such a wonderful time. I was in such a talented year group and the Year 11 play - The Wizard of Oz - was a real focal point for all of us. It was a very special time. On a smaller scale, in my last year, I came back after my HSC to do a Drama Club production of The King & I, with the talented Jenny Charles (1979) playing the King.
I loved the early morning madrigal group. I lived in Blakehurst, and another member of the group Jane Lennox (1977) came from Cronulla. Still, somehow, along with the other members, we all managed to get to school at some unearthly hour to practice gorgeous madrigals under the expert instruction of Megan Nelson (1977) at the piano.
What values do you think PLC Sydney instilled in you that you have carried with you in your approach of life?
I felt that everybody was valued. Every student had something to offer. My talent happened to be music; other students were good at sport; some were academically gifted. PLC Sydney appreciated, valued and developed whatever the individual’s talent was and it was celebrated. That was my impression, and I did take that away from school. Even in my teaching now, the standard of my students varies considerably, but each is special and unique in their own way.
PLC Sydney tried to find individual strengths, and they found mine and strongly encouraged it. By the time I finished at PLC Sydney, I almost had no choice but to go into music and to perform.
Roxane Hislop as Rosina in Barber of Seville for Opera Australia.