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Seeds of Hope – Deborah Humble On Loss And Opportunity During The Pandemic

Mezzo-soprano Deborah Humble talks about life during and after lockdown – the disruption and loss, self-realisations, her responsibilities as a teacher and the opportunities – new and returning.

Like most artists, you had all your engagements cancelled in 2020. What effect did this have on you?

I was approaching the end of a block of Opera Australia Ring Cycle rehearsals in March when things got shut down in Sydney. My partner Bruce Caldwell and I decided to retreat to our property in the Hunter Valley where we were grateful to have space, fresh air and plenty of physical work to occupy us for the next few months. As each singing engagement was cancelled it was difficult not to get more and more dispirited and despondent. It became apparent fairly quickly that the entire year was going to be a disaster professionally and financially. For me personally, this meant not only the cancellation of a four month contract for the Ring Cycle in Brisbane in which I was to sing Waltraute, but also contracts in Munich, Venice and Vicenza, the European launch of a new CD and multiple concerts around Australia. I had my first job as a tour guide for The Travelling Tenor cancelled. I was to lead a tour through Northern Italy taking in multiple performances and featuring various cultural and food experiences. I also missed out on my first international teaching engagement in Germany. By the end of the year I realised, in a way I have never really had to confront before, just how much my personal and financial self-worth and identity are tied up in my singing career. I really missed the adrenaline rush and excitement that performing always gives me, as well as the actual physical and mental benefits and challenges of singing itself, to say nothing of interacting with audiences and colleagues.

What are some of the things you did to keep busy last year? 

In some ways I’ve never been busier. My first priority was to assist my students when it became clear we could no longer meet face to face. We set up Zoom lessons in April and began online coaching. I organised seminars in score reading and learning and set everyone an operatic role or a song cycle to learn. I put them in touch with language coaches and directors and overseas teachers. So many young aspiring singers missed out on important career advancing opportunities in 2020. There were no competitions, no masterclasses, no young artist programmes, no international summer schools and no performances.  It was very hard for them to know what it was they were actually continuing to work towards. Many lost their singing income and other part time jobs overnight which caused a lot of financial stress on top of everything else. I was not only a teacher last year but at times also an amateur psychologist, motivator, mother figure and shoulder to cry on. I continue to be hugely impressed at the adaptability, positivity and resilience that a lot of the young people I work with and mentor have displayed.

You opened your home in the Hunter Valley to visitors for the first time.  How did that come about?           

In May I decided to open up part of our house, Brycefield Estate, and list it on Airbnb. I spent a month refurbishing the space into a self-contained guest suite and preparing it for the first visitors who arrived for the June long weekend. I naively thought that a few people might come and that it would give me something to do as well as making up for some of the income I had lost. So far we have had nearly 70 groups of guests staying with us.  A spontaneous idea quickly turned into a near full time commitment and I ended up offering all sorts of extras; wine tours around Lovedale and Pokolbin, private dinners, cooked breakfasts, morning teas. I was concierge, guest services manager, tour guide, cook and cleaner. The Hunter Valley is a popular destination for weekend breaks in NSW and with travel restrictions being what they are for the time being, I’m sure it will be busy for the foreseeable future.

In October last year you held the first Brycefield Estate Small Scale Music Festival. What inspired you to do that?

The other idea I had regarding our property was to start a Brycefield Estate Music Festival. Numbers were restricted in private homes at the time so I organised the sale of twenty tickets for every event and implemented COVID safe regulations. It was all rather unpredictable, but I was very motivated and inspired to get Sydney and Newcastle artists back to work and give them a live audience to interact with. The first festival was held over an extended weekend in October and featured fourteen musicians all of whom were delighted to return to performing. It was also very clear that audience members were thrilled to hear live music again. It turned into a very emotional and hugely successful weekend. We were entertained by Mark Trevorrow and Bev Kennedy who made us laugh and cry during their very clever cabaret show Singing Straight.  Newcastle Camerata gave a sensational concert which featured the world premiere of Taking Flight by composer Dr David Banney and received a standing ovation. Classical guitarist Andrew Blanch gave a Latin inspired solo concert and joined the Camerata to give a performance of Vivaldi’s Lute Concerto.  We finished the weekend with an evening Art Song recital as the sun went down over the Brokenback Ranges. Spurred on by the enthusiastic feedback, I was inspired to organise a second festival weekend which will take place at the end of March 2021 with larger audience numbers. The concerts will feature a wide variety of local artists including the amazingly versatile mezzo-soprano Jacqui Dark performing her new cabaret show, harpist Emily Granger, guitarist Andrew Blanch back by popular demand, flautist Jane Rutter, Newcastle quartet Sax Blu and baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes. There is an opportunity to picnic in the Brycefield gardens and to mingle and talk with the performers. The festival has already attracted numerous private sponsors and it is my hope that it will continue to grow.

After giving tremendous support to your students and pouring so much initiative and energy into your hospitality venture, what do you do to regenerate your energy and emotions? 

By the time 2020  came to a close I have to say I felt physically and mentally exhausted. I realised that I had not only felt my own disappointments very keenly but also those of my colleagues and friends. Bruce summed it up very well when he said that, whether or not we acknowledged it every day, there had been a constant level of anxiety present for the entire year. When he was also unable to work for several weeks due to the cancellation of elective surgery we enjoyed time in our garden and vineyard. It’s always been one of Bruce’s dreams to make wine and a couple of years ago he planted some of Australia’s first pecorino vines as well as continuing to establish the chardonnay and semillon. He spent hours every day working on the property and was rewarded at the end of this January with a very good 2021 harvest. We both spent a lot of time in our kitchen cooking and trying new recipes; Bruce preserved our lemons and made our first ‘lockdown limoncello.’ He also made batches of great tomato chutney. We grew and ate our own garden produce (how many ways can you cook with kale?) and connected with local Hunter Valley suppliers for other foods like eggs, cheese and milk and bread. I kept a Coronavirus diary which might be interesting to look back on in the future. I Skyped with friends in Europe and it turned out there were several advantages to having virtual dinner parties, the least of which was not having to drive home afterwards! We really didn’t go out at all for two months; my diary notes that I used one tank of petrol in seven weeks. In some ways it was a privileged time. We had space to enjoy our home without the pressures of our regular jobs and we became very grateful for the small and simple things in life. I guess you could say we slowed down. We took time to smell the roses and watch the sunsets.

What does 2021 hold for you? 

Overseas travel is still impossible but some Australian concerts and engagements are beginning to be rescheduled. Opera Australia have reissued my Ring Cycle contract and recently announced the complete casting so I’m very much looking forward to that keeping me busy from early August. I have spent the last few weeks with the company learning and rehearsing the role of Judith in Bartok’s Bluebeard’s Castle whilst the Romanian mezzo-soprano who was cast in the role was in quarantine in Melbourne. There was some doubt as to whether she would get to Australia at all, so I stepped in to rehearse the music and production at the last moment. This was a great opportunity to get back in vocal shape very quickly; something of an initial shock after a year off! I am very aware that Opera Australia may be the only company in the world performing at present and I’ve made the most of every moment immersed in this exciting score, relishing the chance to reconnect and make music with valued friends and colleagues.

I have several performances of Lee Holby’s one act operatic monologue for mezzo-soprano Bon Appétit coming up with pianist Sharolyn Kimmorley. This comic, culinary extravaganza is based on a classic episode of Julia Child’s popular television show where she makes Le Gâteau au Chocolat  L’Éminance Brune. It’s quite a challenge baking a cake in 25 minutes whilst singing! We’ve been invited to be part of the Newcastle Food Festival in April which sounds like a lot of fun. I have a concert performance of Elijah with the Sydney Philharmonia Choir in September, will sing Resphigi’s Il Tramonto  as part of the Newcastle Music Festival in August and have several recitals booked. The world is nowhere near back to normal but there are some engagements to look forward to at least.

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