Like a Formula 1 racing car driver and his pit-stop team or the squad that accompanies an elite tennis player, behind many successful singers, is a powerhouse line-up of near invisible experts who coach the performers in voice, language, drama and a variety of other diverse disciplines, culminating in a consummate performance. One such expert is Sydney-born pianist Kate Golla, now living in London and working as a highly sought-after pianist, repetiteur and vocal coach. She returns to Australia in July for a recital series with the exciting superstar tenor Allan Clayton on tour for Musica Viva. The duo will perform Schubert’s Winterreise in a multi-media production directed by Lindy Hume with videographer David Bergman (STC’s The Picture of Dorian Grey) animating over-sized digital screens featuring works from the late Australian painter Fred Williams.
Since moving to the UK in 2014, Golla, the ultimate quiet achiever, has furthered her career with some of the most prestigious companies in the region. She held a 2-year post as a repetiteur with the English National Opera and has performed at the Proms, the Aldeburgh and Edinburgh Festivals. She works regularly with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, the Royal Opera House, English National Opera and the BBC Symphony. In 2018 she performed with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on their European tour and in Europe she has worked at the Hamburg Staatsoper, Opera de Rouen Normandie, Norwegian National Opera, and with the Orchestre de Chambre de Paris. She is also on the opera coaching staff at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.
Golla spoke to SoundsLikeSydney from her home in London, about her life in the UK, on a day off from her work on a new production of La Bohème at Glyndebourne Festival Opera.
Graduating in accompaniment from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Golla worked as a freelance pianist, repetiteur and chamber musician until 2006 when she was appointed Assistant Chorus Master at Opera Australia. After three years, she joined the music staff of the company.
Born to musical parents, Golla started piano lessons when she was eight. Her father George, is the legendary jazz guitarist and her mother, a high school music teacher. Still, she was allowed to choose her own path. “They didn’t want to push me because they wanted to wait and see what I fancied and it turned out I fancied the piano, but not until I was old enough to become interested in it myself.” Golla’s first teacher was Maureen Gray who, recalls Golla, was very strict about teaching her to read music. “I had a good ear for music and so, as a little kid I hated learning to read music because I wanted to play everything ‘by ear.’ But Maureen was very strict with me and that paid off. I soon learnt to read and went to the Conservatorium programme for super-keen young kids and learnt from Elizabeth Powell, who was an extraordinary teacher whom I had for my whole pianistic life.” Along the way, Golla toyed with becoming a clarinetist, eventually switching to studying piano accompaniment and learning from ‘the amazing’ David Miller. “I was incredibly lucky with my teachers and I love them all without exception” she says. “I also had some wonderful clarinet teachers who were very understanding of the fact that I couldn’t decide between the two instruments for a while.”
It’s a testament to her ability that after her tenure at the English National Opera, Golla has maintained a busy career in Europe and the UK as a freelancer. Although there is a video that’s gone viral, of Golla playing for cellist Sheku Kanneh-Mason, her work is mainly in opera. “Playing for Sheku was a one-off piano rehearsal which is all over the internet because he won the BBC Young Musician Award in 2016. I’ve actually only played for him once. Unfortunately, I don’t do much work with instrumentalists and if I do, it’s because of an affiliation with a conductor. Vocal coaching at the Guildhall is something I really enjoy – it’s a really nice part of my work, which over here, is primarily in opera. But through that I am able to do art song and I don’t end up just doing opera. I’m very much looking forward to this tour with Allan because although we’ve done several operas together we’ve never done a song cycle together, so this is a first.”
Was she ever tempted to become a jazz musician? “It’s just not my style and I can’t do the improvising stuff” Golla admits. “But I absolutely love jazz” she enthuses. “It was around me as a young girl and I love the traditional style of jazz that Dad plays. He doesn’t play professionally anymore, only for his own enjoyment at home. When you have a parent who is excellent at something it’s wise not to go down that route especially if you’re not very good at it, so I took a very traditional path and did my piano grades – the kind of thing that my Dad never did. He never had formal musical training” she reveals. “He learnt himself, from mentors and he learnt on the job. I was the opposite and he’s a much better musician than I am and incredibly well-rounded” she claims.
It was through music that Golla’s parents met. “Mum trained classically and she was a pianist of a different kind. I remember her saying that when she was pregnant with me, she was playing in a circus band. She was a ‘gigging’ pianist; she did nightclubs as well and that’s how she met my father. Life took over, she had me and became an excellent classroom music teacher, teaching HSC music for a very long time. So, we’re three completely different musicians, but they’re both wonderful and I’ve never had to explain to them my life as a musician. They completely understand about living on the other side of the world, the travelling, the strange lifestyle and lack of ‘9 to 5’. I was very lucky that I had never had to explain or justify any of that.”
Golla works in places that are global centres of excellence and fame. There are abundant highlights in her continuing career and she searches her memory for one, settling on a Late-Night Prom from 2017. “It was with Anoushka Shankar and an American conductor, Karen Kamensek with whom I’ve done a lot of Philip Glass and who has been very supportive of me. We were joined by the Britten Sinfonia and Anoushka Shankar’s orchestra of Indian musicians. It wasn’t the first time we had blended Indian music with traditional Western music, but it was the first big public thing that I’d done. We played a composition called Passages written both by Philip Glass and Anoushka’s father, Ravi Shankar. Two completely different styes of music – it was amazing working with the Indian musicians and seeing their notation, the way they read music in an utterly different way to how we do. We were all madly counting bars and trying not to get lost and they were just smiling and tapping their toes and looking completely relaxed – that was really inspiring.”
“I’m lucky I get to do a lot of travel and I still enjoy that. I know there comes a time when people don’t enjoy the travel, but for me it’s still quite a novelty. It’s not often that I do things that I think are bland. The theatre is a really interesting place to work – full of crazy characters. Everyone fits in; you don’t have to be any specific person. I never really fitted into any group at school or university and it’s wonderful when you get into career where you can be exactly who you are, all the time and nobody cares. There’s no judgement.”
Golla nominates conductor Anthony Legge as an important influence in her career. Appointed Assistant Music Director at Opera Australia in January 2009, he persuaded her to move to the UK whilst he kept her position available for her at Opera Australia if she returned. “I took a year off from OA as a sabbatical” she explains. “I needed a change and had itchy feet and he was absolutely right. It was really good for me to be thrown into a much bigger pool and to be way down at the bottom in a totally different environment. If not for him I probably wouldn’t have done it and he is still a colleague and someone I work with quite a lot. People like that are really important on your journey and he really helped me. We do really rely on the generosity of our colleagues like that.”
Golla will be working at Glyndebourne until mid-June, followed by “a few weeks cramming lots of coaching.” In the meantime, opening on 13 May, Allan Clayton premieres Brett Dean’s riveting opera Hamlet, directed by Neil Armfield at New York’s Metropolitan Opera where Australian conductor Nicholas Carter will also make his debut. Clayton takes the role to Budapest in early June, followed by the role of Jim Mahoney in Barrie Kosky’s production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny at the Komische Opera in Berlin. The cast and creatives for Winterreise convene in Perth in early July before the national tour commences in mid-July.
At times, Golla is still incredulous of where she has found herself. “We all have moments when we suffer a bit from imposter syndrome and I think ‘What on earth am I doing here?’ I certainly experienced that during early days of coaching when there is a very good student in front of you and you think ‘What can I possibly tell this person?’ That took me quite a while to get over, but now I’m able to tell myself ‘Look Kate! There will be one thing that you can offer this person that they haven’t thought of before, or just one musical suggestion that might awaken them to other interesting ideas.”
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©