September 10, 2018
Interview with soprano, cheryl barker and baritone, peter Coleman-Wright
Cheryl Barker is an Australian soprano who has had an impressive international career. Cheryl appears regularly on the recital and concert platform, particularly noted for her performances of Madama Butterfly and Tosca. She has sung for English National Opera, De Vlaamse Opera, Hamburgische Staatsoper, Deutsche Oper, Berlin, Dutch National Opera, Houston Grand Opera and the Opéra National de Paris. and her many recordings include Madama Butterfly, Katja Kabanova, Rusalka and The Makropoulos Case for Chandos. Cheryl was awarded the Order of Australia in the 2015 Queen’s Birthday Honours.
Peter Coleman-Wright is an Australian baritone who has performed for the world's great Opera Houses, including The Metropolitan Opera, The Royal Opera, English National Opera (most recently in the title role of Glanert’s Caligula) and the Glyndebourne Festival. He created the roles of John in Johnathan Harvey’s Inquest of Love, Colin in David Blake’s The Plumbers Gift and Harry Joy in Brett Dean’s Bliss which he performed in Australia and at the Edinburgh Festival.
Cheryl and Peter are husband and wife and they have a son, Gabriel.
What are you both up to at the moment?
CB: Earlier this year I sang Gertrude in Brett Dean's Hamlet for the Adelaide Festival and for the rest of the year have various concerts, adjudicating and some masterclasses.
PCW: I am currently learning a role to record early September.
Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments? How have you maintained a balance between your busy career and having a personal life?
CB: We have a dog, so walk her twice a day. I play Mahjong with some friends once a week and swim. It has been very difficult maintaining a good balance between busy career and having a personal life, and I have consciously worked hard at maintaining relationships with friends, family and my relationship with Peter. We have spent a great deal of money in the past travelling to be with each other whenever we had time off between performances
PCW: I must admit that for most of my career I was running between jobs and seldom had time for holidays or proper respite. Both Cheryl and I tried to make sure that one of us was more available for our son Gabriel. As I get older, I have realised that a good balance is vital to be a good artist.
SWAP’ra has been established to try to encourage gender equality in the opera industry. There are several obstacles for women in fulfilling their full career potential, and one of these challenges is the juggle of career and parenthood. But of course, this particular challenge also affects opera fathers. Peter, could you describe the ways in which a busy career has affected you as a father over the years, and if and how this differs from the way parenthood affected Cheryl’s career?
PCW: I would have to admit that the greater burden of responsibility lay on the shoulders of Cheryl especially during the early years of our son’s life. She always took him with her as well as a Nanny. Singing huge roles in many different countries and being Mum to both the child and the Nanny is something that she was a great deal better than I was. We did try to share the load as he grew older, and there were times that he she had to have to herself. I think that Cheryl was selfless with our son, but she has no guilt whatsoever now that he is at University. We were lucky that we were both busy singers and able to be together more often than not.
Do you both think women’s career progressions differ from men’s?
CB: Definitely. Where are the female roles for Sopranos over the age of 45? Men can go on much longer. The jobs definitely drop away for females as they get older.
PCW: No I don’t. I truly believe that if one’s destiny is to have a successful career, gender doesn’t matter
How have you both managed your careers alongside your family commitments? How has this changed as your son has got older? What have been your lifelines in this juggle? (Helpful grandparents/nannies/boarding school/etc?)
CB: Living in the UK for the first 6 years of Gabriel’s life when our family was in Australia was difficult. We didn’t have the family back up, although our parents were willing to come and help us out when we were both working at the same time. This was much easier when we moved back to Australia. The main thing was to be incredibly organised. Gabriel always travelled with me until he started school. It was great when we were working in London and we were home. We had a nanny for two years from the age of 2-4 as we were pretty well going from job to job. She and Gabriel travelled with me although it was quite stressful in foreign countries, as I had to have everything organised. Somehow you muddle through, but it is amazing how you can still manage to sing when you have had no sleep. Things got more difficult as our son got to school age. When we decided to base ourselves back in Sydney we negotiated a three year guaranteed performance contract with Opera Australia which gave us some security. Gabriel went to an International School in Sydney and they were happy for him to come out for the odd term. He attended the International School in London for a term and twice a term in Houston, and once we took a tutor with us to Europe when we were both working which was not successful due to a wrong choice of person.
PCW: My wife is a great time manager, and this has helped us a great deal. We were lucky with wonderful parents who helped us along the way as well as a nanny for two years. Our son was used to us being separated and as a result is self- sufficient now and manages well without us if we are away.
How have you managed each other’s schedules in order to manage your family’s needs. Have you taken it in turns at working away for example?
CB: Our manager Peter Bloor at Askonas Holt was aware of our predicament and was mindful of looking for jobs for us either together or not too far away from each other.
PCW: Yes. We always made a conscious effort that one of us would be around for our son. There were times that we were both away, but we always sorted things out well in advance. Our son came first.
Have you taken your son out of school for long periods and home schooled/tutored them in order to have him with you when working abroad? Please tell us how this has worked for you?
CB: See above. International School in London and Houston worked well. Private tutor, not so. This was when Gab was 12 when had the tutor. His school send work via email, but the tutor was not good and he fell behind in Maths.
PCW: Yes. He spent some school time in Geneva,London, Houston. It did require a lot of organisation and planning before we arrived to work with the Opera company. It was better to have our son with us than not.
How does your son respond to your job? Have you found opera companies accommodating when he has travelled with you?
CB: Gabriel respects what we did now, he was quite blasé when we were young. I had the happy privilege of singing Madama Butterlfy with him as the child for Houston Grand Opera. A real thrill for me. He also auditioned and sang in the Childrens Chorus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Opera Australia. He had a great boy soprano voice. I never got the feeling that opera companies were thrilled that you had your child with you nor did they offer any help.
CB: I don’t think our son knows anything different. We usually tried to manage our private family issues well away from our work.
Peter, have you ever taken your children and a nanny/au pair abroad with you for a production when Cheryl has been working/away?
CB: Peter has taken him for a week or so during tech week with the 2 year Nanny when I was singing Katya Kabanova in Geneva and he was singing in Amsterdam.
PCW: I did take him with me to Amsterdam and New York but not for long periods. If Cheryl went away and I was at home in our family house I would look after him alone.
Have you noticed a change of attitude towards women in opera during your career? (In all areas of the industry, not just with regards to parenting) Do you see any difference in these attitudes in different countries?
CB: No. If anything, I think it is worse. The Singer used to be wholly respected, not so anymore. The whole attitude towards singers, male and female has changed for the worse in my opinion. This is reflected in the lower fees offered, companies scrimping on rehearsal time etc whereas often more staff is being put on in the Management and Marketing sections. Perhaps America is a more child friendly. I remember in Houston we were invited to an Easter Egg hunt and another time, one of the volunteers who was allocated to look after us, kindly took us trick or treating. I was always aware that having a child was my choice, and I didn’t expect anything from the Opera Company in way of support for my situation.
PCW: I can’t say I have. Women are usually more in touch with their needs and concerns.
Women are considerably under-represented in opera when it comes to directors and conductors. Do you observe any differences in the way women in these roles work, or the vibe of a production led by women?
CB: I often feel that women in Opera feel they have to be tough and mean - maybe they have to be to command respect, and they are definitely under represented but they often have attitude.
PCW: I have been lucky to work with several female directors and conductors. All of them have been strong women with great work ethic. None of them had children.
Do you think there is any value in targeted support, training and performance opportunities specifically for female directors and conductors in order to redress the balance?
CB: No. People’s attitudes need to change. Opera Boards (generally Male dominated) need to realise that appointing a female Musical Director should not be some sort of sideshow, just part of the norm.
PCW: I do not believe that there should be anything specific for female directors and conductors, designers. It is paramount that women and men be treated equally. Separate training sets up differences from the outset, something which we are all trying to leave behind.
What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry, to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
CB: It is difficult with freelance artists. We are in and out in a couple of months. Perhaps an allowance could be made to contribute to child care. Or perhaps 'Friends of the Opera' and Volunteers could help out with baby sitting or ferrying children to and from school or childcare. Make them earn their free tickets to the dress rehearsals!
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry is about to become a parent?
CB: Do it! You will work the logistics out and the pleasure you get from all phases of your child's life is worth all the sacrifice, stress and expense. Creating a little human being is no comparison to creating a role.
Were either of you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
CB: Yes. My singing teacher Dame Joan Hammond told me once that it was not possible to have a career and children. She was of the old school where everything was dedicated to the career. I really think these days it is a mistake to give your entire life to the career. The profession is no longer one where the best singer gets the role, or rarely do you get the caring attitude from an artistic director where they nurture you and build your career and profile. It is now a throw away society and one cannot expect to have a lifetime career as a freelance artist.
How has your voice/the roles you are cast in changed as your career has gone on?
CB: My voice has mellowed as I have aged. The roles have gone from Mozart to Puccini to Janacek to Strauss.
If you could go back in time would you change anything in your career?