image © Benjamin Harte
June 1, 2018
Interview with mezzo-soprano, Helen Sherman
Born in Australia, mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and Royal Northern College of Music, where she was the first student to receive the International Artists Diploma in opera. In 2011 Helen represented Australia at the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition and has established herself as a much-sought-after mezzo-soprano in the UK and Australia, both in recital and opera..
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m currently in Zürich rehearsing for the Festspiele Zürich.
Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
Cherubino in Jo Davies’ production of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ for Opera North. It was one of those rare ‘aligning of the stars’ moments; the personalities on stage and in the creative team just gelled to create a real gem of an experience on stage and off. I can’t recall a more cohesive team and as a result a more enjoyable production.
Which novel or play by a female author would you like to see adapted for the operatic stage?
Cuckoo Song by Frances Hardinge. It would be a challenge but if it could be adapted it would be amazing; menacing and magical..!
Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
I get inspired most by those I’m working with. I met Catherine Hopper working on Giulio Cesare recently; she is a mother, has a stunning voice and is a performer with incredible dramatic integrity. This lady inspires me not only for the attributes listed above but by her perseverance, insight and great humour.
In a business where there is always a plentiful supply of artists ready and willing, do you think changes should be made to make the industry more inclusive for artists with families and/or dependants?
Yes. It’s a job. Employers have legal responsibilities to ensure workplaces are inclusive and that certain protections are afforded all employees permanent or contracted. Why should our industry be any exception?
Have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
I never considered my gender to be relevant, but it is. For my job of course my voice type comes down to my gender. I’ve had to play a man in full body armour whilst on my period; aching, swollen and on painkillers; I have witnessed colleagues performing whilst pregnant (receiving contempt from directors and or company management) exhibit stamina and steeliness that was truly awe-inspiring; whilst studying I had a visiting conductor proposition me and then treat me with contempt after I turned him down; On one occasion a drunk man was let into my dressing room whilst I was changing post performance; I have experienced male colleagues take advantage of me on stage because they were “in the moment”. Having said all of this, it is a challenging career no matter your gender and whilst there are some challenges that women alone face, its all down to how companies respond to these challenges and I believe we should qualify for support, legal protections and professional courtesies equally.
What do you love most about your job?
The feeling of being part of something bigger than yourself; something that doesn’t observe cultural, socioeconomic or political boundaries; that speaks in a language capable of healing, moving, uniting and inspiring: it is just a thrill like no other.
What would you change about your job?
Two things. They are things ingrained in the culture rather than simply aspects of the job. 1. This constant celebration of the ‘super human’ façade. There is an isolation we face through lack of transparency between ourselves and our employers about the realities of our job. There is this fear of sharing any shred of the physiological, psychological, technical and medical challenges we ALL face as singers (and humans!) for fear of damaging our reputations and not being hired. This celebration of and desire to project a super human façade, causes company managements to expect super humanness from us at all times and show complete lack of support when you can’t maintain being super human. 2. Disorganisation and disrespect of artists time (poor and last minute scheduling of rehearsals) which seems to stem from an attitude somewhere in the public consciousness that those employed as creatives, receive much of their payment through the fact that they are ‘lucky’ enough to do what they love and therefore must exist in a state of gratitude at all times; and that therefore the rights, protections and remunerations afforded those who slog out the nine to five is not a necessity or a priority for us. These attitudes need to be addressed, challenged and changed.
What are your main interests and passions outside of work?
Gardening, baking and cooking for friends, yoga, jogging, poetry and painting.
Have you ever been advised not to have a family if you wanted a career?
I had the opinion from a very young age that my choice to sing would mean a choice not to have children; I don’t know where this view came from; I grew up on a farm where there was no “men’s” work and “women’s” work, it was just work that had to be done. As a result I never held any belief that I was any less capable or less valuable than my brother or any other male for that matter. I guess, like a little sponge, I subconsciously soaked up the attitudes of the time. Having said that, I have been told by colleagues, friends and mentors over the years that having children is not conducive to success. I have been ranted at in a competition final that I SHOULD have children and not spend my energy on my career. More recently and more than once I have been advised to think about quitting and having children because my career is ‘evidently’ not going to work out. It angers me that my ability to reproduce is a topic that anyone and everyone feels some sort of right to discuss. It angers me that reproducing, is somehow relevant to the ability to attain or to not attain success. It angers me that success has such narrow parameters; that if my career does not exist within these parameters, it is then acceptable for others to instruct me that my consolation prize can be reproducing. Why does one preclude the other? Where is individuality in success? Where is my right to an opinion? Where is my right to privacy?
Do you think women’s career progressions differ from men’s?
Yes. I’ve had a director call a female colleague (who had a very sound track record with the company) names to me, because she was pregnant and requested a day off during a gruelling schedule for a rehearsal that her cover was in attendance and well prepared for; whilst a male colleague in the same production had been granted every weekend during rehearsals off, so that he could travel home to be with his children. Why could one be granted understanding and not the other? In my opinion and generally speaking, (and I acknowledge that many work sectors have changed and in turn altered public attitudes a great deal) the general attitude in our professional context is still this: when men have children, it’s an indication of their virility and their coming of age; when women have children it’s an indication of their change in priorities and their abandonment of career progression.
Where would you like to be in ten years from now?
Happy and flourishing.
Do you worry about balancing your career with your personal life in the future?
If you could go back in time would you change anything in your career?
Yes. I wouldn’t be such an asshole to myself.
What would be your top advice to young singers starting their careers?
Be yourself, celebrate what you bring to the table and don’t compare yourself to others.