image © Edmond Choo
June 7, 2018
Interview with baritone, nicholas lester
Australian baritone Nicholas Lester studied at the Adelaide Conservatorium of Music and was a State Opera of South Australia Young Artist. After moving to the UK, Nicholas studied at The National Opera Studio. Nicholas has performed roles for many prominent companies, including Danish National Opera, Scottish Opera, Welsh National Opera, Opera Holland Park, English Touring Opera and New Zealand Opera.He is a father of two.
What are you up to at the moment?
I’m currently performing Guglielmo in Cosi fan tutte for Opera Holland Park and preparing a couple of upcoming roles/concerts.
What do you love most about your job?
I love using my voice to tell a story, collaborating with others to create a show, finding a way to make a story relevant and relatable for audiences, and its fun to make-believe for a living and be someone I’m not in real life too!
How long have you been juggling parenthood and your career?
My son was born in 2010 and my daughter in 2013, so 8yrs.
How long after having/adopting your children did you return to singing?
I was very lucky to be present for both of the births. I was working close to home for the first and lucky to have a very understanding male creative team who gave me a bit of time-out from the rehearsal schedule to make sure I could be there. I was due to be working in Scotland for the second so we were able to arrange in advance for family to be present from Australia to help my wife.
What physical changes did you feel, if any?
Clearly I had none of the physical changes my wife or any mothers go through, but sleep has become a rare and treasured thing! I’ve had to learn how to perform to the best of my ability when overtired, etc (always at the least convenient times-opening nights, role/company debuts, etc) and I also get sick more often.
How did parenthood change your career?
I’ve been fortunate to not be drastically affected. My wife has made many sacrifices to help me establish my career, she works in education and has a predictable income, but has not been as able to consider taking on more responsibility at work or undertake further training and career development. She has been the main carer when I’ve been away for work, we have no grandparents who live in the UK, so we’ve been reliant on babysitters and occasional child-minders-there is always some diary juggling that goes on. I am certainly aware of and have been witness to the sorts of prejudice that women face when they become mothers, from within the performing arts and many other industries. It’s a tough slog for mothers who are in secure employment with maternity leave, job security and other support systems, a completely different struggle for the self-employed!
Do you think that being a father has ultimately enriched your performing?
Absolutely! It gives me a much greater range of emotional and life experience to draw upon, it has helped me to be more focused and efficient with my preparation, role learning, practice, etc. I can remember being asked by a director to hold a ‘baby’ onstage for a particular role, this was before I had become a dad, and clearly I had no idea of how to properly hold a baby and support it’s head, etc. So there’s something I can bring to a production next time I’m asked!
How do your children respond to your job?
Their responses have evolved with their ages. When they were really young, they were generally okay provided I wasn’t being ridiculously loud. As they began to be able to say a few words I would regularly get comments like “No daddy, stop!” They would try and physically prevent me from getting work done, etc. Now they are both old enough to understand what I do, to visit me at work, and to sometimes understand what I am singing about (languages, etc). My son is actually really good at recognising different bits of music, identifying some other singers voices, and it’s got to the point where recently he said “oh, are you doing bohème agaaaaiin dad?! (exasperated sigh)!”
Have your children ever appeared on stage with you?
No, but they are both currently very keen on singing and dancing, so there’s a very good chance…
How do you manage to continue your career alongside your family commitments?
Organisation, communication, planning and adapting when something goes pear-shaped! My wife bears the brunt of this as the one who is home the most. This process takes lots of practice and I still get it wrong from time to time!
What changes do you think could realistically be made within the opera industry to make life easier for artists with families/dependants?
Advance rehearsal scheduling-having been working under the scheduling instigated by SWAP’RA (trialled by Opera Holland Park this year) this has been really helpful! From all accounts it seems to have been successful, so hopefully it can be taken on more widely.
Consideration for weekends within the studio rehearsal period and also start/finish times to help for planning with pick-up and drop-offs.
Outside the industry there is some movement to help support the self-employed more with campaigns for increased shared parental leave, etc, but the self-employed need more help financially for caring responsibilities.
Can you think of an example of a job where you have felt really supported by the company as a parent?
I have a few examples actually:
English Touring Opera-were kind enough to allow me to have my son at a rehearsal because of a last minute baby-sitting issue, and have always (understandably, with some prior arrangement) been open to a theatre or backstage visit.
Scottish Opera-I was called for a last minute audition, and after checking that the panel were comfortable with it, my son was able to sit at the back of the room while I did my audition. They’ve also been helpful finding family friendly accommodation, and welcoming my children to Unwraps, etc.
Welsh National Opera-have been very supportive in ensuring that my kids could come and see me at a dress rehearsal, etc and arranging seats where we could duck-out quickly if necessary.
Opera Holland Park-have always been welcoming and been happy for the children to visit backstage and to have a look at the theatre, a bit of a rehearsal, etc.
What advice would you offer to anyone working in the opera industry who is about to become a parent?
-Be as prepared as you can be with a support network and back-up plans for child-care, but understand that there will be days when the proverbial will hit the fan and that if you are willing to ask for help companies are generally willing to accommodate where they can. Maybe I’m too cheeky, but I figure that if I ask in advance, am polite, and don’t expect they will say yes, there’s a reasonable chance.
-Learn your music as far in advance as you can so that should you get sick before you start rehearsing a new role, you don’t have to learn a role by whistling it because you have lost your voice! (I’ve been there, it wasn’t fun, but it worked!)
-Have a variety of methods to help prepare a role, vocalised, silent, etc so that should you not be able to use your standard approach you have other options (see above).
-Being away from home is hard on everyone! It takes me a day or more to get back into the groove of family life after a period away- we all need to adjust to each other again. Use Facetime or Skype when you can, but know that sometimes it can be incredibly hard work to communicate with children on the other side of the world or even just over a border. Often my children just don’t want to or haven’t got the headspace/energy to focus for long enough to make the call worthwhile-who can blame them when mummy/daddy disappears for days on end!
-Lots of people in the industry are lovely, patient, understanding, supportive, but some aren’t. Not everyone wants to know about the sheer frustration of toilet-training a child, or stress of getting a school place, etc. Learn to be perceptive regarding what it’s worthwhile talking about, and to whom. You may find that you benefit from having someone outside of work to debrief with, Work-out who that could be for you, it’s a good way to let off steam outside of the rehearsal room.
-You are human, and won’t always feel on-top of your life or your craft. Be disciplined, well-prepared, a considerate colleague, but accept that things don’t always go to plan!
Have you come up against or heard of any discrimination or bias as a working parent?
I am not aware of any bias towards me as a father, but I am very aware of discrimination and bias against women and mothers.
I have also worked outside of the arts industry and have been witness to some bizarre attitudes towards female reproductive health-and unwillingness to go into any detail about issues and areas of required support. Assumptions made about how a woman’s ability to perform a job might be hindered by being a mother and having caring responsibilities, as opposed to a positive attitude of “How can we support this person to perform their role to the best of their ability, what changes can we make to create a better environment or working/home life balance?”
I am incredibly aware of how expendable we are as performing artists in a very competitive industry where there are so many people wanting and willing to work, such secrecy about performance fees and remuneration, physical expectations (both assumed/implied and those actually stated). There is so much pressure on us to take work and be glad about it regardless.
Were you ever advised not to have children for the sake of your career?
No. But I’ve certainly been privy to conversations where someone has felt they had the right to tell a women that she should/should not have children. Both from the point of view of potential technical development/deterioration of the instrument and body, and regarding the perceived/real potential risk to career prospects.
Aside from the challenges of working-parenthood, have you ever considered your gender to be relevant to the challenges of your job?
Not particularly. I am not from a financially or socially privileged background, but I am a white heterosexual male, who speaks English. In addition to which I work in an industry where the bulk of the current standard repertoire is full of roles suitable for me as a man and a baritone. This makes me incredibly lucky before I’ve even opened my mouth!
Which operatic character have you most enjoyed playing and why?
I don’t think I have a top one, it would be a top three.
Figaro Il barbiere di Siviglia (The aria is great fun, now that I can sing it, and he’s good fun, cheeky!)
Onegin Eugene Onegin (The music, the language, and playing someone who is so unlike me, ooh and I don’t mind a waltz either)
Don Giovanni (I actually really like the recits he gets to sing, using the text in different ways, the different voices he uses when he communicates with each character, playing someone unlike me, and the license to potentially throw food or be impolite!)
Which novel or play by a female author would you like to see adapted for the operatic stage?
Harper Lee’s To Kill A Mockingbird (I did a very quick search to check if it has been adapted, but I don’t think it has as yet). It has completely relevant themes that would provide a great dramatic arc and would provide another platform for artists from a BAME background.
JK Rowling’s Casual Vacancy would provide a fantastic range of characters for an operatic adaptation too, a bit of suspense but also some good humour. Good potential for a variety of genders, voice-types and playing ages too.
Which woman in the opera industry most inspires you?
(Director) Olivia Fuchs- tells great stories, has a unique style, and encourages great performances from her artists.
(Singer) Anne-Sophie Duprels- juggles an international career with a family and gives intense dramatic performances time and again.
(Conductor) Natalie Murray-Beale one of my go-to coaches, an incredible musician, leader and a great colleague.
Do you have time for other passions and interests outside of your work and family commitments?
I read a bit, binge-watch tv series, and exercise occasionally, but work and family life are pretty busy!
Are you aware of any difference between attitudes to fathers and mothers in opera?
Fathers-don’t go through the same physical and emotional changes becoming a parent, and generally fatherhood is celebrated.
Mothers-are subjected to bias, assumption, discrimination and pressure to not display an signs of going through the process of becoming and being a mother and parent.