Linda Barcan, mezzo-soprano and voice lecturer: ‘Play to your strengths’

Linda Barcan brings years of experience as a professional mezzo-soprano and language-lover to her work as a Lecturer in Voice at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music. One of her top pieces of advice for those following a creative path? Keep an open mind.

By Paul Dalgarno

Can you tell us a little about your teaching for Voice at the Conservatorium? 

My role as Lecturer in Music (Voice) at the MCM primarily involves one-to-one vocal tuition, teaching singing to our Bachelor of Music, Honours and Masters students. It must be one of the most fulfilling jobs possible. There’s nothing quite like the sense of achievement in watching a student leave your studio singing and feeling better than they did when they came in.

I also examine recitals and technical exams, teach vocal class and help with the vocal area productions. That’s when I get to experience the joy of witnessing all the student’s hard work coming to fruition in performance.

Linda Barcan at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA). Image supplied.

What was your route to becoming a mezzo-soprano? At what stage did it feel like a viable vocation for you?

My performance career was one that evolved rather than being planned. I was always singing from a very young age. I came from a family of teachers, not performers, but we were music-lovers and there was a lot of music at home.

I was inspired by musicals initially, and later by records that I bought with my pocket money. They were mostly recordings of opera excerpts, hardly normal teenager fare, though I did also buy ABBA’s Arrival.

At university I studied languages before I turned to music. I love words and languages, and that love has stood me in good stead. The singer of Western Classical art music has to sing fluently in at least three languages other than English: Italian, German and French, as well as, ideally, Spanish, Russian and Czech. Coaching languages is one of my favourite aspects of teaching voice.

I don’t think classical singing ever felt like a viable vocation – it felt more like an adventurous one. It wasn’t until I was well into my teaching career that I realised I’d earned a living singing full-time for ten years, and part-time and casually for 15 years. I was very lucky to have those opportunities in what is an inherently insecure profession.

Linda Barcan. By Dermod Kavanagh.

 

And what about teaching voice – when did that enter the picture?

I feel very fortunate to have taught in a variety of environments in the past 15 years, from performing arts secondary schools to an active private studio to elite tertiary institutions. I have taught pupils aged eight to 80, and am always learning myself. It’s most definitely a two-way street.

Have you had any mentors or teachers who have had a particularly strong effect on you? 

I’ve had a number of mentors in my professional life. Every singing teacher and voice coach I chose to consult with for a significant period of time has had an impact on me. Mentors I can name are my current colleagues at the MCM, Stephen Grant and Anna Connolly, and my former boss at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Patricia Price.

Singing teachers who have influenced me are Glenn Winslade (Sydney); Rowena Cowley (Sydney); Hartmut Singer (Cologne, Germany) and Evelyne Brunner (Lyon, France). Coaches who have had an enduring effect include David Harper (London, UK) and Graham Johnson (London, UK). I have also learned a great deal from observing my performing and teaching colleagues.

Linda Barcan (right) in Sirens of Song. Image supplied.

How did working and training in France and Germany inform your practice? 

The greatest advantage of living and working in France and Germany as a young adult was the exposure to a wide variety of musical activities presented by performers from many nations at an elite level. I worked alongside singers such as Katia Ricciarelli, Sylvia McNair, Susan Graham and more, and had the opportunity to observe international artists such as Renee Fleming, Felicity Lott and Jose Van Dam in performance. Getting to use the languages I had studied at university in context was also a real buzz.

You have an affinity for 20th and 21st-century opera. What is it about operas from that time period that appeal to you? From a vocalist’s perspective, how do they differ from the older, classic operas?

What I love about contemporary operas is that they engage in boundary-crossing and in challenging notions of genre. I’m thinking of works such as Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer or Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits, for example. It is also a bonus that, in the case of 21st century opera, the composers are living, providing the opportunity to speak with them directly about their intentions.

This happened frequently with Deborah during the creation of Pecan Summer. I was a cast-member of this groundbreaking Indigenous opera, playing the role of a local busybody and troublemaker by the name of Mrs Harrison. When I was a lecturer in Voice at WAAPA we produced Little Women and were able to set up a phone conference between composer Mark Adamo and the cast and crew, which made it feel very real.

Linda Barcan plays Mrs Harrison in Pecan Summer, by Short Black Opera. Image supplied.

Is there a tension between teaching and performing for you? Does one inform the other? 

I’m always learning both as a performer and a teacher, so for me performance and teaching most definitely inform each other. Both encourage us to ask ourselves questions, which keeps the work alive. The only downside is that both vocal performance and singing teaching place demands on the voice, which may or may not be complementary, depending on the load. It can be difficult to balance the two activities, and vocal fatigue can be an issue.

The singers you work with at the Conservatorium are of a certain age and stage in their development and have no doubt developed lots of styles and habits in their practice long before working with you. What are the pros and cons of this?

The pros are that they are young, fresh and elastic. In particular, one of the benefits of the Melbourne Model is that our students tend to be more broad-minded. They are trained to think for themselves and to approach learning in different ways.

The disadvantage of teaching young people can be that we often deal with sophisticated song and opera texts that require a certain amount of maturity and assume some life-learning. I suspect it’s true, as many acting coaches believe, that we have experienced every shade of human emotion by the age of three, but tapping into those can be tricky.

Also, in contemporary culture and society we are no longer surrounded by the sound and heightened emotion of Classical singing, so conveying those to a student can also be problematic. YouTube and Spotify are modern tools that can help, but nothing beats the acoustical energy of live sound.

Linda Barcan (right) in The Emperor of Atlantis. Lost & Found Opera, WA. With Corrine Cowling (left) and Daniel Sumegi (centre). Image supplied.

Do you get stage fright? If so, how do you combat it? And is this something you have to help students with?

Everybody gets nervous when they perform, and when nerves are optimally harnessed they can add to the energy of performance. But it takes experience and technique to know how to channel nervous energy into a more positive one. Ultimately it’s a question of just getting up and doing it. Getting back on the horse is a part of the learning process – and indeed can really contribute to the excitement of performance.

Can we all learn to do better with our voices (assuming we’re not tone-deaf … or maybe even if we are)? 

Absolutely we can! Think about the power of primal sounds that emerge spontaneously from heightened events in our lives. I don’t know that there are any tricks as such, but it’s hard to deny the power of breath and emotion. We can circumvent a lot of difficulties using these. Combining this approach with a progressive, technical one is a challenge we all face as teachers and performers. How much of the body is involved in spontaneous primal sound? All of it, I would say. We can learn a lot from watching babies and animals, who use their whole bodies to communicate.

Is there a particular piece of advice that has held you in good stead throughout your career?

I have several pieces of advice that I give to my students, and to myself: play to your strengths, never stop learning, and always keep an open mind. A closed mind is certain death to creativity and imagination, and as artists these are our tools-of-trade.

 

Banner image: Linda Barcan in Opera on the Beach. Sutherland Shire Council. Image supplied.