WAO Spotlight with Anne Millar
The glowing warmth of the spotlight. Hushed whispers in the wings. Tears, joy, laughter…and finally, the curtain call.
From debuts to swan song performances, we want to shine a spotlight on our creatives who have worked passionately to bring the magic of opera to you. Connect with your state opera company on an intimate level and follow the journey of one who has shared our dream for over three decades.
Join us with retiring mezzo soprano Anne Millar as she reflects on curtain call mischief, deliciously wicked characters, and the memories imprinted indelibly on her soul.
Hear her parting words of wisdom and help us wish her a heartfelt farewell.
1. The Barber of Seville marked 35 years of you singing with West Australian Opera. Can you share with us some of your most memorable moments?
As far as memorable operas are concerned, Peter Grimes was a standout. The sheer brilliance of its complex score and intense psychology made it seem impossible to conquer, yet so much more satisfying once finally achieved.
For each sublime moment there is one equally ridiculous. At the curtain calls one performance, I was standing next to a dear friend and fellow mezzo. Her beautiful and powerful voice often landed her extra lines of solo, and this was one of those times. Just before she was due for her solo bow, we realised that one of our more playful colleagues had tied our apron strings together. Not a simple bow, but a knot that became even more tight the more we panicked! There was nothing for it but to step forward and take my bow alongside her. Feeling mortified and entirely undeserving of the honour, through gritted teeth I whispered ‘This is so wrong’ while simultaneously beaming a glittering smile. Perhaps another Diva would have milked it for all it was worth, but at that time, I was not that person. Our kindly Chorus Director, Francis Greep, was thankfully reduced to as much mirth as were my fellow choristers and felt there was no need for further admonishment. I never did manage a satisfactory act of retribution against that one colleague…she was too wily and always saw me coming.
2. Take us back to the beginning. How did you discover your love for opera?
All I knew was that from a very young age, singing would be my life and passion. At the time, I never dreamed I would spend so many wonderful years associated with an actual opera company.
From driving my parents crazy singing TV ads and radio songs, to growing up into school productions and eisteddfods, my parents always encouraged me. Thankfully my mum played the piano and we’d spend evenings singing around it. As they were enthusiastic members of the Queensland Arts Council in a small town called Charters Towers, many ballet, symphony and opera productions would tour to perform for the schools and town. We would often billet these artists and I was perfectly placed to ask them my many questions. I was amazed to meet some of these luminaries early in my professional life and find myself working with them in WAO. Even crazier, I found myself in the exact same situation as a touring opera singer for schools and regional areas in my first years on contract as Resident Mezzo.
I think it was Madama Butterfly from the touring Queensland Lyric Opera Co that opened my eyes and heart. I’d heard opera recordings on old vinyl records my father played all the time. The Marriage of Figaro was his favourite. Sadly, I always came up short at adequately mimicking the true operatic sound of the voice, but I was still young and untrained. When the immediacy, drama, vocal power and emotional intensity of that touring production hit me, I didn’t care. I would give it my all.
I was given the opportunity to study in Sydney at the NSW Conservatorium of Music. I completed my Teaching and Performers Diplomas and continued to finish my Opera school diploma. As good fortune would have it, Vince Warrener (then General Manager of WAO) was auditioning for a Resident Mezzo.
So, I moved to Perth to join WAO to begin this incredible journey of personal growth, vocal development, principal and chorus roles, concert performance, touring, oratorios, and forays into cabaret with other companies.
What a wonderful time I’ve had.
Anne Millar (seated, centre) as the Dowager in West Australian Opera's 2017 production of Lucia di Lammermoor.
3. What has been your favourite production to perform in and why?
For me, whatever production I’m in at the time is my favourite, and in over 35 years there have been many!
I’m drawn to the darker side of human nature in the arts, so opera has been a blessing. I love to delve into the complex motivations of characters such as in WAO’s 2019 production of Macbeth. As one of the infamous witches, I could really give reign to my more wicked qualities, not to mention watch with glee as the central characters destroyed themselves. The chorus of Peter Grimes was an entity unto itself, full of malice and gossip, and it fascinated me. The self-delusion and degradation of Faust, Don Giovanni and Scarpia were studies in human nature. The dazzling Merry Widow, with our glorious late Taryn Fiebig, doesn’t quite fit my brief but THAT set and THOSE costumes! Bringing to life this period in musical history was an intense joy.
However, it was learning from the brilliant talents that have graced His Majesty’s Theatre that I found truly exciting. Our Artistic Directors and Conductors lead us to the highest standard of musical professionalism. I am utterly in awe of opera Directors, who not only grasp the motivations, actions and movements of each character but also remember all our names when there can be over 50 performers on stage at once. They may return years later and still remember you. That’s dedication.
Perhaps my standout memory comes from my earliest days with the company. I was given the happy task of understudying Deborah Reidel as Hansel in Hansel and Gretel and Meg Page in Falstaff. But I finally got my opportunity to share the principal stage with Deborah in Mignon in 1986. I sang the role of the young male aristocrat Frederic, an admirer of Philine (sung by Jennifer McGregor). Deborah began her stellar career here with this company. She was a beautiful person with a magnificent voice who went on to conquer the international stage. I met her when we were studying in Sydney and reconnected here for those few years. She tragically passed away at the peak of her career. She was an icon and my friend.
I was fortunate to have been cast as Mercedes in Lindy Hume’s original production of Carmen way back in 1992. Lindy is brilliant at reinvention and transformed many popular operas with brilliant modern style. I’d just given birth to my beautiful boy and the power of this feminist Carmen was not lost on me, especially as I now had to redirect my ambitions into the roles of mother and wife. I had to decline further offers of principal roles and Carmen was to be my last with this company. It brings to light many of the difficulties some women had in those days and may still have in trying to maintain both a family and a career. The need for support is vital. But while I wonder at a different past, I do not regret having had my two extraordinary children, whose love and support have taught me more than a career alone could have. I’m a better person and singer because of them.
Anne Millar (seated, right) understudying Deborah Reidel (standing, right) in Falstaff.
4. You made the decision to retire from the chorus following The Barber of Seville. As closing night approached, what was going through your mind?
After 35 years of making beautiful collaborative creations in this unique art form called opera, it’s hard to come down to earth. How do I extricate myself? This company and all its incredible people are in my DNA. This company will stay in my heart. I’ll no longer be watching the stage from the darkness of the wings waiting to go on (‘No talking in the wings!’); no longer running up the stairs to the dressing room for a quick change (‘Your dress is trailing! Hold the back of it up, or I’ll tread on it!’); no longer feeling the warmth of the spotlight on my face (‘If you can see the light shining through your false eye lashes, you know you’re in the right spotlight!’).
My stomach twists to know there will be no more inside jokes or banter from the usual dear colleagues as we pass in the corridor. The glue that holds us together is knowing that the memories I carry are too indelibly imprinted on my soul to lose completely. I have been grieving, and the tears are still there. But when it’s time to go, you know.
5. What will you take away from this production and your time here with WAO?
The Barber of Seville has been full of significant moments for me. I could feel its import in all my actions and with anyone I spoke. I saw each rehearsal and performance through this prism of finality. Sadly, the closing night show was cancelled due to the sudden COVID lockdown which was devastating for everyone, and the audience was robbed of one of the most joyful, inspiring and surprising shows I’d ever been in. Another Lindy Hume masterpiece, unashamedly startling with its colourful cartoon-esque set and costumes, the brilliant comic and vocal gift that is James Clayton as Figaro, and an equally clever and outrageous principal cast. While my swan song performance and farewell was not to be, I think I’d been saying my farewells all season and maybe it was a blessing not to have the curtain fall so momentously that I might not manage a dignified exit.
6. Do you have any words of wisdom for future chorus members?
I have perhaps too many. It may be called wisdom but it’s easier for me to call it observation. But you asked, so here it is, and perhaps after 35 years I’ve earned the right.
We all start our careers in the chorus and are professional soloists as well. The journey is intertwined and what we learn in one enhances the other. A few gifted ones move out of chorus life and forge their unique principal path. No matter how high we fly professionally, it is who we are that will be remembered.
Do you feel a fierce passion to express yourself through song? If that fierce passion to sing is there now, never let it go. It will explode within you through your triumphs, sustain you in times of unemployment, and say ‘keep going’ when you think it’s just not worth it. Listen to that voice during the pain of disappointment and self-doubt. Keep learning, striving, training, and honing your craft.
Whether it be an aria in a recital or the second part of the alto line in a chorus, each is equally important. Both are a precious gift to your audience. You sing for them and they'll return your joy tenfold. Only you can sing it in a way that springs from your love, your experiences, your pain. You are unique and that is your greatest strength. Your audience recognises truth and will return to hear you sing time and again. The world is hungry for it.
Be a good colleague. Human frailty is laid bare in opera both on and off stage, especially under the strain and exhaustion of long rehearsals. It can bring out your less tolerant qualities. The opera character is simply an exaggeration of the personal qualities we all have. Observe them both and decide what's valuable to help you in your characterisation. How do you want to be defined? What qualities can't you escape under pressure? Can you see yourself as your colleagues see you? Each of us is a determined, ambitious singer. Never underestimate or assume anything. That quiet, gentle colleague in the corner is as fierce as you are. That loud personality is warm and sensitive. Sometimes, humour can diffuse a stressful moment.
Being a good colleague requires empathy, discipline, respect, courage to speak up when needed, the vision of a team player, and above all, humility.
7. What’s next on your horizon? What are you looking forward to?
Opera singing is an immensely physical activity. Fitness and stamina are prerequisite to maintaining a career. The stage is a strange and magical place. Step on and suddenly the laws of the physical universe don’t apply. Where you might have had pain and fatigue, adrenaline combines with the character you step into and suddenly you’re dancing on air. Come off stage, wind down, and there you are again. Human. I guess I’ve finally become human after 35 years. My need for more time has finally tipped the balance.
I have taught singing for many years. I love sharing my experience and the technical skills I’ve learned. I was a young singer once, struggling to grasp the ephemeral internal workings of the classical singer’s vocal mechanism. I’ve worked it out now, and I’m proud to be still singing. I hold within me the memory of those early days and can help the student find their place at the end of a wrong turn, take them by the hand and show them the path out of the maze – the one that I took.
So yes, I’m still singing. I sometimes wonder where a diverged path might have taken me, but not often. My life is rich in my children’s hugs, students who’ve become friends, and friends who’ve become students. Now I’m remembering the one-woman French and German cabarets I began devising about 20 years ago, born out of a love of the poetic word and the intensity of the 1920’s and 30’s. Aside from a fabulous sojourn into the Fringe Festival with a cabaret called Femme Fatale, a Wicked History, it’s been a long time…and now my desire is to return.
A new show is in the works with the fabulous David Wickham accompanying and the brilliant Matt Reuban James Ward directing. There will be humour, a journey of inner discovery, lots of silliness…oh, and it’s French! Stay tuned and wish me luck. I’m still human, so if it doesn’t come to fruition, at least I will have tried. I must sing or I’ll revert to singing TV ads, heaven forbid!
The Barber of Seville marked Anne Millar’s final season with West Australian Opera after 35 glorious years. Thank you, Anne, for inspiring us with your dedication, passion and purpose.
Feature image by Callen Dellar.
ABOUT ANNE MILLAR
Anne studied at the NSW Conservatorium of Music where she obtained the D.S.C.M in both Teaching and Performing. After completing the Diploma of Operatic Art and Music Theatre, she was contracted to West Australian Opera as Resident Mezzo-Soprano. With WAO, Anne’s principal roles have included Frederic in Mignon, Annina in La Traviata, Shepherd in Tosca, Ann in the world premiere of Eureka Stockade, La Zelatrice in Suor Angelica and Mercedes in Carmen, as well as Dorabella in the Music Makers’ production of Mozart's Così Fan Tutti at the Quarry Amphitheatre and Third Lady in Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Anne has performed as a soloist with the Perth Oratorio Choir and UWA Choral Society at Winthrop Hall, including Handel’s Messiah, Haydn’s Nelson Mass, Beethoven’s Mass in C and most recently Verdi's Requiem; as well as many Lieder recitals for WA Lieder Society (now Artsong Perth).
With contemporary group Nova Ensemble, Anne has performed Ravel’s Chanson Madecasses and the great Mahler song cycles Song of a Wayfarer and Songs of the Earth, both transcribed for chamber orchestra and given a live ABC broadcast of ‘Aria’, a world premier by contemporary composer Carl Vine.
Anne devised the cabaret Voyages a Paris - from Poulenc to Piaf, presenting the show throughout Perth and regionally. A variation was also performed with Mark Alderson at Cabaret Soiree, Downstairs at His Maj. Anne's most recent foray into Cabaret is Femmes Fatales - a history, which debuted in the Fringe World Festival in February 2013.
Anne was a senior member of the WAO Chorus until retiring this year. She taught voice at Penrhos College for 11 years, was Vocal Coach for the University of WA Choral Society from 2014 – 2017, and now teaches full time at her home singing studio (contact her here to find out more).
Anne Millar (left) and Deborah Reidel (right) at His Majesty's Theatre, c. 1986.