WAO Spotlight with Ruth Burke
Only days remain until the notes of soul-stirring arias sweep through the Supreme Court Gardens for City of Perth Opera in the Park, a gala concert event celebrating talent both established and emerging. From education programs to professional employment, we want to shine a spotlight on our creatives working enthusiastically to bring the magic of opera to you. Connect with your state opera company on an intimate level and be inspired by the bright rising stars on opera’s magnificent horizon.
This week, mezzo-soprano Ruth Burke talks us through her journey from WAO Youth Ambassador to WAO Chorus Member, the most valuable lessons she’s learned, and why it’s important to fall in love with practice as well as performance.
1. Tell us about singing in the chorus for City of Perth Opera in the Park – what does the rehearsal process involve and what are you most looking forward to?
The rehearsal process for a professional chorus like the West Australian Opera Chorus is very different to what I have experienced so far at school and university. Unlike school and university where you are taught the music and coached through it step by step, professional companies require you to learn your music before rehearsals begin so that you are ready for whatever the directors throw at you. This is definitely something that excites me and working with WAO's Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen has been delightful.
Overall, I am really looking forward to being part of such a wonderful show, to sing alongside my wonderful teacher Emma Matthews and also Michael Lewis, Paul O’Neill, Sara Macliver and Caitlin Cassidy – it’s such an honour. I’ve been going to Opera in the Park since I was 12 and I have always loved it. With such a wonderful venue as the Supreme Court Gardens, it allows an opportunity for all people of different backgrounds to get outside, gather with family and friends and enjoy beautiful music on the shore of our beautiful Swan River.
2. Can you describe your journey from inaugural WAO Youth Ambassador in 2017 to WAO Chorus Member in 2021?
It’s been a long and at times very challenging journey. When I was a WAO Youth Ambassador I was still at school. I’ve had to do a lot of growing and maturing since then. Like a lot of people, I went from being the star of my school with big dreams to having to work really hard for every opportunity now that I’m in the real world, whilst still maintaining those big dreams – which at times seems impossible. I’ve learnt that being successful and getting opportunities isn’t just about being a good singer, but also about being a good colleague and a hard worker.
I am so incredibly grateful to have been a WAO Youth Ambassador and to now be back as a member of the chorus. WAO's Education Manager Terasa Letizia, who runs the Youth Ambassador programme, has always been so kind and supportive of me and sent me the most wonderful email when she found out I was coming back as a chorus member. It really is such a welcoming and friendly environment at WAO so I’m so glad to be a part of it.
3. How did your experience as a Youth Ambassador shape your interest in opera?
What I learned during my time as a Young Ambassador is that opera is not all about the lights, the thrill and the glory of the divas but about making meaningful connections with people, both colleagues and audiences. There is something so wonderful about people coming together to create. Our job as performers is not to show off but to make our audiences, laugh, cry, smile and feel.
I also learnt that there is a lot more that goes into opera than people getting up on the stage and singing. There are marketing managers, stage managers, people involved in lights, costumes, sets etc. that all make what we do possible. I’ve gained a lot of respect and admiration for all the people working really hard behind the scenes.
I also learned the importance of marketing and how crucial it is to encourage young people to go see opera – they are our future audiences.
4. In July you’ll also sing in the chorus for Cav & Pag. In what ways do you think this opera pairing will resonate with audience members?
Cav & Pag was first presented as a double bill by the Metropolitan Opera in 1893 and eventually stuck as a pairing in the opera world, mainly because of their complementing stories and similar styles, both being of the verismo tradition. I think audience members will love this opera duo, firstly because they get to see two fantastic operas in one night, but also because of the music. Both Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci are filled with music; arias, choruses and instrumental sections that would be familiar to audience members. For example, The Easter Hymn and Intermezzo in Cavalleria Rusticana and the famous aria, “Vesti La Giubba” in Pagliacci. They are two of those moments where you catch yourself going “Oh I know that – I just didn’t know it was in this.” I think the audiences will find they know these operas a lot better than they think they do.
Something that I personally love about opera, and I think young audiences especially would agree with me, is that it is filled with strong women. In these operas we see two different women, Santuzza and Nedda, in entirely different situations, both faced with extremely difficult circumstances. These women show strength and stoicism which is inspiring, and accompanied by the powerful and moving music it is a real spectacle of female strength and deep human emotion. I think this is something that modern audiences can really resonate with.
5. Can you share with us a musical moment in your life that you found illuminating or inspiring?
I think most of my peers would agree with me that meeting Maestro Richard Bonynge AC CBE and hearing some of his wisdom when he visited in 2019 was one of the most inspiring moments of my operatic journey so far, both when he visited WAO and WAAPA.
While it was awe-inspiring to meet an absolute operatic and musical legend, and one of the most influential figures behind the 20th century bel canto movement, what was most inspiring was the practical wisdom he had to offer. At the time I was 18 and still at the beginning of my tertiary journey, and I hadn’t figured out how much work I needed to be putting in or how important building a solid, reliable technique was. The Maestro’s emphasis on the need for young singers to work hard but also slowly, and the importance of Mozart for young singers, really showed me what builds a good singer and a good performer. From that day on I’ve been in a practice room almost every day and I’ve fallen in love with the work and the process. It’s funny, you don’t think about it, but you practice a lot more than you perform so you have to learn to love it, and I think that was one of the most important lessons I’ve learnt so far.
6. How do you balance study and performance? In busy times, what is your favourite way to unwind?
I’m incredibly lucky that I get to study something that I’m passionate about, but with that comes a lot of emotional investment so it can be hard to unwind and find balance. When it comes to balancing study and performance it’s not too hard as I am studying to be a performer. I try to use every performance as an opportunity to try out the skills I am learning in my studies – to find out what works, and what doesn’t. As of recently my performances haven’t been my best, but it is that cliché of learning from your mistakes and learning to dust yourself off and keep moving forward.
My favourite way to unwind is exercise: Pilates, yoga, boxing. It allows me to get out of my head and blow off steam which is really important for me. It’s also something I can do for my singing without actually singing. To be an opera singer you need great physical strength and awareness. I’m really fascinated by anatomy and the use of the body in singing and I love exploring that through exercise.
7. Do you have any advice you would like to give to other young people interested in performing?
I’m still very young myself and therefore only have a small bit of wisdom to offer. I would say: go and see things, explore, and get inspired. See as much as you can, there are so many fantastic artists out there doing incredible and inspiring things. Also, with YouTube and streaming services these days, there is so much to explore and watch and listen to online. Watch recordings of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in concert singing lieder, or Pavarotti singing Italian song, or Dame Joan Sutherland singing Lucia di Lammermoor etc. Many of the opera companies from around the world are doing daily opera streams. Learn from and get inspired by the great performers of the past and the present.
My other piece of advice would be to be brave; music and art still have a very important place in society and whilst it can be scary to take that leap of faith, the world needs people to perform and to create.
Don’t miss Ruth Burke perform in the West Australian Opera Chorus at City of Perth Opera in the Park this weekend – register for the livestream here!
Image by #MilesTweediePhotography.
ABOUT RUTH BURKE
Ruth Burke is an Irish-born mezzo-soprano in her third year of a Bachelor of Classical Music (Vocal Performance) at WAAPA under the tutelage of soprano Emma Matthews.
In 2016, at the age of 15, Ruth won the Opera Australia Regional Student Scholarship and spent a week in Sydney receiving training in voice, language and acting from Taryn Fiebig, Tony Legge and Sam Dundas and performed for Opera Australia’s Artistic Director, Lyndon Terracini. Ruth has won numerous awards, including placing 3rd in the Fremantle Eisteddfod Open Aria Competition and 2nd in The Royal Over-Seas League Award for Young Singers. She has had masterclasses and lessons with Mary King, James Clayton, Lucy Schaufer, Anthony Maydwell and Fiona McAndrew.
From 2017 to 2019 Ruth was a West Australian Opera Youth Ambassador. In the 2020 WAAPA Classical Voice Production of J. Offenbach’s Orpheus In the Underworld Ruth played the role of Public Opinion. Ruth is also a member of the West Australian Opera Chorus. Ruth endeavours to pursue a career in opera and has a specific interest in Rossini, Mozart and Handel.