Harwood Island prodigy, opera singer Michelle Ryan, works very hard to achieve her dreams. However, elements of serendipity mark her life’s journey so far. Geoff Helisma traces her trajectory; perhaps the luck she makes will become her fate.
Michelle Ryan was always going to have music in her life. For Harwood Island’s Ryan family, music has long played a pivotal role in day-to-day life. “You won’t find a Ryan in the [Lower Clarence] area who doesn’t have an instrument of some kind,” she says. Sitting on the front veranda of her family home, Ryan points to the neighbouring property. “My Dad, he grew up in that house over there behind the shed. All those kids grew up playing guitars and pianos.
“When Mum started the family, they all sang, so I grew up with Dad with a guitar and singing and Mum singing. She thought it was really important for us kids to learn instruments, so I started piano when I was eight. At the end of my piano lessons, sometimes my teacher would say, ‘Would you like to sing a song?’ So I’d pull out a song, but I never really did anything with it until I started high school.
“I just always really loved music. My cousins, they’re all musical as well. We all played instruments together. My brother plays guitar, so … it’s very cool.”
Back in the mid 1970s there was an advertisement on Australian television that implored viewers to ‘have a go’ (more recently it was former treasurer Joe Hockey’s mantra). It’s a sentiment that underpins Ryan’s career path. “If I aim really high, that’s good,” she says, “but I tend to be content with where I go because I often get surprised. I’d like to be singing on one of the best stages in Europe; but if that doesn’t happen, I won’t be upset.
“I’ll be happy with whatever comes my way.”
She believes that if she immerses herself in her work, the rewards will come. “That’s been how it has worked. I’m also a Christian, so I believe that there will be something that I don’t know that is coming. I’m trusting that God’s got a plan for me to do something. It’s been pretty cool to not know where I was going to be when I was 17 or 18; I couldn’t have imagined that opera would be what I was going to do. It wasn’t my dream at the age of 17.”
During Ryan’s HSC years at Maclean High School, she was tutored by Lynne Phillips, who taught singing in Yamba. Phillips introduced Ryan to classical singing, but she “still had a heart for pop”.
“I wanted to be a pop singer and I did the Sydney School Spectacular and I thought, ‘I really like this’. When Lynne moved to the Blue Mountains, she suggested that I go and see a teacher named Gayna Donnelly, who used to teach at Grafton Conservatorium before she moved to the Gold Coast. Every third week I would get in the car, have a lesson with her and then drive back in time to work at Causley’s.”
Donnelly, too, encouraged Ryan to consider singing opera. “She showed me some YouTube videos. One was of [American soprano] Barbara Bonney. When I heard that I just fell in love with opera.”
This happened during Ryan’s ‘gap year’. She had been accepted into the University of Newcastle, where she intended to study to become a music teacher. “I was all set to do education,” she says, “but I just always knew that I wanted to perform. I was very much a shy girl in high school, but I knew that I could do teaching for the rest of my life.”
However, Donnelly’s suggestion that Ryan should apply to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where the “best schools for classical training are”, proved to be pivotal. Ryan says she “didn’t really have the credentials I needed to get in” and, while wary of pursuing a performance career, she had nothing to lose. She passed her audition and was accepted as a student in January 2010.
“One doesn’t normally jump at a performance pathway, it’s not guaranteed and, you know, you’ve got so much competition; and you know what each generation likes always changes. Even if you are a performer, you usually end up having to evolve into what’s popular. I thought, with pop music in particular, that was something that I’m just not gifted in – being unique – and I don’t create music, I don’t write it or compose.
“Whereas, with opera it’s an art form that’s existed for hundreds of years that’s still around; I’m just fascinated about that, that people are still interested and still want to go and see it.”
Five years later, with a four-year degree and year’s post graduate diploma in opera studies completed, Ryan was firm in her desire to make a career performing the art form. At the end of her diploma year, she says, “I actually got the chance to get on stage in a costume and sing a character role”.
“Once I actually got into costume and was pretending to be someone else – it incorporates acting and singing – that was exhilarating and I thought to myself, ‘I really want to keep doing this’.”
Ryan’s work ethic and willingness to have a go has meant that to some degree she has been a bit of an island: no time for romance (“Yeah, that’s been difficult; finding someone who would travel around the world with a suitcase.”) and working jobs to pay for her study.
“I took the gap year and earned the amount I needed [to get established to study at university]. I did jobs probably from my second year of study. I started working in a book shop for my cousin and then I started teaching music and that’s just stuck with me always, I’ve always taught music to help support the other dream basically. So this year I’ve been teaching 30 children a week through a teaching school.
“I did have really great friends at uni, though. I got really close with everyone in the opera school. We just tried to make sure that, after a show, we would go out and do things together.”
During her year studying the opera diploma, Ryan squirreled away scholarship money she was awarded “to save it for something that could potentially come”. As well as this, luck would have it that she signed a contract (as a fill-in singer) with the Song Company, “an iconic Australian six-piece A cappella group that travels around Australia and tours overseas”, at the beginning of this year.
“We went to New Zealand for the Adam Chamber Music Festival. When we got back I did a tour with them. The funniest thing that happened with them, I got called on a Monday morning in June. ‘One of our sopranos is sick, do you think can you jump on a train and meet us in Bathurst tomorrow?’
“They’d already organised all of their programs; they were doing a tour for the week – Goulbourn, Bathurst, Kangaroo Valley; and they were doing a special concert for one of the composers who wrote music for them to sing. I had to hop on a train the next day; I was learning the music as I travelled. It’s usually stuff that is memorised as well, so … it drove me a bit insane (laughs). But it was a good experience to be called up last minute.
“Even at the last concert, Roland [Peelman, the group’s leader] had come up to me saying, ‘I want you to sing this’, and he gave me the music and he said: ‘memorised’. You know, like it was no big deal (laughs).”
Ryan has mixed memories of a show the Song Company performed at the Sydney Opera House in March. “I made a big stuff-up when I was singing – I forgot some words. That was one of the most embarrassing moments ever. Everyone was watching and I’d clearly made a mistake. It just got worse as it went. It was actually the encore piece (laughs) so, yeah, that was embarrassing.”
But these real life experiences would prove to be an important factor when it came to taking another step into the unknown: signing up to the intensive five-week ‘Summer Voice’ program in Munich, Germany, as would the money she’d saved for whatever her future might throw her way. “I’d heard it was mainly a program for voice training,” she says. “Then my teacher said, ‘I really think you should do it’. It cost about four or five grand to go and then I had to pay for flights. I thought, ‘okay, I guess I’ll invest in it’. I saw that there was an audition training program as a part of the course, so it wasn’t just voice training.”
Once in Munich, Ryan discovered that Germany is the virtual centre of the operatic scene – there are, she says, “eighty-four opera houses, big and small, in the country”. And, despite having to face her inner “am I as good as them” demons, she rose and met the challenges thrown her way. “I found it really hard to do the staging side of things,” she says. “In the first two weeks, one of the stage directors came up to me and said, ‘I don’t want to offend you, but I have to let you know that you are very dull! You really, really need to get more acting classes. Your voice is fine, everything else you are doing is fine, but if you are in a line with a hundred other singers auditioning for something, they won’t take you if you’re not entertaining.’ That hit me like a ton of bricks.
“I just had to get over myself; I just had to not care a bit about what anyone thought about me.
“When I got into the German course it was awesome because I could just focus completely on opera, which is what I was hoping to do all along. It started off all pretty culturally shocking, the way that they work in the schools, they work very hard. They taught us basically everything that you would be expected to do if you wanted to audition and work in theatres over there.
“At the end of the five-week program they invited agents to come and mock audition us – for pure, honest feedback – so we knew what a current agent of today thinks (laughs). The first agent that came was in the second week [to get a feel for what was coming]. He just started speaking to us in German. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, I don’t know what he is saying’, but I just had to get up and introduce myself in German. Since returning to Australia, Ryan has completed an intense intermediate German language course.
“On the very last day when the audition agents came, I got the first one; it was about 10 o’clock in the morning. I had what is called an audition aria package – that’s six pieces that you can choose from to sing: you get to pick the first; they pick the second – so I sang what I wanted to sing, then they chose what they wanted me to do. At the end we had to sit down at the table with them and they would talk to us, but we had someone translating.
“The directors of our program, they said: ‘Oh, Michelle they’re actually really interested in you, they want you to come back and sing for them next year.’ I said, ‘Oh, oh, okay, I didn’t realise that.’ I had no idea, I thought this was just a practice, but they said, ‘No, no, we think you’ve got the right height, the right stage presence and all of the roles you have on this list here are perfect for your voice type. Don’t leave it much later than the age of 28 to come back. There are already a lot of people working at your age, so get back here as soon as possible.’
“I went home, back to Sydney, but I’d already made my decision in Germany, I thought, ‘I really should do this’.” She says this with real purpose, like nothing can dissuade her from her mission.
“They said, ‘If you are coming from Australia and you need some structure to get started; why don’t you jump into a master’s [degree], to get you singing everyday and taking classes. In the meantime come and sing for us and we’ll introduce you to agents and directors and hopefully get you into the profession.’ They basically want me to get a better idea of the culture and how things work.”
Ryan confesses, however, that she doubts she’ll “do the two years”, which is due to start in March 2016, should she be successful in signing a contract with and opera company during that time. “The good thing is, she says, “that education over there is free.
“I want to go and immerse myself in it and experience it. I don’t think I would want to live there forever (laughs). I’m hoping to go on stage at the Vienna State Opera, but who knows, I could be doing something completely different. This opportunity that has come; it’s not easy, and it’s really something you need a whole year to prepare for. But I’m seeing it as a door that’s open: I’d better jump in and keep the momentum going; because if I shy away … that door could close.”
Ryan’s mother, Pearl, says she and her husband, John, have actively encouraged their children to play music –all started piano lessons at the age of eight. “John, he’s from Irish decent, so music has always been in the family. For me, my parents sang; my father was in a choir in England, my mother sang, and I think music has always just been there; it’s just in the soul.”
She says the family’s musicality is “wonderful”.
“There’s music in the house all of the time and they’re not on Play Station or doing computer games or TV; they’re doing something that is constructive. Then they go out and they are a part of the community and they love it.
“Breanna is doing a gap year and she plays [cello] for weddings and functions and she plays in the Lower Clarence Community Choir and theatre productions. Daniel didn’t pursue music once he left home, but growing up he did: piano and guitar.”
Ryan flew to Germany on December 16.