Jacqueline Dark in Don Giovanni (Pic: Branco Gaica)

What’s a physics graduate doing tangling with Don Giovanni? Jacqueline Dark talked to Curtain Call about the glories of Mozart, the darkness of Don G and life as an Opera Australia diva …

Jacqui, apropos of nothing in particular, least of all your upcoming role in Don Giovanni, legend has it you’re a physicist, as well as an opera diva. Which comes first, why, and which is the more demanding job? And do you find yourself calculating the acoustical properties of a theatre, while singing?

The legend is true! A physicist and an opera singer — I truly am the überdork! Singing comes first now, as it’s my full-time job, but I love both passionately and still delve into a bit of physics whenever I get the chance. They’re demanding in different ways — I love getting the science side of my brain working again by writing the trial exams for the Year 12 students in Victoria (my friends love me using their names in the exams, and I love watching everyone fight for the astronaut questions).

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What’s your role in Don G?

I play Donna Elvira. She’s brilliant — feisty and strong, but also heartbroken and vulnerable. It’s such a gift to play a role with such emotional depth, so I just hope that I do her justice. It would be very easy to play her as a caricature, but I think she deserves to be played with truth.

You’ve enjoyed (and are still enjoying, of course) quite a career with OA. How did you get started in said career? What were the early telltale signs, if any, that you’d become a singer, let alone an opera singer? Were there ever any inclinations to head in a different direction with your voice? For example, did you ever fantasise about being Kylie? Or do you still? (Or is that just my fantasy?)

I think everyone fantasises about being Kylie, if only to look that good in hotpants! I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t singing. My brother and I used to put on little shows for the family when we were kids and charge everyone 5c to come (I’m sure they were riveting entertainment!). I started in music theatre, and still love it, but my voice kept growing and from the first time I sang opera, it just felt completely right for me. I tried a lot of different styles along the way — from music hall to piano bar in a night club, and they were all brilliant fun. I’d still love to have the time do some cabaret — I’ve been keen to do an intimate and gritty little cabaret show for ages!

You’ve also had the privilege of performing (and they with you) with the Vienna State Opera, the Victorian Opera and Opera Queensland. Which is your fave? (Go on, you can tell us!)

Oh, wow! That’s not fair! I love them all in different ways (see what I did there?). Vienna was overwhelming — I was very young and was being thrown on stage after a couple of days’ rehearsal. It was sink or swim, which I loved, but wouldn’t want to do all the time (of course, if I’d done the roles before, it would have been a lot easier, but it was all so new to me). VO and OQ are like families. I was a Young Artist at OQ, so I spent a lot of time with them learning the ropes and am so grateful to them for that. VO and Richard Gill have trusted me with important roles like Dorabella in their inaugural production of Cosi and The Composer in Ariadne, and I will always appreciate their faith in me and their encouragement to challenge myself .

Popular opinion holds that Mozart isn’t a bad songwriter. How do you feel about him, as listener and singer, and about your role as Donna Elvira, in particular? Do you identify with her in any ways? Is it easy to take on her character?

Mozart really isn’t too shabby. The Don G music is incredible, and gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. Mozart’s also notoriously difficult to sing. I think that he knew exactly what limits singers had, and wrote to the edges of those limits (I suspect this was to discourage dodgy singers from even bothering to attempt to sing his stuff!). It’s incredible how much of the inner dramatic monologue of the characters you can hear in the orchestral colours: the palpitating hearts, the longing, the resolution, the madness – it’s all there if you let the music speak for itself. I think everyone can identify with Elvira. She’s madly in love with someone who she knows is completely disastrous for her, but she just can’t let him go, and at every step her heart and head are at war over which path to take. I suspect many of us have been there!

And what of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto? Does his so-called dramma giocoso work for you? Which do you enjoy more, the comic or more dramatic elements? And which are tougher to sing?

Da Ponte was a genius! His understanding of human nature is unparalleled, with all of his characters having depth and truth. I love both the comedy and drama, and how quickly this score switches from one to the other, as that’s pretty much the way it goes in real life. I find it all gorgeous to sing, but I have to be careful that I don’t get carried away in the extremely emotional moments (eg: act two finale), as it sits quite high for me and I can’t afford to throw my voice off beam with tears or over-singing (that said, I’ve never done a run where that hasn’t happened to some degree, so please forgive me).

Do you listen to opera at home, for pleasure, rather than ‘business’?

Very, very rarely. I spend so much of my time singing opera, learning opera, or watching my buddies perform in opera, that it’s nice to have a change when I’m relaxing. Having said that, I adore singing and watching opera — there’s something so completely thrilling and immediate about the unamplified human voice that reaches straight into your soul. I remember watching this Don G as a student and being completely blown away by its power … and who could forget the lynching mob in Peter Grimes? Life-changing stuff!

Do you listen to other forms of music?

I’m a bit obsessed with Leonard Cohen and Jacques Brel at the moment. I tend to gravitate towards music with a little bit of darkness and poetry, rather than the more poppy stuff (although I’ll dance to Single Ladies in an instant and I love Ben Folds).

The overture of Don G was, so the story goes, probably only completed the day before the opera premiered, in 1787. Does it show?

The first notes of the overture set up the tone of the whole opera and send chills down my spine. I think Mozart could probably have knocked something out over a cup of tea and it still would have been genius.

How does it feel to be Don G‘s jilted lover?

I console myself with the fact that there were thousands of others who also fell for his wily charms … and that my three-day liason with him is, sadly enough, actually his longest relationship, so I must have been doing something right.

Gounod and Kierkegaard reckon Don G is a blemish-free work. Do you agree?

I know that Don G is often described as the “perfect opera”, and I can only agree. It has divine music, incredibly strong characters, humour, pathos, love, despair, revenge and, in this case, an incredibly brilliant staging — all the good stuff! Mozart is considered one of the most “perfect” composers, in that his musicianship and composition skills were absolutely extraordinary, so I’m sure that there aren’t too many musical “blemishes”. You should ask our amazing conductor, Mark Wigglesworth — he has many ideas on this subject.

How do you see Elvira? Do you like her? Admire her? Harbour some disdain for her?

I absolutely adore her and completely admire her chutzpah and commitment. In real life, I’d never chase a guy as relentlessly she does, so good on her for sticking to her guns and going for it! Mind you, I suspect that she’d drive everyone around her nuts with her complete obsession with the Don and her tales of woe at being dumped. I am getting a little worried, though, as I’ve now played several stalkers in a row and wonder what OA is trying to tell me …

13. Why do you think DG has so inspired philosophers and essayists? How do you see him? Is he an ‘aesthetic hero, rebelling against God and society’, or just another loathsome cad, whose balls you want for brekky? Do you, therefore, relish act one, scene two?

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. This duality is the reason that everyone’s so fascinated by The Don. On the one hand, he seems a callous, amoral cad who treats his friends and his women, and pretty much everyone else, abominably. On the other, he is an incredibly charismatic man with an extremely strong sense of himself and with a personal code, as misguided and opposed to social mores as it unquestionably is, that he refuses to relinquish even in the face of eternal damnation. He’s intriguing in the same way as a dangerous snake — you admire its power, but you don’t want to get too close! He’s a classic charming, non-empathetic sociopath who would no doubt have kept pillaging and killing until he was forced to stop … and doesn’t everyone fall for the bad boy?

Is mastering the tessitura the crux of your role, vocally? Or is it the passaggio? And is the comic disposition the crux, theatrically?

The tessitura was of course a challenge for me, being my first “soprano” role and thus the highest I’ve ever sung. It’s also followed a run of very low roles, so getting my voice back into the stratosphere has taken some gentle coaxing. The passagio is really not so much of an issue for me, but the role is chock-full of large, jumpy pitch intervals (to make her sound a tad unstable, I suspect), so you have to be careful not to bash out notes at either extreme or it can end up sounding choppy. It’s a tricky role, because along with the interval leaps, it also has huge, sustained legato sections plus some crazy coloratura passages. You really have to be a jack of all trades to sing it well. Dramatically, I think if you play the truth of the character, it’ll be funny by default. If you try to be funny and play for laughs, it usually falls flat — the audience aren’t fools.

You’re a mezzo. Is Donna Elvira really written for a mezzo?

Ah, this is the $64,000 question. No, it’s not really written for a mezzo. We’re including Elvira’s aria, Mi tradi, which every mezzo (and a good few sops) usually sing in an accepted lower transposition. We’ve chosen to sing it in the original, higher key, which has led to the ‘s’ word being bandied about with regards to my voice. There are also loads of floaty high notes and sustained high passages, which could be nasty for a real mezzo. I think I’m a true zwischenfach (German for “between fachs”, so somewhere between a mezzo and a sop … and yes, I have heard all the “between fachs” jokes), but I may end up as a dramatic sss … nope, I can’t bring myself to say it. I’ll try to stay true, fellow mezzo sisters!

Is there something very particular and special that comes from singing Mozart? What does one learn from Mozart, as a singer?

The glory of Mozart is that everything is in the music. It’s an exercise in minimalism — there’s not a note in place that doesn’t belong there, and to change anything would diminish the whole. If you sing exactly what’s on the page, and bring your own heart to it, you’ll have perfect Mozart. If you start indulging and embellishing, you lose that gorgeous, perfect simplicity and it just becomes a self-indulgent porridge. None of our brilliant Don G cast do that, of course!

The details: Don Giovanni plays the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House until November 5. A Melbourne season opens at the State Theatre, Arts Centre on December 2. Tickets on the OA website.