If you are walking along the beach at Jan Juc over the next few weeks, you may be lucky enough to be treated to a sneak preview of the German opera Ariadne auf Naxos as Wendy Grose prepares for the title role in the 100-year-old masterpiece.
The soprano and actor can often be found enjoying the fresh sea air while she practises her lines. The bubbly performer is busy rehearsing for the opening night of the CitiOpera production at the Hawthorn Arts Centre next month.
“To be singing Ariadne is a massive role. It’s a challenge but it’s a beautiful thing. It’s like I get to surf on top of the orchestra – you can just luxuriate in it,” Wendy says of her key role.
The music of Richard Strauss comes alive in the production, described as an “opera within an opera” that is sung in German and features a cast of 17 soloists.
Wendy, who has been singing for decades, says the opera is a “story of misunderstanding”.
“It’s a complicated one but whoever said opera was simple? It’s based on the famous play Le Bourgeois Gentil homme about a man who is newly rich and is trying to show society he is cultured. He decides to put an opera on in his house and invites everyone to come, but he also books a comedy troupe so all our egos are out of whack. It’s a comedy even though it’s got this tragic opera within it. It’s very funny,” she says.
“I come on as the prima donna [Ariadne], saying I’m not going to perform with those common people. Ariadne likes to spend all her time languishing on a rock wanting to die, so they [the comedy troupe] come and go, ‘God she’s boring’ and then they sing all of this funny, bright stuff to try to make me feel chirpier.”
Wendy has been singing since she was a child. Her love of performing has taken her to London and Europe with numerous credits in theatre and opera, including performances with The Royal Opera in Covent Garden, the Welsh National Opera, Opera de Lyon and the Modern Music Theatre Troupe, to name a few. As a soprano soloist, she has appeared with companies including the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Surrey Sinfonietta, London Civil Services Orchestra and the Australian Boys Choir.
She has appeared as a featured recitalist in Britain, Italy, France and Australia and in broadcasts for the BBC and ABC. She also regularly performs recitals of diverse repertoire with her accompanist, Len Vorster, and has appeared on television with roles in Blue Heelers, Kath & Kim, SeaChange and Neighbours.
“When I sing, I feel whole,” Wendy says. “My truly happy place is on the stage singing and feeling I am creating an atmosphere for people to enter into. It’s the only time when I feel completely relaxed, like I am truly my whole self.”
Born in Shepparton, Wendy lived in Geelong from when she was a baby until her family moved to Doncaster when she was seven years old.
“I’ve been singing since I was a child and professionally for decades,” she says.
“My mother said I just would never stop singing and I only knew one song and it was driving her batty, so at the age of eight she sent me off to singing lessons to widen my repertoire really. But my father was of Welsh heritage so he always said it was the Welsh blood.
“I started out doing musicals, like The King and I and The Sound of Music, and I wanted to be a comedian and do comedy songs – that’s where I thought I was heading. And then when I was about 14 or so my mum took me to a concert at the Melbourne Town Hall and I heard a classical singer Marilyn Horne perform and I went, ‘Oh my god that’s what I want to do’ and so from then I focused on classical and opera.
“When I was a student I always played the leads but my first big role would have been in London when I was about 24. I spent about eight years overseas, mainly in London. I performed with The Royal Opera in Covent Garden in London for six years and then I was with Opera de Lyon in France before I freelanced through Europe, performing all over the place.”
Eighteen years ago Wendy moved back to Geelong, settling in Jan Juc.
“It’s fantastic. I don’t know why I bothered living anywhere else and I’ve lived in some cool places.”
In 2011, she returned to Europe twice to reprise a role that was created for her in Amici Dance Theatre’s innovative production,
Tightrope. In 2013 she completed a six-month tour of Australia and New Zealand, playing Dubbo Housewife in Menopause the Musical, and performed a solo comedy opera called Bon Appetit! at the Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival on the Goulburn River north of Seymour.
Wendy has also been focused on her one-woman shows and touring with pianist Len Vorster. She says she enjoys mixing things up and wearing different hats.
“Funnily enough I’ve gone back to my childhood dream – doing comedy music theatre – and I am really enjoying mixing it all up. I do a real mixture of things.
“Later this year I am doing two one-woman shows. One’s a comedy and the other one is celebrating a wonderful lady called Florence Young, who was like the Kylie Minogue of her era but from 1890 to 1916. She was amazing. She was like a household name and if she would come into what was called Spencer Street Station then, there would literally be thousands of people there waiting to greet her so she was quite a pop star of her age. She is a fascinating character.”
Wendy will perform the solo show Florence – Young as ever! at Beleura mansion on the Mornington Peninsula in August.
But before then, local audiences are in luck with Wendy performing at Geelong After Dark on May 6.
“I’m going to be doing numerous versions of Ave Maria. I did it [Geelong After Dark] last year and had a ball.”
Wendy will then tour Victoria and NSW in September with her comedy Perfect Timing, as well as performing at the 2016 Nagambie Lakes Opera Festival.
Wendy practises her singing for three hours each day, usually at home. This month, in the lead-up to the opening night of Ariadne auf Naxos, her schedule also includes regular trips to Melbourne for four-hour rehearsals.
You have to be fit, Wendy says of opera singing.
“People don’t realise how much it involves the whole body. You have to be healthy and fit. The singing takes a lot of energy; you have to build up your stamina.
“I like as much as possible to practise at home,” she says.
“I have a music room here and a piano but I’ll practise while I am walking along the beach. I do all of my memorising walking along the beach. I will sit at the piano and do some and then I’ll go for a walk. That’s one of the convenient things about being a singer [you can sing anywhere].”
With the little free time she has left, Wendy, who is also a wedding celebrant, enjoys hiking, gardening, travelling with her husband and teaching singing.
“I always say to my students that I know it’s a radical thought but you are allowed to actually enjoy it [singing]. Because when you sing you have to give part of yourself.
“It’s not like playing the piano or cello, which are beautiful of course but they are an instrument outside of you. When you are singing you share a real part of yourself with the listener and it’s about enjoying that and wanting to share that energy. It’s quite a magical thing, singing, when you think about it.”