In her fragility, fair skin, fine bones and angelic features, Anna Dowsley can be seen as a prototype of a 21st century opera heroine. She has performed an impressive number of leading roles with Opera Australia (OA) and overseas companies. She is only in her 30s and happy to revisit one of her trademark roles for her Brisbane debut with Opera Queensland (OQ).
“Così fan tutte (Women are like that) was my first professional Mozart opera in 2013 in Tokyo of all places and since then, I’ve returned to the role of Dorabella every three years. It is a wonderful boomerang opera that keeps coming back to me. It is one of those operas which is very satisfying to sing. Having the opportunity to be in Dorabella’s world and get to know her even better and deeper and understand the range of her emotions is fantastic,” Anna says pausing. “I am getting older, but she stays the same age though,” she adds and sighs.
Premiered in Vienna 233 years ago, Così fan tutte still captivates 21st century audiences and I wonder why in this singer’s view, Mozart’s masterpiece still finds a way to enchant opera lovers.
“In its essence, this opera is an examination of relationships – love, desire, jealousy and jadedness from things that may have happened in the past and the hope for what could happen in the future. I think it is a beautiful reflection about being young and old and a different outlook on life. On the surface, it’s a comedy. Its plot is absurd and its charaters are loud. However, under the surface it allows Mozart this examination as to who we are as humans and how we relate to each other,” explains Dowsley.
Anna’s invitation into Opera Australia’s Young Artist Program catapulted her career in 2014. Her Zaida (Il turco in Italia) received critical acclaim and this debut provided the young singer with a Green Room Award nomination. Whilst completing the Young Artist Program, Anna cut her teeth in other important roles including Siebel and Tebaldo. As a Principal OA artist from 2016 to 2019, this emerging singer was working with legendary stage director Sir David McVicar in the roles of Cherubino and Dorabella. Dozen of engagements for various opera companies followed. I ask Anna about roles she hasn’t performed so far and which she is keen to explore.
“Oh, I’d like to do Charlotte in Massenet’s Werther and also Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier…” The one you fell asleep in, I interupt her. “I am ashamed to say that this happened when I was 16. It was my very first opera experience, but it was a school night and its a long opera and the interval was unusually long because they had to replace one of the leading roles who was sick,” Anna responds giggling.
Performing an operatic role is inevitably accompanied with scrutiny, more so in Italy where this genre was born and where even the biggest star among singers can be brutally booed. In 2020 Anna made her European debut with Teatro Petruzzelli in Bari, Italy. Did she feel more pressure I ask?
“Yes, there was a bigger adrenaline rush for many reasons. Singing in Italian for audiences that embrace their opera was an exciting challenge. At the same time, it was wonderful because Italian opera lovers want you to shine, and want to share their passion. All that takes the pressure away quickly.”
In the year of her European debut, Anna and her husband, New Zealand born tenor Jonathan Abernethy finalised their plan to move to Frankfurt to start his contract with the local opera company. It was not an easy move, Anna admits, but it was something to look forward to once the COVID restrictions were lifted. She hopes that as a freelance singer she will get invitations to work with various opera companies in Europe.
In the past, there were more than a few occasions when Anna and Jonathan shared the stage in opera productions and those experiences can be precious and challenging at the same time. Once the lights of the stage are switched off, reality can bite.
“It’s a tricky transition sometimes, especially for me, as I get quite involved with the character and the whole opera I am working on. We have a daughter who is 2 and a half years now, and she brings us back down to the core beauty of life. There is just this beautiful home stability we can return to and we cherish every moment of it,” Anna reflects.
Towards the final stage of our chat we talk about ways Dowsley’s overseas studies have helped her development. Everything was possible thanks to the fantastic teachers she had over seven years at the Sydney Conservatorium, Anna observes. “But it comes time for every artist to get exposed to different influences, various cultures and other styles of mentoring. I worked with Renata Scotto whom I met while doing a summer course in Sienna. She invited me to audition for her Santa Cecilia Academy program in Rome. During that program I would sing an aria a day. She was complementary on what I was doing in Italian and offered so many ideas on how to improve. She helped me greatly to boost my confidence and build my passion for the heart of singing.”
A decade or more have passed from the days when a promising mezzo-soprano was passing by the Sydney Opera House on the way to the Conservatorium. Did she ever imagine that one day she would sing there? “I did dream big, but very quietly. I was just letting the love of what I was doing continue to grow organically and naturally. When things started to happen, the dreams got bigger yet more realistic at the same time.”
By Nick Gurovic