Nicholas Lester, from Adelaide to Barber via Amazon

MS: You have had, and continue to have, a strong association with Wales. How did they come about and develop?

NL: My first singing teacher as an adult was a Welsh baritone Jason Shute (originally from Swansea) who had emigrated to Australia with his wife. I met him through my involvement in the annual Adelaide Eisteddfod. He helped further my interest in singing professionally, peaked my interest in Wales as a country, particularly in the music making, introduced me to some great repertoire and suggested some contacts I could make when I moved to the UK.

I first covered a role for Welsh National Opera while I was at the National Opera Studio, and over time managed to do decent auditions which led to bigger covers and invitations to sing roles for them too. They are a friendly and welcoming company to work for, they have high musical and dramatic standards and I really appreciate the trust they have put in me by continuing to employ me.

Through touring with WNO and on a smaller scale with Mid Wales Opera a few years ago, I have been able to see quite a bit of the country and love the chance to discover more of it and revisit some lovely locations.

You are now performing the Barber again with WNO but in a different production. How have you made the transformation?

Yes, it’s incredible that I’m back again doing the same role, with two of the previous main cast (Nico (Darmanin) and Andrew (Shore), plus Heather (Lowe) who covered in the previous version but is now singing the role in her own right and fantastically too).

I’m really pleased to have a rare chance to come back to a company to repeat a role, particularly considering the incredibly difficult time everyone has had as a result of Coronavirus cancellations and Brexit of course.

The chance to work with Giles Havergal on his iconic production has been a real treat, the character and production are precise and meticulously thought-out, and the detail pays-off as the audience respond to the action. The multiple levels with stairs and curtains create a physical challenge on top of the demanding singing. We all need to be quick to react and move at moment’s notice, and getting our brains and tongues around the witty translation (a completely different version to that used in the previous production) has been particularly demanding. Andrew must have sung many more versions in English than I have, but even a third different translation for me has tested my concentration!

Nicholas with Heather Lowe

Do you have a preference for comedic roles, dashing heroes or villains? I have seen you as all and I wonder which you prefer.

I actually like the variety. I am naturally a fairly laid-back personality which is reflected in my physicality, so I need to actively work against that when I perform a role like Figaro. The risk with these kinds of roles is that you can spend all your time dashing, kneeling, jumping around the set and then not have the time to breathe properly and concentrate on singing well-so the challenge here is to balance the two. Being a fairly tall singer brings its challenges too, for example on this current set, I spend time preset inside my shop, the roof of which is so low I can’t actually stand upright in it! I have to maintain physical fitness and really consider my posture within the remit of the character I’m portraying. Obviously, I want to avoid giving a carbon copy of my performances across the roles I sing, and to give physical and vocal variety.

It’s fun to play characters which are so different from my own personality, for example Don Giovanni or Onegin, but I do need to be pushed to find variety, or to bring out different physical intentions sometimes and will actively ask directors and choreographers to keep on at me when that isn’t happening.

How does working for the festival operas (in one location) or a generally non-touring house (ENO for example) compare with working with touring companies (WNO, Scottish etc.)?

The benefits of a non-touring house are the predictable aspects, such as knowing the stage and auditorium space, knowing your dressing room, where you can get a good coffee (this is key!) or favourite food, knowing the best way to travel to and from the venue and how long it should take you. The other benefit is seeing familiar faces, be that stage management, crew, orchestra, etc, and knowing who else is on your team. This all tends to help make the experience  more relaxing and less physically and mentally draining. I try not to become to reliant on a particular routine when I’m within a contract because I have done quite a bit of touring and want to know that if my schedule or routine is affected I can still carry on and get my job done to a high standard regardless of the situation.

When on tour, it’s sometimes about discovery (finding the best local coffee and food), getting your head around the various quirks of a town/venue/accommodation. I don’t go crazy with site-seeing and touristy type adventures, but even a walk in an area or sitting in a café gives a good sense of the energy and atmosphere of a touring location. It’s also about meeting all of your colleagues as they pop to the same supermarket to grab their dinner in between shows and rehearsals-reassuring to know that you’ve turned up in the correct location!

There can be challenges too with touring. Having completely different pit sizes, backstage areas, dressing rooms, theatre acoustics, etc. One particular challenge I remember from a UK tour was turning up to a theatre on the show day to discover that a significant section of set did not actually fit into the stage area and that we’d have to re-block portions of the piece where the action took place on the missing section. That was a performance full of nervous energy, I can tell you!

How did lockdown treat you?

It was a mixture really. Once I’d got over the shock of the whole situation initially, I worked through the sense of depression and loss, not only of the work, but who I had become. I then tried to be a little proactive and prepare music, but it increasingly became obvious for me that it was going to take a significant amount of time to get back to live theatre.

I’m not much fun to be around in a confined space when I’m frustrated about not working, so I went into proactive mode. I got professional help to update and revise my non-singing professional CV and began applying for a wide variety of non-singing jobs, enrolled in a couple of short term courses to update my admin skills, and managed to get a job interview after about 60 applications. It’s quite incredible the amount of work and detail you need to put into helping businesses and recruiters understand how skills you have developed in a singing career do actually transfer and benefit other industries-and even trickier to get your CV to an acceptable standard so that it is shortlisted through the CV reading software. I didn’t get the role I interviewed for, but in the meantime I had started working for Royal Mail, then I moved to Amazon where I worked for about a year doing a variety of roles, all incredibly challenging mentally and physically.

In amongst all that I was really lucky to be asked to get involved with Opera Ensemble (set-up by Elin Pritchard and Christopher Luscombe) and in-between lockdowns we were able to perform a few shows of a socially distanced version of Pagliacci. This came at a really crucial time as I was having to think seriously about what I might have/want to do if I couldn’t go back to singing, I’d managed to get a promotion at Amazon and it was clear I could have continued to develop a very good career there if I’d stayed. But Pagliacci got me using my voice again (I basically didn’t sing at all for a year), and it reminded me of what I had been missing!

Do you have forthcoming work in the diary you can share with us?

I’ve just been booked for a contract overseas for next Autumn, singing Don Giovanni, which is amazing-as yet I don’t work regularly overseas so it’s a treat when it happens. It was one of those bizarre and frustrating situations for freelancers where the diary is effectively blank for a big chunk of the year, then suddenly there were two offers on the table at once. The dates clashed and couldn’t be coordinated due to travel and key rehearsals, so a choice had to be made. I’m very grateful to have the booking and to work with that team, but it does mean I’ve missed out on a fantastic role and company debut in a rare piece with a conductor I really love working with for a festival I’d long wanted to work at!

Where now is home and has Covid meant your Australian family are increasingly strangers sadly?

Home is still in the same flat in London. Yes, frustratingly Covid has prevented any of the planned family events, we’ve missed a birth, a wedding, a 100th birthday and various other planned events and travel. Australia has responded to Covid differently to the UK, even on a state level, and with understandably strict travel bans, quarantine, time restraints, etc, it’s been several years since we’ve seen most of the family. Vaccinations and changing restrictions should improve the whole situation, but it’s a waiting game!

Nicholas is currently starring in WNO’s Barber of Seville  which is touring the UK

Images Jimmy Swindells and Richard Hubert Smith

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