On the Couch with Linda Thompson

AAR-Linda-Thompson-photo-by-Lyz-Turner-ClarkWho is Linda Thompson?
As a teenager, I wanted to be a pop singer – I didn’t grow up with classical music. A trip to the Palais theatre in St Kilda with my music teacher in high school was a ‘light bulb’ moment; she turned to me and said, “you could do that”.  It was a performance of Dame Joan Sutherland in Lucia di Lammermoor – which set me on a course to study music at University, start an opera company with Barrie Kosky, work full-time as a principal singer with Victorian State Opera and Opera Australia – and as a principal artist on contract elsewhere. After some time as an academic – Head of Voice at Monash University, I went out on a limb and started an independent opera company – Gertrude Opera. That was 11 years ago. I am now an artistic director, singer, stage director and producer.

What would you do differently from what you do now?
I laughingly say perhaps I might have studied law or medicine, but actually, I wouldn’t change any decision I’ve ever made – coming back to Australia to take up the job at Monash, rather than live in Europe and perform, has given me a range of skills and perspective that is formed by those lifestyle choices. This recent enforced time at home has given time to work on plans for the future, which as a company we’ve talked about but not always had the time to put into a plan of action – by continuing to do things differently, such as embrace putting an opera festival online and planning for what might be possible post the COVID-19 crisis.

Who inspires you and why?
I continue to be inspired by the artistry and energy around me, and around the world. I am an avid new and contemporary opera ‘observer’ – which pre-COVID was a travel motivation – and although there has been much more new opera streamed online than ever before, there’s nothing like being at the ‘birth’ of a new piece or production. There is also nothing quite like being in a room of talented singers, musicians, artists and creators that you’ve brought together to bring an opera to life. Each production – no matter how challenging or exhausting – inspires the next. The collective endeavour is a life-force.

What would you do to make a difference in the world?
I do feel as if I have made a difference through bringing productions to Australia that no-one else has seen – or will ever see, and involving a new generation of opera singers in those works. My ‘Culture Project’ initiative involves presenting contemporary operas dealing with current newsworthy topics and social justice issues such as asylum-seeking, domestic abuse, cults and gender identity. Offering society a window through opera into the thoughts, feelings and emotions of people going through issues we know about, but with which we don’t always come to face-to-face – which is when the impact can be transformational. I hope that what I put on stage – or online – opens a portal to a world – stories, music, art – that some people may not have even thought to approach.

Favourite holiday destination and why?
This may sound absurd, but Palm Springs in USA wintertime is blissful. We have found a favourite unpretentious but groovy hotel with a view of the San Jacinto mountains, surrounded by desert, pool, spa, and cartoon-like mid-century architecture. I suppose it is like living a ‘holiday movie’ of my childhood. Despite having a reputation as a playground for the rich and famous, travelling off-peak means it is cheaper than holidaying in Australia. In Australia, favourite places are the Yarra Valley (naturally) and a tiny little piece of paradise called Mitta Mitta, which has a great pub and a corner store, a river and a creek – and that’s it.

When friends come to town, what attraction would you take them to, and why?
For overseas visitors, it is always a trip to the Yarra Valley to Healesville Sanctuary for them to marvel at ‘drop bears’, deadly spiders and kangaroos – followed by Tarra Warra Museum of Art, lunch at De Bortoli winery and a cheeky gin tasting at Four Pillars (With a non-drinking driver). In Melbourne, the Australian art collection at NGV – Ian Potter Centre at Fed Square, and for Melbourne’s best coffee at Brother Buba Budan in Little Bourke St.

What are you currently reading?
For pleasure, the latest Elena Ferrante The Lying Life of Adults and I Miss You When I Blink by Mary Laura Philpott are sitting on my bedside table, unopened and waiting until after the festival (October 26). Because we’re in the middle of production week for the festival, I’m reading librettos of love fail; To my distant love; Together, Apart; and Kate Kelly over and over – which is pleasure also.., and I’m in the middle of Opera Indigene: Re/presenting First Nations and Indigenous Cultures – a series of essays.

What are you currently listening to?
To unwind: Janis Ian. Unreleased and under-the-radar performances, such as Society’s Child, which she wrote when she was 15. David Lang, Beethoven, Ross Carey, Nicholas Gentile – as well as contemporary opera arias of all sorts – on repeat at moment. When not working, I tend to let the rest of the household choose the music – could be anything from country & western to film scores.

Happiness is? 
Thinking, reading, writing, singing, listening, walking, cooking, travelling, family and friends. Simplest pleasure at the moment is walking Minnie around Yarra Park and Fitzroy Gardens – a pampered 5-year-old miniature poodle RSPCA rescue dog.

What does the future hold for you?
I am a fervent believer in contemporary opera and how, like any great art, opera can hold a mirror to society and can be a conduit for positive change and understanding of humanity. I believe now, more than ever, opera should have a place in the lives of everyday Australians, and I have ideas and plans for the operas I present to reach new audiences, and give voice to diverse, meaningful and enthralling stories.

Linda is the Artistic Director of Gertrude Opera – who will present the 2020 Yarra Valley Opera Festival – Australia’s first ever online opera festival from 16 – 27 October. For more information and full program, visit: www.gertrudeopera.com.au for details.

Image: Linda Thompson – photo by Lyz Turner-Clark