Samuel Dundas is an exciting young baritone with Opera Australia, who for the past eight years has been steadily building an impressive career. On the face of it, things couldn’t have been going better.
But last year, while playing the sexually voracious Don Giovanni in an OzOpera tour, Dundas had an intimation that things wasn’t quite right.
“I hit this wall. I just wasn’t happy with my singing and it led to this sequence of events (with me beginning to) understand what was required and probably breaking down a whole bunch of conceptions I had about myself and my talent,” he says candidly.
“Whilst I never would have admitted it, I think I had some very inflated ideas of my skill set because of all the opportunities that had been given to me at a very early age. So in hindsight I think that was me going as far as I was going to go on natural talent without having to really address how I sang, how I thought about singing, technique, all those kinds of things.”
The real wake-up call came not long afterwards when he began coaching sessions for OA’s La bohème, in which he played Marcello in Sydney at the start of this year.
“I think there was a pivotal moment when I had my first coaching for La bohème and the coach said, ‘awful’. She meant that with fantastic honesty and it’s changed my life, let alone changed my perspective on my work and my voice,” says the 30-year old singer.
“Now it’s all I do. I want to talk about singing, I want to think about singing, I want to think about technique, I want to talk to as many people as I can and find out what they do, why they do it and if that’s right for me and apply it in the practice room and slowly but surely evolve.”
Dundas is currently playing the small role of the Gaoler in John Bell’s new production of Tosca for OA, followed soon by Sid in Benjamin Britten’s comic opera Albert Herring.
Not only has he thrown himself into rehearsals with more passion than ever before but whenever he hasn’t been in the rehearsal room he has been working in a studio at the Opera Centre, often with a vocal coach.
He agrees to an interview during one of his days in the studio. Open and friendly, he talks with great frankness but without grandstanding in any way. Instead, he comes across as genuinely self-effacing.
“Looking back I realise that everything I’d done wasn’t as good as I’d thought it was – and I hope desperately that I’m not an arrogant person and that there are thoughts I would have to myself,” he says. “I would never think ‘oh, I’m amazing!’ or anything like that.”
His newfound commitment began last year as he prepared for La bohème and is clearly paying off, with his performance as Marcello receiving a nomination for Best Male Performer in a Supporting Role in an Opera at this year’s Helpmann Awards (announced on July 29).
Dundas grew up in Melbourne. His mother loved music and played a lot of it to him and his brother Toby – who is now the drummer with Australian rock band The Temper Trap.
When he was young Dundas played piano and woodwind instruments but gave it all up for sport. Then when he was 16, his mother heard him singing around the house and suggested he take singing lessons.
“I genuinely didn’t want to do it but she worked at my high school and got the teacher to talk to me. One day we had a lesson and he said, ‘you’ve got to keep going with this’ and it went from there,” says Dundas.
Though his brother always wanted to be a rock star, Dundas says he didn’t consciously choose opera over pop music – it was just the way things turned out.
“Singing wasn’t something I was passionate about,” he says. “I just kind of did it because it was what people wanted me to do. I think my voice was always predisposed to classical music so I ended up going down this path. We joke in the family that Toby is the musician and I’m the cover band.”
He did a music degree, not because he particularly wanted to, but because he got a scholarship. Before he graduated, he was offered work with Opera Queensland where he made his professional debut in 2005. He then spent three years in the Victorian Opera’s Young Artist’s Program before joining OA’s Young Artist’s Program in 2010.
His roles for the company include, among others, Marcello, Fiorello in The Barber of Seville and Moralès in Carmen: Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.
Last year while playing Guglielmo in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte he was featured on Barihunks, an online blog dedicated to “the sexiest baritone hunks in opera”, which regularly waxes lyrical about Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
Dundas admits with a laugh that he worked out “diligently” when he heard “that it would be shirts off” for Cosi.
“For eight months I did everything possible. One side of it is vanity and the other is trying to make the most of any opportunity,” he says.
“Now interestingly enough, I’m beginning to work out that there are some detriments vocally to going to the gym so I don’t go in the same way. I don’t think it necessarily affects people in the same way but certainly since I stopped drinking and going to the gym my voice has changed dramatically.”
He suspects that tighter muscles stop you breathing as well. “But each to your own, you make your choice. I try to stay as fit as possible without lifting too much.”
On his 30th birthday last November he decided to give up alcohol until La bohème opened on New Year’s Eve and then, when he felt so good without it, he decided to keep going until his birthday this year.
Whether it’s that or all the work on his technique, he says he has extended the range of his voice at the top end of his register by several notes.
“I have this quiet calm now that I’m doing all I can. I’m working as hard as I can and I want to play all my cards and leave nothing on the table and see what happens,” he says.
In Tosca – Puccini’s great drama of love, jealousy, sacrifice and betrayal – Dundas plays the Gaoler. It’s a very small role (he is also covering the Sacristan) but he doesn’t mind.
“Any chance to sing anything Puccini wrote makes me happy,” he says.
What’s more, he has relished the opportunity to watch singers like baritone John Wegner (who plays the evil Scarpia) in the rehearsal room.
The production, which is directed by John Bell, is set in the 1940s in Mussolini’s Italy.
“John made his intentions very clear on the first day that the characters were going to be as truthful as possible. I think that’s the way opera is going, so John is probably perfect for a show like this,” says Dundas.
“It’s a great opportunity to work with somebody who has a vast amount of experience and is very diligent and calculating in the way he creates character so in terms of a learning experience, it’s wonderful.”
In August, Dundas plays Sid in Britten’s musically complex but frolicsome opera Albert Herring. Set in an English village in Suffolk, a shy lad called Albert is crowned May Queen (or King) because none of the girls are considered virtuous enough.
Sid, meanwhile, is a butcher’s assistant who enjoys pre-marital sex with his girlfriend Nancy. He urges Albert to break free of his dominating mother and when Albert is crowned, slips rum into his lemonade sending Albert off on a night of debauchery.
“He’s kind of the one who sets up all the trouble,” says Dundas. “He is the ultimate contradiction (to Albert) because it’s a morality tale. I think that’s the great thing about being a baritone. You are always the bad guy or the cheeky one. I think it is so much more interesting to play those characters than being the good guy.”
Tosca plays at the Sydney Opera House until August 31; Albert Herring plays August 16 – 30.
Post Script, July 29: It has just been announced that Samuel Dundas has won the Opera Foundation’s New York Scholarship and will be heading to the Big Apple to study with coaches there.