Despite their dramatic range, large-voiced sopranos and mezzos face a long wait for their voices to mature. ANU opera singer Katrina Waters is moving this challenge to centre stage.

The performing arts has always been an industry that worships youth, especially in women, but for a certain kind of opera singer, career success can be decades in the making.

Dramatic female voices — female singers with a vocal range darker and heavier than sopranos — do not truly come into their power as vocalists until their late thirties or early forties.

Katrina Waters was in her late teens when she was first told that her voice would not truly mature for another 20 years.

After beginning a double degree in science and law, Waters’ lifelong love of musical theatre led her to apply for a place at the School of Music at The Australian National University (ANU). But after she auditioned successfully, it was not Broadway that beckoned.

Throughout her first year, the Head of Voice Anthea Moller encouraged her to consider a different medium for her talents.

“She would say ‘you know, I don’t think you’re right for music theatre. You’re too tall, you don’t look like an ingenue, you’re too big, and your voice is too big — your voice sounds like an opera singer’,” Waters recalls.

While frank feedback, the advice turned out to be sound.

“Opera combines all the things that I love about theatre,” Waters says. “It’s got interesting stories, different languages, it’s got classical music, and of course, it’s got all the drama.”

Song cycles

Women’s voices are affected by the hormonal changes they experience throughout their lives, including menstruation, perimenopause and menopause. So, what does this mean when your voice is your instrument and your livelihood?

For dramatic sopranos, securing the operatic roles that best suit their fully developed range can be an incredibly long waiting game.

It’s this that Waters is exploring in her PhD. After more than a decade of performing and training in the United Kingdom and Europe, the singer has returned to ANU to complete her doctorate.

Waters is researching dramatic female voices for her PhD at ANU. Photo: Creswick Collective

“I wanted to know how other women deal with this maturation, how they deal with the uncertainty of not knowing whether they’ll be successful in their careers,” Waters says.

Her dissertation features interviews with dramatic sopranos and mezzo-sopranos from around the world and a specially composed song cycle.

“How do you build your body, your voice and your psyche so that you can go in and sing the largest loudest roles, when you’ve been told for so long that your voice is too wild and that you need to make yourself smaller?” Waters says. “It’s got parallels for a lot of women everywhere.”

Finding an audience off stage

Waters’ research topic has also caught the interest of Australia’s national broadcaster. In 2023, she was selected to take part in the arts stream of the ABC Top 5 media residency program.  

“It’s been the best thing I’ve done in my PhD,” Waters says.

The ABC Top 5 program is open to early-career researchers across the arts, humanities and science. It’s aimed at scholars who want to become more comfortable engaging with media and communicating their research to the public.

As part of the program, Waters spent two weeks at the ABC studios in Melbourne. She undertook vocal coaching, learned firsthand about different forms of media production and worked with a producer to prepare a show for broadcast.

As part of the ABC Top 5 program, Waters had the chance to prepare a radio show. Photo: supplied

On the last day of the residency, participants also had the chance to pitch their work to the whole of the ABC.

“We were really encouraged to get our research down to something punchy,” Waters says. “So, now I say to people: hi, I’m Katrina. I study women with largest, loudest and sometimes most unladylike voices, the operatic dramatic sopranos.”

Waters says the experience lit a fire in her belly. She would love to host a program on ABC herself one day and combine it with her research and performance roles.

“You just have to throw an application in, it really was the best thing I’ve done,” Waters says. “If you think your research needs to get out to a wider audience, there’s no better program in Australia.

“And why wouldn’t you want your research to get out to a wider audience?”

Top image: Katrina Waters. Photo: Danielle B Photography

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