If Graeme Macfarlane has a true home, it would have to be the Joan Sutherland Theatre of Sydney’s Opera House. The long-serving tenor was in the first opera staged at the iconic building back in 1973 and is still with the company – and still singing.
“If someone had told me at school that I was going to be an opera singer, I would have laughed at them,” he says.
“It was the furthest thing in my thoughts. I could never imagine having a full-time career as a singer way back then, but it all just happened and followed without me doing anything really.”
Macfarlane, now 67, won a competition back in the early 1970s, which led to a place at Sydney’s Conservatorium of Music, then to a contract role as a singer and ultimately to a place in the “company” that is now Opera Australia. It’s a career of almost 40 years and he still loves it.
He may have left some of the roles of romantic leads behind him, but Macfarlane still loves his job and enjoys taking on the interesting and minor characters found in operas – the role of Goro, the matchmaker in Madama Butterfly, or that of Benoit, the landlord in La Boheme, which he has played many times and is back performing at the Opera House.
“I love playing characters,” he says. “I go to work to have fun and play dress ups!”
But doesn’t he get bored playing the same characters over many years? Never. Macfarlane says he relishes the challenge of bringing something fresh to each new production.
“And I think you can get a lot out of a little too,” he adds. “I am doing Benoit at the moment, which is not a huge role, but he’s a really interesting character. So you can always find something. And when you come back and revisit something I can find you can actually add on as well. You can find something more – in the space between. There is something about doing it and then coming back to it that the role grows.”
With his many years of experience Macfarlane often finds himself in the role of mentor to up and coming singers – but he never gives advice, he says, just encouragement. His role is to share his love of singing.
However, it’s been a tough couple of years for Macfarlane. He’s is now in remission from cancer – the prognosis is good – that he fought throughout 2015 (but was so dedicated that he only missed a few weeks of performing).
He has also just qualified as a psycho-therapist, which he feels dovetails nicely with performing. He says singing and music is therapy and he has no plans to retire from the stage.
“That’s what I like about it,” he adds. “It is a really good tool for getting me to connect with my clients’ emotions and open up a bit. Music is something that stays within us. I think about people with Alzheimer’s like my dad. If he hears a song from the past he will know it immediately, remember it all and burst into song.”
This is common, Macfarlane says. “A lot of Alzheimer’s people haven’t spoken, but when they hear music – something they know especially – they will move and they will sing.”
Far from being elitist, opera connects with everyone, he adds.
“It’s something deeply ingrained in us all. You [the audience] go on the journey with us. It’s an in-the-moment thing. We are all experiencing it in the moment; the conductor, the orchestra too. It’s the only way it can happen.
“That’s what’s so exciting about it.”
Graeme Macfarlane is currently appearing in La Boheme with Opera Australia at the Sydney Opera House.