Fiona McArdle wanted to be a Spice Girl growing up, but the mezzo soprano is playing Magdalene in State Opera of South Australia’s upcoming production The Mastersingers of Nuremberg Act III.
Playing at the Festival Theatre on Saturday, August 4, Richard Wagner’s The Mastersingers of Nuremberg Act III is a comedy about a community of singers navigating the intricacies of songwriting and performance in 16th-century Germany.
Fiona McArdle plays Magdalene in the show, a maid in the household of mastersinger and goldsmith Veit Pogner. Pogner is offering his daughter Eva’s hand in marriage to the winner of an upcoming singing contest, but in true operatic fashion Eva’s interest is already focused on a young knight named Walther.
“As much as [Magdalene] is the maid, she is also the close confidant and friend of Eva,” McArdle says. “She’s also in a relationship with David, who is [mastersinger and shoemaker Hans Sachs’] apprentice.
“She is a bit of a catalyst for the story – she does kind of help Eva and Walther along, and even encourages them and pretends to be Eva so that Eva and Walther can try to elope, which of course is then thwarted by Sachs.
“But of course most of that mischief happens before we start the show in act three.”
It is the singing competition that forms the centrepiece of the third act, a culmination of the characters’ quest for mastery of composition and performance – in some ways a reflection of Wagner’s essays and opinions on how to write music and opera.
“The first part [of act three]… gives you a little bit of a background into the characters of each of the principals, and then we go into the singing competition,” McArdle says.
“We’ve all joked about the fact that it is kind of like The Voice but for Nuremberg, and everyone’s got their team that they love.
“It’s a comedy, I think it’s Wagner’s only comedy, so it’s well written and it is a lot of fun. And I’m hoping it will be fun for the audience.”
McArdle reassures any audience members who might be apprehensive of diving straight into the third act of Wagner’s marathon opera.
“Have a read of an opera synopsis – Google is a great tool, Wikipedia is great too. Go in having an idea of what happened in the lead-up to act three,” she says. “But at the same time act three works so well as a standalone piece.”
Having prepared for the role over the past year, McArdle has been reading up on Wagner and the history of the work, and looking at how Eva is portrayed in different productions to get a sense of the characterisation possibilities.
“I came in with an idea of what I wanted Magdalene to be, but obviously you have the discussion with the director and [director Andrew Sinclair] had an incredibly clear idea of what he wanted, and it just worked really well,” she says. “It’s been a really fun working environment and process.”
Graduating from the Elder Conservatorium in 2014, McArdle went on to win the George Boland Scholarship for post-graduate study.
“After finishing at the Elder Conservatorium I actually went to America and studied in Boston,” McArdle says. “I did 18 months towards a master of music and later this month I head back to Boston to finish that off.
“It’s a masters by coursework, so there’s a lot of performing in it. We have a four-hour rehearsal block every day depending on what’s happening, but then we also have acting classes, dance classes, stage combat classes, singing, languages, history, theory, yeah everything. So it’s quite full on, but you learn a lot.
“It’s a different world, but it’s wonderful. I think as a musician especially, sometimes you do just have to leave and explore a different culture and learn from different people.”
McArdle is a former James and Diana Ramsay Young and Emerging Artist with the State Opera of South Australia, and a finalist and encouragement award winner in the German-Australian Opera Grant. Her roles have included La Ciesca in Gianni Schicchi, La Zia Principessa in Suor Angelica, Suzuki in Madama Butterfly, and Dorabella in Così fan tutte.
In spite of her awards, scholarships and stage appearances, McArdle says she didn’t always have her sights set on a career in opera.
“I actually got into opera quite late,” she says. “I started at the Con and then kind of discovered opera, so I was only 22 when I started singing opera and when I started exploring the world… I’ve always loved music and I sang with choirs in Adelaide growing up, but I never saw opera or classical music as a career – though I definitely wanted to be one of the Spice Girls!
“So I’ve probably come at it a different way. I love the stories and I love the music and there’s just something about it when you put it all together, particularly when you get to go and see it live. It’s a different experience to music theatre, to going and seeing a band. It’s amazing, and it’s incredible to be a part of it and to be able to be performing roles.”
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg Act III
Saturday, August 4