Sydney’s Secret: Jennifer McGregor Brings Special Xmas Concert to Music Academy

Here’s a secret about the Sydney Opera House: the famed space that was designed to host opera and built for optimum acoustic brilliance—on the photos, the larger of the two cones—has never been used for operas.

“After they completed it, ABC (the Australian Broadcasting Company) decided that it would rather use the space for broadcasting and performing symphonies.” The voice telling me this is Jennifer McGregor, famed soprano whose career started at the Sydney Opera Company.

So the opera company got shifted to the symphony’s original space, in the smaller cone. For decades the company has performed right next to, but never in, the space originally promised. “Not that it’s a bad place to sing,” she adds, “I have so many memories there.”

However, Ms. McGregor now has a career where she’s been able to perform in opera houses new and old around the world. Surprisingly, with a resume that takes in most of the cultural centers of Europe, McGregor has never really performed in the States, which makes it all that more exciting that she is choosing Santa Barbara as the city to premiere her special yuletide recital.

The evening will be a collaboration between the soprano and (Santa Barbara-based and Music Academy favorite) pianist Val Underwood. The two met in London, where McGregor now lives, and after some chat they discovered that they had shared the same music coach years ago when they were both starting out. The two wound up working together the following year, performing and teaching at the Adriatic Chamberfest in Italy. The idea of selected recitals came next and when the Santa Barbara date was settled upon and the date fell just a week before Christmas, the two scrapped the original line-up and decided to go with a seasonal selection of carols and lieder. Santa Barbara will be the only city to see this concert.

“It’s really ridiculous, isn’t it,” she laughs, “that I’ve never been to the U.S.?”

Far from ridiculous, it’s understandable for a career that has seen the soprano constantly in demand across Europe and in her home country.

Born in Sydney, McGregor grew up in an artistic, theater-going family, taking piano lessons at first, then shifting to vocal studies at 17. Her teacher was a former student of Bela Bartok, and encouraged the young singer to apply for Sydney Opera School.

She won a scholarship, and graduated in four years.

“But I wasn’t ready then for opera,” she explains. “I thought my voice was not trained enough.” Instead she spent three years in musical theater, a comfortable first step.

In fact, McGregor had never really given opera a thought until her scholarship. “I was singing folk and country music. It was three months into classes I realized my teacher was right [for pushing me towards opera]. It’s the greatest art form.”

Three years later she auditioned for the Sydney Opera Company and was welcomed by director Richard Bonynge as his protégé. Bonynge is married to Joan Sutherland, one of the great sopranos of the previous generation, and both are essential elements to the company. One of her earliest roles was as the lead in Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a role that had been (and was still) synonymous with Sutherland. “She’ll always be the greatest Lucia,” McGregor says. But the direct passing of the torch so early on showed how much Bonynge thought of his young star. “To perform the major repertoire with Richard conducting is a big confidence boost. It’s just like a stamp of approval on your work.”

After four full years, Ms. McGregor felt the time was right to leave, “to spread my wings,” she says. She left the company and began a career as a guest singer, employed as the lead in productions in Germany, France, Holland, and England. She continues to be invited back to Sydney to perform, as well. Along the way she got married (to a fellow Australian, but not a fellow artist), moved to London, and had a daughter. It’s a life she prefers.

“I’m much freer to express who I am,” she smiles. “I don’t know that I’m good with the day-to-day politics of an opera company.”

Her move to London has also been part of a shift away from large productions towards more intimate recitals like the one at the Music Academy. Part of the reason is the range.

“I’ve always had a high voice, and I’ve always been lumped with the high repertoire. Like the Queen of the Night in Mozart’s “Magic Flute”—that’s [a situation where] if you can sing it, you’ve got the job. Lucia is also very high. But I long to be recognized as a lyric singer. I want to sing as a real woman, not these incredibly high creations.”

Next year will see one of McGregor’s few appearances on CD, singing Bela Bartok’s “Seven Poems of Alexander Blok.” She was asked to do it by an Australian pianist based in London. It’s a work she’s not familiar with—“I’m still working on the Russian pronunciation” she says when asked for a progress report.”—but shows McGregor’s interest in 20th Century composers. “There are also a lot of great American composers for opera [in recent times]. The drama is more fleshed out. The characters are real people in situations we can relate to. It may not be as melodic, but the music serves the drama.”

There’s some of that appreciation on display in Tuesday night’stktk line-up, where McGregor and Underwood will perform songs by Ricky Ian Gordon, Sammy Cahn and Jule Styne, and an Australian Bush Carol, along with more traditional selections from “The Merry Widow,” “Die Fledermaus,” Mozart’s “Hallelujah” and Gounod’s “Ave Maria”. McGregor also promises to throw in some well-known carols to make it complete.

After her trip to Santa Barbara, to which McGregor says she looking forward, she’ll return to Sydney again to perform for the golden wedding anniversary concert of Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland, but will soon return to London, her favorite place to be.

“My teacher is here, as are lots of colleagues, voice coaches, as well as great performances. It’s the place [that feels right] to expand the recital repertoire. It’s very wonderful.”

Jennifer McGregor: Diva from Down Under Holiday Concert

When: Tuesday, December 16, 8 p.m.
Where: Music Academy of the West, Lotte Lehmann Hall.
Cost: $30
Information: (805) 565-9359 or

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