It seems somehow fitting that I can hear Deborah Humble before I see her. I’m on a street in Newcastle East, below her apartment block, when a mezzo-soprano voice cuts the late afternoon air and shimmers above the sound of the surf tumbling nearby. It is at once a beautiful and surreal experience, as though I’m listening to something that has drifted in from another time and place.
A few minutes’ later, I can put a face to that ethereal voice, as Humble appears. She smiles and apologises for running late, explaining she had to finish a singing lesson, before we head into Bar Petite to chat.
Deborah Humble is an international opera singer and a star attraction of the Newcastle Music Festival, which begins on August 9. She is also a novice Novocastrian. Humble is in the process of moving to Newcastle to be with her partner, Dr Bruce Caldwell. By September, she says, she will be living here, before correcting herself.
“Well, I won’t be here in September, because I’m singing in the UK,” she says. “But when I get back, this will be my base, and I’m very happy about that”.
How Deborah Humble came to find herself in Newcastle holds the makings of an opera plot - or perhaps a romantic comedy.
DEBORAH Humble was born in a land renowned for its singers, Wales. When she was very young, the family moved to Adelaide, the hometown of her orthopaedic surgeon father. While there were musicians in the extended family, Humble recalls in her household, “my father had an Elvis Presley album, my mother had a Shirley Bassey album, and that was about it”.
Deborah was encouraged to learn music, first piano, then singing. But her parents were not so happy when she decided to pursue singing as a profession and enrolled in the University of Adelaide’s conservatorium of music.
“Looking back with the benefit of some wisdom and hindsight, I can understand why, especially if you didn’t know anything about the business,” Humble explains. “It’s extremely competitive and extremely difficult, and not very many people actually manage to earn a living from it. They knew that at the time, but I didn’t!”
Her father offered to pay for Humble’s singing lessons if she completed a Diploma of Education. She did. So when she moved to Melbourne for further studies in singing, then to London and Paris in the mid 1990s, Humble also worked as a school teacher.
“It taught me a lot of life lessons, because the reality is I came from a very sheltered Adelaide upbringing and hadn’t really seen very much of real life,” she muses. Humble recalls telling her father she wasn’t happy about having to teach to further her singing, and he replied, ‘If you really, really want something and this is how you get there and what you have to do, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and it’s character building.”
“I was a bit worried I was going to be too strong in character at one point,” she jokes. “It was extremely hard work.”
Humble returned home to work with Opera Australia for two years. In 2004 OA’s former chief conductor Simone Young invited Humble to audition for the Hamburg State Opera. She was accepted and for more than a decade was based in Europe.
That voice of hers has enticed critics to raise theirs in praise, offering superlatives such as “bell-like”, “gloriously rich”, “pure tonal pleasure” and “strong and beautiful”. She has developed a reputation for performing in Wagner operas, including multiple appearances in the demanding marathon, The Ring Cycle.
“I didn’t plan that,” she says. “That just happened because of my voice type, which happens to be dramatic.”
Living in Germany, the arts provided Humble with more than a living.
“The great thing about living in Europe, in Germany, is that culture and the arts, and opera and classical music, in particular, are just part of day-to-day life,” she says. “It is nothing special. There are over 400 opera houses. Every town, city, village, has an opera house. Children go to the opera. Everybody knows about it, and nobody says, ‘What do you do?’ ‘I’m an opera singer.’ ‘Yes, but what do you really do?’ It’s just a great thing to do, it’s a normal thing to do.”
In Australia, she says, there remains a reluctance for people to put their money and time into the arts.
“People can’t expect to have the arts in this country if they don’t go and support them, and that means buying a ticket, going out at night and seeing something.”
Humble is full of praise for the Newcastle Music Festival.
“The concept is terrific,” she says. “It’s not just about people coming in from elsewhere. There’s a real focus on involving the local community, the students, mentoring students, so a student can sit next to someone who is a professional. I think that is not just clever but insightful.”
On August 17 at Christ Church Cathedral, Humble is performing English art songs, including Elgar’s Sea Pictures, and on August 19, she is conducting a singing masterclass then answering questions about what it takes to have a career in opera.
Humble is regularly approached by young singers, who ask “Am I going to make it?”
“People want a set formula - ‘I want to go here, do this, move here, do that, then, Oh! All of a sudden. Bang!’,” she says. “Everyone has to find their own path. There is no formulaic equation where ‘this plus this equals your success’. First, you have to have some talent, then you have to work hard at all those extra skills; being a good actor, stagecraft … You have to go away and learn to sing in, if not speak, German, French and Italian.”
Humble speaks those languages. She also has a checklist that she asks singers who want to go abroad, “and it includes silly things like, ‘Are you good with your own company?’; ‘Can you eat alone in a restaurant?’; ‘Are you going to be happy living out of a suitcase for 10 months of the year?’.
“When I was studying, I didn’t really know anything. I just got on a plane and went. When I look back, I think I was either crazy or really courageous. Maybe a bit of both.”
DESPITE her appearance in the festival, it wasn’t music that brought Deborah Humble to Newcastle. Actually, in a way it was; that, and a couple of roses.
In 2015, she was performing in Oslo. In the audience was Bruce Caldwell, who was on holiday. She was handing out roses to audience members, when she reached his seat.
“I may have presented him a rose,” she murmurs. “Two roses. I thought he was quite nice looking.”
“I think I did ask him later what he did and he said, ‘I’m an orthopaedic surgeon’, and I said, ‘Oh dear, I’ve already lived with one of those for 20 years [her father], and I’m not interested’.”
And then, I suggest, she remembered her father’s advice.
“Exactly! I thought it might be character-building!”
Bruce Caldwell grew up in Toronto and has a practice in Newcastle as well as Sydney. The couple share a love of music. He has been receiving lessons from Newcastle singer Jennifer Barnes, who Humble had performed with in Carmen in 2002.
“He’s a very good baritone,” says Humble.
It was while singing to each other - “Phantom of the Opera duets, Don Giovanni duets” - in the Newcastle apartment around his mother’s old piano that Humble discovered what she had forgotten.
“I suddenly thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is really fun!,” Humble recalls. “I said, ‘You have reminded me how much joy there is in singing’. Since I was a kid, I haven’t sung for fun.”
Now she hollers out the Sydney Swans’ club song at the SCG “loudly and badly . . . because I’ve remembered you can do that. Before I’d worry that everyone would turn around and stare at me, that it’s going to be terrible, maybe I’d hurt my voice”.
“It’s also great to have someone to share these experiences with,” she adds. “It’s been a very wonderful, passionate, sometimes glamorous life, I’ve met the most extraordinary people, been to the most extraordinary places - the world has been my office. But it’s also been very lonely from time to time.
“The applause and all of that is great. But in between you’ve got to sit in the freezing cold in some Eastern European apartment block with no TV you can understand and no ability to read the paper, with nobody who you know, and amuse yourself somehow. And it’s boring.”
In finding Bruce Caldwell and a new life in Newcastle, Deborah Humble is learning to relax.
She’s been fishing in Lake Macquarie - “You’ve never met an opera singer who liked fishing, have you?”. She has accepted singing students in Newcastle, but demand has quickly outstripped her time, and she is commuting to work in Europe.
But Humble is able to return to a place that is quickly charming her.
She recounts a tale of two cities. At a bar in Sydney, she said, she paid $34 for two glasses of wine. Before planning the move to Newcastle, Humble went into a pub near where we’re talking and ordered two wines. She was stunned to pay only $11.50.
“I turned to Bruce and said, ‘Oh, we should live in Newcastle’.”
“So cheap wine got you here?,” I ask.
“Not cheap wine! Reasonably priced wine!”
Yet Deborah Humble has been beguiled by more than wine in Newcastle.
“I don’t know if it reminds me of growing up in Adelaide, or something, but I haven’t been near a nice beach in about 20 years,” she explains.
“Going to the beach has not been the centre of my attention. I came back here and went, ‘Oh my goodness, this is so nice’. I walk to Merewether in the morning, have my coffee at Bar Beach. Some days I see dolphins, other days I see whales, then I come back.
“I’ve done all that by the time I start teaching or learning my music. I can learn my music while looking at the blue sky and the ocean. I mean it’s pretty nice.”