Rachelle Durkin – Bright lights and the big city
Soprano Rachelle Durkin is back home in Western Australia following a life-changing two-decade stint in New York City, where she performed on the biggest of opera stages and in the grandest of roles.
Perth marks a relative shift in lifestyle compared to NYC; in winter you’re able to swap snow for sand, the way of life is a little more relaxed if geographically isolated and extended family is right around the corner.
It’s an ideal environment for a young family to develop while Rachelle continues to create art at an opera house near you.
When you hear the word ‘soprano’, your mind might immediately think of the iconic 1999 TV series about New Jersey mobsters. For the lay person, the word ‘soprano’ actually refers to a classical female singing voice that has the highest vocal range of all voice types.
So if Rachelle is ever on stage in your city, you might hear about it.
The first microphone
In the same way many young guitarists discover their love for the instrument by strumming an old tennis racquet, it seems most up and coming singers first find their voice with the help of the humble hairbrush.
That’s how things started out for Rachelle back in the 1980s, belting out old school hits from Madonna, Mariah Carey, Michael Jackson and even AC/DC around the house. Singing was always her thing and she looked for opportunities in her school years to be seen.
She just wanted to sing, though her passion for classical music emerged a little later. Eager to forge a career in singing, Rachelle turned to the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA) and auditioned for musical theatre.
“I got into the singing round which was fantastic, but I had clearly forgotten about the dancing round, which was an integral part of getting into the course. Sadly I failed that part,” she recalls.
Musical theatre wasn’t the one, but there were other avenues to explore: “I got the letter of decline and thought my singing life was over. Then someone said, ‘have you ever thought about classical singing?’
“I thought, ‘classical singing? Oh gosh, is that when you’re wearing the horns?’ I don’t think I can do this.”
Rachelle auditioned but another hitch soon presented itself; by her own admission, she didn’t know what a treble clef was. Yet her assessors liked what they heard, and she was entered into WAAPA’s Certificate of Music program.
While building up her classical music knowledge, Rachelle realised it was her calling.
“There was one moment I recall when I was listening to this beautiful aria called When I am Laid in Earth from Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas, and I thought to myself, ‘oh my gosh, I get it!’” she explains.
“It made me cry, and I just remember listening to it over and over again, and that’s when I thought, ‘ok, I think I want to do this’.”
It was clear from the hairbrush days that performance came naturally. But the technical side of singing required hours of hard work, and that’s what Rachelle did.
“Growing up” in the Big Apple
There’s an iconic line to describe NYC in Jay-Z and Alicia Keys’ smash hit Empire State of Mind: concrete jungle where dreams are made of, there’s nothing you can’t do.
In 2000, Rachelle won three high-profile competitions in Australia: the Herald Sun Aria, the Marianne Mathy Scholarship and the prestigious Metropolitan Opera Award, prompting her to head over to the United States and pursue her singing dreams there.
She was accepted into the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and established herself at the Metropolitan Opera – or the Met for short – one of the world’s most famous opera houses.
Rachelle covered a host of leading roles, but there’s one that really stands out.
“I was covering soprano Anna Netrebko, who is extremely famous in the opera world. It was a past production remount and so I only had one week to learn the staging,” she says.
On the final performance, Netrebko was ill, and so someone needed to step in.
Rachelle proudly remembers what happened next: “I get a call three days before, I had never walked the set, it was my debut of that role and I was thrust on the Met stage – THE lead role.
“I remember they announced, ‘ladies and gentlemen, Anna Netrebko will not be singing tonight, she will be replaced by Rachelle Durkin’. And they all went, ‘ohhhhhh!’ (sighing).
“I finished, and I got a standing ovation!”
Rachelle reached professional heights as a soprano mirroring the pitch of her breathtaking voice in NYC, but she’s also thankful for her growth as a person that came about while there.
The fresh-faced Aussie arrived just as history was about to be rewritten, countless times and in a variety of ways; her time was a first-hand account of moments etched into our collective memories. That remained the case in Rachelle’s latter days in the US.
“Having been thrust into this city where you’re no longer a big fish in a small pond, you’re like this very, very insignificant fish in a massive sea of opera singers, so that made me grow up significantly,” she says.
“New York tends to make you grow up. You don’t feel entitled in New York because everyone’s in search of notoriety.
“Then I think of all the things that I witnessed: 9/11, Hurricane Sandy and the first black president. I lived through Bush, Obama, Trump, Biden, and then COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement.
“There’s never a dull moment in New York.”
Needless to say, life is a little lower key back in Perth.
Home and family
After 20 years in NYC, Rachelle decided to return to Perth with her young family in 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic played its part in the decision having affected Rachelle closely. She contracted the virus just as it began to sweep the globe in March 2020.
NYC was particularly hard hit in the early days of the pandemic. Few could forget the surreal footage of the city that never sleeps in a COVID-induced slumber.
Perth - for the most part - has avoided that fate and carried on as normal, often COVID-free. Marry that with the laid-back way of life and it’s an ideal setting for Rachelle’s five-year-old son to grow up in.
“I do want the best for my son. He’s loving school now – real school – to actually go into a classroom. We’re very lucky in that respect,” she says.
“I just love the sand, the surf, the sun and the winters aren’t that bad really, compared to New York. It’s just an easier lifestyle.
“I’ve lived half my life in Manhattan, and New York will always be my home away from home, but nothing compares to the raw beauty and lifestyle that is WA. It’s not as fast-paced as New York City, but I prefer it that way.
“I’d much rather keep the drama on the stage… for now.”
Photo courtesy of Rachelle Durkin. Image credit: James Rogers, West Australian Opera