From lockdown in Germany: Imogen Thirlwall

Imogen lounging around backstage during La Rondine. Credit: Pedro Arroyo

It’s coming up three years since Imogen Thirlwall left Wellington to pursue singing in Europe – but you may remember seeing her on stage in many of our New Zealand Opera productions, she was a member of the Freemasons New Zealand Opera Chorus and a Dame Malvina Major Young Artist. Imogen has sent us a wonderful update from her shut down in Germany. This is the first in a series of catch ups with singers from New Zealand and others who have a connection with New Zealand Opera community.

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Tell us about where you are in lockdown. Where did you come from to be there? Who are you with?

I’m going solo here in Meiningen, Thüringen, Germany. Since May 2018, I’ve been working at Meininger Staatstheater as a soprano in the opera chorus with a soloist component to my contract. The theatre is currently closed until 19 April.

Meininger Staatstheater. Credit: Imogen Thirlwall

In lieu of our staged performances, we are sharing a “#lied4mgn” (song for Meiningen) where our team share what we are up to during social distancing. I love to sing in the forest so captured this little snap, which was re-filmed by the German television station MDR-Fernsehen for a news clip about the theatre. Our costume department is doing incredible work sewing protective face masks for frontline workers and vulnerable people within the community.

What are you doing with this time in one place – learning roles, personal projects?

I’m treating this as a ‘sabbatical’ to work on German language study as well as health and fitness.

Imogen Thirlwall and Tamara Lorenzo Gabeiras. Credit: Dominika Kuhlmann

It’s a fantastic time for operatic role study and I’m currently working on a programme of lieder by Strauss, Wolf, Schubert, Schumann, Marx and Pfitzner. This is to prepare for a concert recital here at Meininger Staatstheater with pianist Tamara Lorenzo Gabeiras, featuring Strauss’s Mädchenblumen song cycle alongside interesting interpretations of women within art song.

Here’s a little taste of us in rehearsal with Alma Mahler’s Laue Sommernacht.

This project has been impacted by the theater closure and social distancing, but we are so excited to share this repertoire with our audiences when we can.

What have you been up in recent months career-wise – performances, any other highlights?

It’s been a whirlwind 19/20 season. I was delighted to debut the roles of Yvette and un cantore in
La Rondine at both Meininger Staatstheater and Eisenach Landestheater. This was positively reviewed:  “… aus dem Gespann der Freundinnen sticht die Neuseeländerin Imogen Thirlwall mit klarem Sopran heraus, der feinste Lyrik verströmt.” / “… and from the team of girlfriends stands out the clear soprano of Imogen Thirlwall, which exudes the finest lyricism.” – Der

Meininger Staatstheater. Credit: Imogen Thirlwall

I jumped in as the soprano soloist for the sold out Weihnachtskonzert to perform with Meininger Hofkapelle. I’m also singing Micaëla in an abridged version of CarmenL’amour de Carmen – as an outreach opportunity for schools within Thüringen.

Work within our opera chorus entails a gloriously diverse set of repertoire: from Wagner’s Tannhäuser at Wartburg Castle to musical theater with Der Mann von La Mancha.

Wartburg Castle in Autumn. Credit: Imogen Thirlwall

To celebrate International Women’s Day, I collaborated with Dorothea Gerber (soprano), Tamara Lorenzo Gabeiras (piano) and Savina Kationi (moderation). We presented a concert at Meininger Staatstheater with repertoire by 12 female composers from 1619 to present day.

Art song and, more specifically, German lieder, is a huge passion of mine. I was honoured to be accepted alongside my duo partner, pianist Dr Fangfei Chen, into the Franz Schubert Institut 2019 programme ‘Kunst der Interpretation: Das Lied von Beethoven bis Berg’ in Austria. We spent five intense weeks over summer working with tutors such as Birgid Steinberger, Julius Drake, Roger Vignoles, Wolfram Rieger, Helmut Deutsch, Gabriele Fontana, Andreas Schmidt, Robert Holl and Richard Stokes.

You’ve been busy singing internationally, which makes us so proud. Do you think there’s anything special about Kiwi singers and what they add to the mix when performing around the world?

As young singers from New Zealand, we are incredibly fortunate to have robust performance experience (thanks NZO!) and high quality education through the brilliant work of our national choirs, the New Zealand Opera School and our tertiary institutions before we embark on an international platform.

There are cultural attitudes that are helpful professionally in any socially dynamic working environment. I personally enjoy taking a “low fuss” approach to things – observe, assess, and then get on with it. Being calm and focused under pressure is something that can set us apart.

Kiwis also aren’t afraid to be bold and creative when we chase our dreams. We are pragmatic about the inevitable challenge and rejection along the way. A resilient attitude is everything: keep an open mind, be kind and brave in your heart, and go for it.

What does being part of the New Zealand opera community mean to you, and what does it mean to sing at home in New Zealand?

Connectivity through the internet is something we are all enjoying right now! It is wonderful to be
able to reach out to other singers, overseas and back home, for anything from repertoire advice to sharing hilarious musical parodies.

I have scheduled my first return home to New Zealand in three years to visit family and to share
some tunes this July/August. International travel plans are of course up in the air now for everyone and border control measures may significantly delay this visit. But the most important thing is to keep our communities safe!

Is there something you do to stay focused and relaxed that may be useful for others at a time like this?

I’m very focused on mitigating the mental health impact of uncertainty, loneliness and stress during this exceptional time. There is specific regional legislation in place to protect us here too, and exercising alone within the region is still permitted. I love long distance walking and travelled more than 150 km in one week exploring nearby forests. For anyone interested in scenery snaps paired with poetry, my Instagram is: thirlwallimogen.

I understand that it must be a lot tougher back home with everyone in full lockdown. Look for the
silver linings where you can and activities close to home that will encourage a positive state of mind. For me, this looks like poetry, puzzles, cooking, and silent disco dance parties in the lounge!