"I've missed every single friend's wedding. I've missed the birth of babies. I caught up with a friend recently and the last time I saw her she was pregnant and now her son is two." Photo: Nic Walker
A plane filled with sniffling and coughing passengers is Nicole Car's kryptonite. As an in-demand soprano who has the potential to be the most important Australian opera singer since Dame Joan Sutherland, the 30-year-old cannot afford to get sick. She says, "I can't cancel a performance; it's scheduled, that's my job. Maybe I could have a day off from rehearsals if there was a death in the family."
Car isn't being melodramatic. When her maternal grandfather was dying last August, she was in Sydney performing in Opera Australia's The Marriage of Figaro. Her older brother, an IT specialist based in Hong Kong, was also in town.
"We decided we'd both fly out the next morning to see him in Bendigo. I couldn't cancel the performance and I hoped he'd make it through the night. We Skyped him after the show. I was lucky I got to see him."
"It's a really rewarding life, but it's not an easy life." Photo: Nic Walker
Sadly, he died before the siblings arrived. "Those are the sacrifices you make," she says, sotto voce. "It's a really rewarding life, but it's not an easy life."
Car is sipping a cup of peppermint tea in a suite in Melbourne's swanky The Langham hotel, a short stroll from the serviced apartment in which she is staying while performing the title role in Verdi's Luisa Miller at the State Theatre. She is dressed casually in jeans, black knit, printed scarf and fitted jacket. At 176 centimetres, and with the addition of boots, Car is a tall but not overpowering presence (she often wears flats on stage so she doesn't tower over the male tenors, who tend to be shortish). I have flown interstate before her final performance the following night to watch her in action as the love-mad Luisa.
Car is herself a little distracted by love. After celebrating closing night with the cast and crew over a few drinks - "Yay, I get to drink some alcohol!" - she will catch an early flight to Quebec to see her boyfriend, Canadian baritone Étienne Dupuis, in his closing-night performance in Les Feluettes.
The gay-themed opera set in the 1950s has enjoyed a sold-out premiere at the Opéra de Montreal and Dupuis has one of the lead roles.
If all goes according to plan, Car will arrive at 5pm and head straight to the theatre. "It's part of making sure we see each other," she says. "You don't want to miss important events like that." I notice a modest diamond ring on her left hand. "It's a nice reminder that we have each other in our lives," she says, grinning, when asked if they're engaged.
Car is divorced from her high school sweetheart, an engineer. "It was very amicable and in some way we'll probably be in each other's lives forever," she says. Car will spend two weeks in Canada before returning to Australia to prepare for her role in Mozart's bitter-sweet romantic comedy Cosi Fan Tutte at the Sydney Opera House.
Then it's back to Europe to perform in a new rendition of Cosi in Berlin at the Deutsche Oper and roles that will take her to Dresden, Dallas and Paris.
"Home" for the nomadic performer will be serviced apartments and, preferably, an Airbnb rental or two. Staying in someone else's home helps create a sense of normality: she savours chipped mugs, mismatched cutlery and worn lounges.
This is Car's first visit to her home town in two years and she has managed to spend a rare night at her parents' home, in Arthurs Seat on the Mornington Peninsula, where most of her belongings are stored in boxes.
"When I'm back in Australia I'm usually in Sydney and working six days a week," she says.
"I've missed every single friend's wedding. I've missed the birth of babies. I caught up with a friend recently and the last time I saw her she was pregnant and now her son is two. Facebook and those things are great to keep up with people, but I've had to accept that births, deaths and marriages are out.
I can never be there."
None of this prevents her from relishing her career. "Opera can transfix you. It's the combination of the music, the singing, the very lavish productions.
"When you have a singer who is performing from their heart and the way the composer intended, it has this incredible effect. It's visceral. There's no other art form like it."
Car didn't plan to be an opera singer. Raised in Essendon in a family that favoured the Rolling Stones over Rossini, she belonged to school choirs and performed in high school musicals.
Jazz was her thing until the last year of school at Strathmore Secondary College, when she attended her first opera - Tosca, featuring Deborah Riedel - at the State Theatre, where she is now treading the funereal black glossy stage as Luisa Miller. That same year the musical director of the Victorian State Schools Spectacular, Kirk Skinner, suggested that Car had an "opera voice".
"When I came home and told my parents I wanted to study opera, I think they were petrified," she says. "They said, 'We know nothing of this world.' They knew that it would be hard to be successful and there's a lot of sacrifices, but no one can tell you that going in.
"I say to people, 'If you can imagine a career outside of opera, then you should do that career.' You have to be completely committed."
After high school, Car enrolled in classical music studies at Melbourne's Victorian College of the Arts, where she was guided by respected singing teacher Anna Connolly.
"She gave me a [Henry] Purcell song and we started going through it and there were so many runs in it, a lot of coloratura, and because of my scatting in jazz I understood what to do.
"As soon as I started singing I thought, oh, this is challenging and really, really liberating," she says enthusiastically. "Singing opera has always felt so natural, never like I was putting something on."
Says Connolly, "When I think of my initial lessons with Nicole, who was 17, what comes to mind is her intellectual and musical intelligence. As she got older, her voice seemed to grow exponentially and I remember my ears feeling rather uncomfortable at times from the sheer decibels she was producing!" Being an opera singer seems a fanciful career choice; like being an astronaut or Formula One driver. It is a rarefied world that demands an understanding of music, language and acting.
Audiences are passionate and discerning. "When I'm first learning a role," says Car, "I get the score and mark up everything that my character is doing. I get the libretto and make sure I have a translation of what everyone is saying so I know the story. If it's in Russian it's very difficult, but if it's Italian or French it's much easier."
Car learnt Italian at school. Having a French-speaking boyfriend has helped with her fluency in that language, too.
"I can converse in French but if I'm in Canada it's a little harder," she says. "The Quebec French is so different; they shorten everything, it's very colloquial and they also use a lot of archaic French as well."
Last October, when she made her Covent Garden debut as the "good girl" Micaela in Bizet's Carmen, the celebrated past of the ornate, storied theatre imbued the experience with a profound significance. Car takes none of it for granted.
"I'm such a young person coming into it and I want to know the history," she says. "I want to know from an experienced singer what they heard a conductor say about this role 20 years before. I'm learning all the time."
Which singers does Car admire? "If I could have the top notes of [Montserrat] Caballé, the flexibility of Sutherland, the emotion of [Maria]Callas and the richness of voice of Leontyne Price, I'd be the perfect singer," she says, laughing boisterously, aware of the hyperbole. At 30, Car has the world at her feet. Opera Australia's recognition and support mean she has been able to tackle significant roles at a relatively young age. "It's set me up for the international roles," she says. "To be able to go to a big company and say, 'I've already sung Mimi and Marguerite in Faust and Tatyana in [Eugene] Onegin.' They're not taking such a big risk casting because you've proven yourself." Connolly, who remains in contact with her former student, describes Car as the hardest-working singer she has taught. "What people don't realise is the tens of thousands of hours Nicole has spent practising. When combined with the fact that she is down-to-earth, has a supportive family and partner, possesses a great sense of humour and truly loves her art form, things are looking very good for the future.
"If you then add in the experience of working with the best singers, conductors and directors in the great opera houses of the world, you have all the ingredients for one of the world's great lyric sopranos."
Car is booked for performances until the start of 2020 and while her destiny seems assured, she worries about the future of opera. "There's this idea that opera is this museum art form and it's dying, and I'm so against that.
"I think it really has a place, but I worry for the arts in general. We need it all - writing, dance, theatre, contemporary art, opera. And it's about making it accessible to people."
She is hopeful that her journey - from Essendon to Covent Garden - might inspire others. "If that's something I can achieve throughout my career, that would be the most amazing thing. If I can encourage one child, one family, one person, to explore performing arts ... I don't come from the wealthy eastern suburbs. I come from a loving family who were always really encouraging of anything I wanted to do. There are a lot of people who might appreciate that."
A few days later, I notice a tweet from Car. A five-hour flight delay ruined her plan to be in Montreal in time to see Dupuis' closing night performance. She was spot-on about the sacrifices. •
Nicole Car performs in Cosi Fan Tutte at the Sydney Opera House from July 19 to August 13.