Let it go

How soprano Madeleine Pierard found her voice.

Written by      

Lottie Hedley

Before you sing opera, you have to learn how to breathe. So, inhale. Let the ribs expand, the lower belly swell. Now exhale. You’re pushing the air out using the top of the belly. Tuck your tailbone. Keep the ribs nice and floaty. Don’t lock your knees or your hips or your spine. Hold your mouth just so. Hold the back of your mouth just so. Now do all that, in costume and a language not your own, for hours, with no microphone, and as you breathe, whoosh out a glorious noise loud enough to soar over a full orchestra. Now do all that without thinking about it.

This is the central paradox of singing opera: you have to train yourself to let go.

Any little niggle, says Madeleine Pierard—anxiety, holding your breath slightly, bad vibes in rehearsal—will constrain the noise you’re making. So if you’re thinking, you’re getting in your own way.

She finds it hard to stop thinking. She is a person who relaxes, when she cannot sleep, by transforming sugar into peony petals, building those petals into flowers—10 of them, fist-sized, the colour of apple blossom—and placing those flowers on a four-tiered cake she baked earlier. (You can see this cake, and her other insomniac creations, at the website she potters away at on the side, diva-kitchen.com.)

Pierard grew up in Napier, the fourth of five siblings, music in the blood. At six years old, she was diagnosed with the cancer non-Hodgkin lymphoma. “My parents were told it was a very rampant form and to not hold out high hopes.” The next two years were strange. The little girl spent most of that time in hospital and in isolation. Things she remembers: having her mother’s full attention; drinking as much lemonade and ginger ale as she wanted; choosing a jigsaw puzzle every Friday from the toy room. “There were little traumatic moments,” she says. “Mum talks about my whole body shaking and going white every time I heard the drip trolley coming down the corridor.” But as it went on, it became her normal. For a long time after she recovered, she could not let her mother out of her sight.

By the age of 13, Pierard had a plan. She was going to sign up for the Army—she wanted to be an oncologist or work with stem cells, and at the time the military would cover tertiary fees in exchange for five years’ service after graduation. But after one year at university, breaking herself to study both biomedical science and composition, medicine conceded to music. By 2006, Pierard was in London, studying opera at the Royal College of Music. She went on to perform major roles worldwide.

She grew up assuming the cancer treatment had left her infertile, and went into her marriage (to a musician, naturally—conductor and violinist Michael Joel) with that on the table. Her sisters offered to be egg donors or surrogates. But she conceived right away. She took the test at her sister Margot’s house, with another sister, Anna, in tow. “They both waited outside the bathroom and then, when it was positive, we just stood in a circle, holding hands and crying.”

Chloe arrived first. Then Eleanor, in her parents’ bathroom in Napier. Pierard hit her top five notes within an hour of giving birth. She kept working, and in 2018 helped to found SWAP’ra, an organisation that supports women and parents in opera—the goal is to make it normal, and more doable, to nurture both a family and a career.

When lockdown hit London, Pierard was pregnant again, and extra careful. “It was so worrying and so much worse in the UK,” she says. Three women on her midwife’s list were in intensive care with the virus. The abrupt lack of work for both her and Joel was deeply stressful. But watching their children play at home, Pierard was reassured to know that her own isolation, at a similar age, had done no lasting damage.

Ruby, her third daughter, was born in Pierard’s aunt’s home in London two years ago, when the family was still stuck in the UK.

Shortly afterward, the young family moved from London to Hamilton. Pierard had been offered a plum role—mentoring young singers in a new University of Waikato programme, Te Pae Kōkako/The Aotearoa New Zealand Opera Studio. Part of the deal is that she maintains her own international career. Performing is a joy, restorative. But it means long stints away from home. This past year, immersed, too, in getting the programme started—learning skills such as managing people and expectations, strategic development—has been hard. But surprisingly, it has made her a better singer.  The neuroses that used to follow her on stage, she says, are now focused on her university work.

Recently, Pierard performed for the casting director at the Royal Opera House. She’d sung for him many times over the years (he once said to her that when he hadn’t heard a singer for a while, they dropped out of his mind). He is not a terribly effusive man, Pierard says. But this time, after she sang, he sent an email.

“He said to me, ‘Every time I hear you, you’re a different singer. Now you may stay as you are.’”