Opera singer Đào Tố Loan, who started her career from zero, now teaches at the Việt Nam Academy of Music (VNAM). She speaks with Lê Hương after winning first prize at the Singapore Lyric Opera ASEAN Vocal Competition 2018.
Inner Sanctum: Can you tell us more about the contest in Singapore?
The contest takes place every two years in Singapore, where short listed candidates compete in the semi-final and final rounds. Each contestant has to sing three arias in the semi-final and three different arias in the final. But just a few hours before the semi-final, the organisers announced that each contestant had only five minutes to prepare their performance, including an introduction. We were all worried as most of our arias were rather long. Some contestants cut the piano parts from their performances, while I chose short and cheerful arias to sing. During the final round, each contestant had ten minutes to sing two arias – one chosen by the singer, the other chosen by the jury. Sitting in the waiting room, I heard the other contestants sing so well. I thought I had no chance. When it was my turn, the pianist was tired. I kept calm and guided her to follow my voice until the end of the song. When the final round was over, listening to the results, I was extremely nervous. I prayed while the names were announced. Third place was announced, then second. I thought I had lost, then my name was read out as the winner. I burst into tears. I staggered to the stage to collect the prize. I cried a lot. It was like a dream.
Inner Sanctum: What do you think helped you win the contest?
I think two factors helped me. The first is patriotism. I was proud to be the only Vietnamese taking part. Secondly, I tried to be unique. I didn’t want to sing like other famous artists. I think the jury recognised that characteristic.
Inner Sanctum: How has your career developed?
I’m currently working as a singer in the Vietnam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB) and a teacher of opera at the VNAM. I started my career from scratch so I understand my students. We shouldn’t force anyone to study art, we should create a free atmosphere for students to follow their passion. When a student succeeds, the efforts made by the teacher and student are equal. My mother died a long time ago. When my older sister entered the Business Management College, I followed her to Hà Nội to attend secondary school. Then I enrolled at an accounting school. At that time I sang pop music. My boyfriend encouraged me to study music further. My family were not passionate about music, and my sister brought me up instead of my parents so life was very difficult at that time. Sometimes, I just ate instant noodles without any meat and tried hard to learn and sing opera. My face was full of acne. At that time opera students had very little opportunity to earn money. I didn’t sing other genres of music for fear that I would spoil my opera skills when they were still developing. Then I graduated from VNAM with distinction in 2014. The same year, I won both first prize and audience’s vote at the Lidal North Opera Workshop in Oslo. Now I can sing other genres. I take all the beautiful features of other genres to put in opera. Opera means that artists should explore to perfect their technique.
Inner Sanctum: What do you think about opera singers in Việt Nam? What difficulties do they face?
They face many difficulties. They don’t have many fans and there are few spaces for opera singers to develop their career in Việt Nam. Each opera artist has their own way to overcome such difficulties. For me, my belief and passion have helped me overcome everything.
Inner Sanctum: As a mother and an artist, how do you manage your schedule?
I’m lucky to have a happy family with an understanding husband, who always shares and encourages me to work hard in my life and career.
To me, my duties as a wife, mother, teacher and singer are not too much. My first child was born when I was granted an MA scholarship to study in Italy. I missed this opportunity. Before the contest in Singapore, I sometimes had to hold my second child while practising. I sang high notes while he was sleeping like a log in my arms. I often asked my students to take care of my five-month-old baby while I rehearsed. Luckily my son seems to like opera. Maybe it’s a good way of practising strength – singing while holding a heavy object. My daughter, who is nearly 4 years old, has already started to imitate my voice. My whole family accompanied me to Singapore for the contest. But my husband took care of the children while I was competing. If my children like music, I will help them pursue their passion. Otherwise, I will not force them. Following art is a challenge.