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Building Brünnhilde

An investigation into the mid-career transitions of female dramatic voices.

The Problem

Obstacles that have been cited as influencing the lack of Wagnerian superstars and difficulty of retaining true dramatic voices in the profession are:

  • the late maturation of dramatic voices,

  • arguments within vocal pedagogy as to the best way to train these voices, and

  • barriers to re-entering the singing profession that particularly affect female opera singers - such as

    • casting decisions which preference youth and appearance rather than vocal mastery, and

    • additional private responsibilities such as family and fertility . 

The literature is unclear as to 'what extent the late maturation of voice is due to ageing and what is due to the need to develop sounder technique and greater muscle strength over a long period of time.' (Moravcsik 2016)

What is clear is that there are a lack of accounts from the singers themselves detailing the rigorous process they have undertaken to develop their technique and the strategies they have employed to keep motivated through this transition and re-brand themselves in their new voice type and re-enter the profession. This thesis seeks to address this specific gap.


Chair/ Primary Supervisor (Music) 

Dr Scott Davie

Australian National University

Primary Supervisor (Sociology)

Professor Inger Mewburn Ph.D

Australian National University

Associate Supervisor

Cheryl Barker AO 

Australian National University

Associate Supervisor

Dr David Kram AM

Senior Fellow, The University of Melbourne

Research Questions

Overarching Questions:


  • How do you build a Brünnhilde - Voice, Body & Psyche


  • What should an aspiring Brünnhilde sing when waiting "in the Wings" for her chance to get "in the Ring"?​​​​​



  • Is age and maturity an integral part of a female singers' ability to sing Wagnerian repertoire or is the long maturation time due to the need to develop a sounder technique and muscle strength over a longer period of time?


  • Was the work the singers did to master their voice was purely technical or did it involve elements of psychological re-evaluation and a renegotiation of the singers inner-selves?


  • What, if any, impact have the singers’ private lives had on their mid-career transitions?​​

  • Are there systematic methods these singers employ to re-brand themselves and re-enter the singing profession?

  • How are these methods changing with the proliferation of social media? 


The impacts of a mid-career transition on female opera singers remains poorly understood in academic circles.  Given the alignment of tertiary music institutions with the university sector, an academic investigation into the life histories of female singers with dramatic voices will provide knowledge that can be used to intervene in training and guide the career paths of singers with dramatic potential.

The creative works and accompanying exegesis developed in this investigation will explore the themes that arise from the life history interviews using a hybrid performance model which encompasses academic recital, staged song-cycles and play.  This performance piece will embody the singer’s pathways and pitfalls and provide an alternative pathway for the emerging dramatic singer to develop their performance skills and test out their technique in staged works based on individualised repertoire. 

By providing an alternative mode of teaching the emerging dramatic voice, that is both practical and grounded in the life histories of singers who have traversed the pitfalls and pathway of the dramatic voice, it is anticipated that this knowledge will assist in equipping emerging dramatic female singers with an understanding of the practical, performance and psychological skills required to perform as a dramatic female voice in the 21st century operatic profession.

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