The butterfly effect
A life-altering decision to transfer from computer science to study music at the Elder Conservatorium of Music saw the rise of one of today’s stars of the opera stage.
Joanna McWaters enrolled in computer science to satisfy her mother’s wishes for her to pursue ‘a secure career’. After six months Joanna joined the Adelaide University Choral Society (AUCS) which enabled her to nurture her passion for music – a seed which was planted at a young age.
“I still remember the day I first learned to read music. It was a rhythm written up on the school blackboard. Music made sense to me from that very first day and my world changed from that moment,” she says.
Joanna learnt several musical instruments in her early years, starting with the recorder in primary school and later moving onto the flute and piano in high school. But it wasn’t until her time at university that she seriously considered a career in music.
“It was through AUCS that I started receiving compliments about my voice and suggestions that I should have some singing lessons,” says Joanna.
“I took it a little further and decided to change degrees entirely and auditioned for the Elder Conservatorium having never had a singing lesson in my life. I wonder now at the audacity of it.”
It turned out to be a good decision and signalled the start of a successful singing career. Joanna has gone on to sing many of her dream roles in a stage career that her mother soon agreed was the right choice.
Career highlights include Mimi in La Bohéme, Nedda in I Pagliacci and Dolly Pickles in Cloudstreet.
In 2013 Joanna made her principal operatic debut in State Opera SA’s production of Madama Butterfly playing the title role.
Madama Butterfly tells the story of 15-year-old Japanese geisha Cio-Cio San, or Butterfly, and her doomed marriage to an American officer during World War II.
“I loved every minute of the preparation and performance,” says Joanna. “I’d been waiting years for the chance to show what I could do. It was wonderful, scary and fabulous all at the same time.
“I felt a great sense of responsibility in being entrusted with such an iconic and demanding role but there was never any doubt in my mind that I could do it.”
Joanna also began writing her own love story at the University when she met fellow vocalist Andy Turner.
After studying together at the Elder Conservatorium they went on to perform in many shows together. Both undertook postgraduate study in Luxembourg and eventually married before returning to Adelaide where they have settled in the Adelaide Hills.
They are the parents of three children who have mixed feelings about the career choices of their parents.
“As our children get older, they are increasingly aware that what we do is different to other people,” she says.
“However our work commitments mean we have to be away for a while or out a lot at night.
“They are blasé about the media attention and my photo in the paper or a magazine is not that exciting anymore.”
The couple also credit their children for keeping them grounded.
“Sometimes, just before we walk on stage all glammed up, we muse over the fact that only two hours before we were frantically picking the kids up from sport and trying to feed them all dinner in time.”
Joanna and Andy’s children are discovering music and the arts in their own way through music and dance and often attend their parents’ performances.
Joanna is a passionate supporter of the industry that inspired her career, describing it as “an essential part of life”.
“It surprises me that we are often asked why the arts are so important. It is a natural outlet for expression that has been part of humankind since the beginning.
“There is a great quote doing the rounds, ‘The Earth without art is just eh’. That pretty much sums up how I feel.”
Story by Connie Dutton