At eight years old, Stella Hannock first started "cutting her teeth" on the Taree and District Eisteddfod. Now, at 23, she has won herself a place at San Francisco Conservatory of Music to study a Masters of Opera Performance with the highly renowned US mezzo soprano Susanne Mentzer as her voice teacher.
Stella, who grew up in Port Macquarie, has been competing at the Taree Eisteddfod every year.
"Singing on that lovely stage at the Manning Entertainment Centre was quite a big part of my upbringing. I had some lovely adjudicators during those teenage years that were very encouraging and spoke to me about my plans," Stella says.
She initially had singing lessons form Port Macquarie teacher Robyn Ryan, but toward the end of her teenage years switched to Ariana Schneider, making the drive down to Wingham every Saturday for lessons. She moved to Sydney, after turning 18, to study at the Conservatorium of Music for five years.
At the Con, as it is known in musical circles, Stella spent four years obtaining her Bachelor of Music Performance followed by a year completing a Graduate Diploma in Opera, while supporting herself with employment as the senior ticketing representative with the Australian Chamber Orchestra until she moves to the US.
"I've just been through quite a long process of auditioning and applying for various US colleges. Usually I would have gone over and done auditions in person, but obviously it was a different process this year," Stella says.
"I found out two weeks ago that I got in, and also that they have granted me a very, very generous scholarship as well, so I'm feeling really excited."
Getting to the US is made easier by being awarded a Smile Scholarship of $750 at the Taree and District Eisteddfod Open Vocal Championships on Saturday night, April 17.
"That's half of my flight over, and that's really substantial to me," Stella says.
"It was really lovely and the entire idea behind that scholarship is to give young people from the Mid North Coast these funds to be able to take opportunities out of the region and possibly overseas."
This is the third Smile Scholarship, a fund set up by Tim Stack OAM, that Stella has received. Previously it allowed her to go to China with Australian children's choir Gondwana Voices to perform.
It is an arduous process to become an opera singer, and not just a matter of talent. Most start singing lessons at a very young age, go on to six years of tertiary study, then hope to win a place in a young artists program with an opera house, before finally making a debut on stage with a lead role at a large opera house.
"Sometimes when I tell people that I'm an opera singer, they say things like 'oh gosh, you must be so talented'. But there's varying levels of talent in the people who are the most successful in the industry," Stella says.
Raw talent is irrelevant when you get past a certain point, because you have to work really, really, really hardStella Hannock
"Raw talent is irrelevant when you get past a certain point, because you have to work really, really, really hard. You can't have this incredible voice and not work hard, you won't get anywhere."
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the arts industry particularly hard, and while it meant Stella was not able to perform much, she considered herself very lucky to still be studying at that stage. However she was able to undertake two major projects in 2020.
She played Prince Charming in the Sydney Conservatorium's production of Massenet's opera, Cendrillon (French for Cinderella). Prince Charming is a 'pants' role - mezzo sopranos are often cast in "witches, bitches and britches" roles, a common trope in opera.
"The Con was quite innovate - it would usually have been performed live, but we did it in partnership with Nida and we did it as a film. It was quite an interesting process," Stella says.
"We had to do a lot of acting on camera, which is a very very different experience than us being in an opera theatre, because opera theaters are so big that the acting is generally larger than life, whereas film can capture these tiny little movements from the corner of your mouth, for example."
The other project was a new production of the Australian opera Love Burns by Graeme Koehne with The Other Theatre in Darlinghurst. It was performed in October, the first opera to be performed live in Australia following the Covid lockdowns.
"It was amazing for all of us to be performing again. There was a palpable sense of excitement which extended from backstage throughout audience for our return to the theatre."
Stella's dream role is Octavian, which is Octavian from Der Rosenkavalier by (Richard) Strauss.
"That's another pants role. I do like my pants roles. It helps that every time I walk into a room with a new director they see me and say 'oh you'd be great at pants roles', because I'm six foot tall and very broad shoulders," Stella says.
One of her two championship pieces for the 2021 Taree and District Eisteddfod was the opening aria, Wie du Warst) from that opera, Wie du Warst.
"The role itself is one which I won't sing in its entirety until I'm older. It's not appropriate for me to sing it at my age and stage of development yet, but this particular aria is one that can be done at my age, but I just wouldn't do the whole role yet."