30 January 2023

Something in the aria: Lisa brings opera to the Mt Ainslie foothills

| James Coleman
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Braddon’s mystery opera singer Lisa Zhang. Photo: James Coleman.

Others might content themselves with belting out a tune or two in the shower, but not Lisa Zhang.

When the retired 60-year-old Chinese-Australian gets the urge to sing, she takes up her bottle of warm water (never cold), phone and folder of sheet music and heads up into the foothills of the Mount Ainslie nature reserve.

“It’s quiet, and there’s hardly ever anyone up here – I don’t want to disturb people,” she explains.

She might be underestimating the strength of her voice there, given – over the past few months – many nearby residents of Ainslie, Braddon and Campbell have followed ‘what sounds like someone singing opera’ to find her, educating the rabbits with Madama Butterfly.

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“Sometimes, they want to take videos to share to social media, but I really just sing for myself, for fun.”

Usually, she’s in casual garb, but today, she’s negotiating the rough and rocky track opposite the Mercure Canberra hotel in a purple lace dress and a pair of high heels. Very fitting if this were Llewellyn Hall; very impressive, given it’s about as environmentally far from that as possible.

A couple of granite stones near the top form her stage, and a lazy cluster of kangaroos and rabbits are her only visible audience. She searches Puccini’s ‘O mio babbino caro’ piano aria on her phone, sips from her water bottle (explaining that cold water and hot vocal cords are never a good mix), and begins to sing. Even without the sheet music in her hands, the Italian stanzas flow.

“For some reason, it’s not really working today,” she concludes modestly.

Lisa moved to Canberra with her daughter six years ago, where “it’s very quiet, and the people are very kind”. It was here she not only learnt English but built on a lifelong love of singing by taking up what is generally regarded as the most challenging form of singing – opera – as a hobby.

Three years of studying music in China had put her in good stead, but once a week, she attended singing lessons to learn how to tackle pieces by Puccini, Mozart and Rossini.

“It’s a different way of singing,” she says.

“It’s hard to explain, but you have to use more volume and vibrato [a ‘wobbling’ change in pitch].”

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She also tutors Mandarin during the week and spends her weekends helping at a local Chinese school.

“So although not working, I’m still busy from morning to evening every day, especially finding time to sing every day.”

And almost every day, for about an hour, she’ll come up here to practice, sometimes both morning and afternoon, so it can be up to twice a day. Other times, she’ll go to the grounds of the nearby Campbell High School. It isn’t even limited to daylight hours either, which has led to concerns for her safety.

“I’ve never had issues so far – people are very nice, but one time when I was singing up here at night, there was a man who waited for me to finish so he could make sure I got home safely. That was touching.”

She certainly doesn’t struggle to capture the attention of people who either happen to be walking past or who hear her voice and follow it. She describes many of their reactions as heart-warming.

“One time, I finished an Italian aria to see an older couple cuddling, with tears in their eyes.”

Her singing teacher moved on last year, so she’s left to self-teach while hunting for another who specialises in the English and Italian opera classics. But she’s definitely not stopping anytime soon, especially with a performance at the National Multicultural Festival coming up next month.

“I wish I could sing professionally, but I’ll just keep going and continue learning.”

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When I was a child my family lived for a few years in Brisbane, and across the street lived an opera singer. Being a sub tropical place, house windows were often open, and the opera singer entertained the street when she practiced.

My family has loved hearing the ‘opera singer’ in Ainslie over the last few years, and many times the kids have gone hunting to see if they can find her, to no avail. Nice to see the story behind the voice. Keep it up!

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