AHRI chairman, Peter Wilson, talks with Dr Louise Mahler on her journey from opera singer to BHP corporate to Vocal Intelligence guru.
Peter Wilson: You have had a fascinating career and an extraordinary life so far. What have been the highlights?
Louise Mahler: There are two parts. One is the business study and one is the music and opera study. But it didn’t quite happen in that order.
I started off with an economics degree majoring in statistics, then a degree in music and then I went off to Europe, singing. I was there for 10 years before coming back to Australia where I did a Masters in Business and my PhD, along with my NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) Master Practitioner training.
I also have a diploma in computer programming and most of a German degree. It all seems very disparate really, but, if you look at it in terms of music, language and energy, it’s all about patterns and I apply those to communication.
PW: Turning to your operatic career, it must have felt great to be a protégée of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf [German-born opera singer]. In the past you have said that her power was so strong that you emulated her voice very well and others commented on this. But was the challenge then to find your own voice?
LM: Most people in Australia have never heard of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, but after [Greek soprano Maria] Callas, she’s probably the most famous soprano of the mid-20th century. And when someone like her takes you on it’s pretty overwhelming.
I won the first Elisabeth Schwarzkopf Walter Legge scholarship [Legge was a classical record producer]. Under her coaching, I performed the role of the Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (with Peter Ustinov producing) in Salzburg; engaged in masterclasses all over the world, including Wigmore Hall and lived in her house in Zurich; and I went to the Vienna State opera on a soloist contract under her wing.
Schwarzkopf was a very powerful person and when you’re with someone like that you think you want to emulate them.
When the reviews said that I sounded exactly like Schwarzkopf, I thought it was great at the time. The repercussions were that I found someone else’s voice and lost my own, in a sense.
PW: What did you learn from her in terms of managing your own career?
LM: Schwarzkopf’s work ethic was amazing and her intense concentration and attention to detail was astounding. In masterclasses, Schwarzkopf, like other musicians, would interrupt immediately and say: “What are you doing?” She was very intense. Obviously we don’t try to emulate that today but I learnt a lot from her.
A major influence was her management of breath. I could spend half a day with Schwarzkopf looking at two notes. She was very specific about how you communicated and used the breath. Every aspect was looked at with a fine-tooth comb.
When I was in Vienna, Schwarzkopf was investigated for tax and she withdrew for two years – she disappeared. I was left there in Vienna without her to imitate.
I ended up doing the contemporary operas, which are everything from performing in the nude to standing on your head. I felt like a performing monkey and I didn’t want to do it any more.
PW: You talk about finding and losing your voice and it’s an interesting parallel to the turning points of life. When did this happen, and what did it mean to you?
LM: When I was in Vienna I got married. When I stopped singing my husband said: “I married a soloist at the Vienna State Opera – this isn’t what I married”. So the marriage broke down. Add a tiny baby to the formula and, as they say on the science shows for the dangerous experiments: ‘Don’t try this at home’. It was a dreadful time.
I was lost and, returning to Australia, I felt I had lost my voice – figuratively speaking. I literally did not sing for six whole years. Funnily enough, while I felt the pain of a lost voice, like a broken heart, during this time I discovered that the people around me were also experiencing this loss of voice. The difference was that they did not seem to notice! I thought, if anyone is going to do something about this, it better be me. My journey has become everyone’s journey – whether they want it or not (which, thank the Lord, they do). This then became a passion and my PhD explores this concept.
PW: These are big changes in life. How did you rebuild and take steps forward again?
LM: With difficulty. It’s not just a loss of peripheral things. When one is singing, one is a singer. It’s 24/7. So it’s a loss of identity. It was very difficult. I was rescued by BHP who gave me an opportunity.
I always say that my education is my backpack. When all else fails, grab what you have on you and ignore the peripherals. I often recall my transition as ‘the recession I had to have’, because I got a taste of what it was like inside a large organisation, what it was to be voiceless,
At BHP I was quality manager in the engineering department (imagine it!), which no longer exists. It clearly wasn’t going to be my career, but it was a way in and I learnt a tremendous amount.
PW: There must have been a pathway that took you to a career in coaching, leadership and what you have named, Vocal Intelligence.
LM: It was at BHP that it happened. I was involved in a lot of training, presentations and working with the executive team. I noticed that the people I saw presenting had no resemblance to the excellent people I knew them to be, which led me to think in terms of their engagement with groups and the way they handled conflict.
The presentations around me didn’t seem to be structured and it certainly didn’t capture the attention. I wasn’t engaged, neither was anyone else and the presenters weren’t that chuffed with themselves either. One has to ask, why we do it to ourselves and others.
At one point, BHP did a massive consultancy with Motorola in America and I was put in charge of the communication group nationwide. It was a springboard to the world of communication in corporate life.
I remember mentioning to one of the consultants that my experiences from opera could have a tremendous amount to offer. He seemed to be interested and asked me to tell him more, at the end of which he said: “You ever bring your weird s**t in here again and you’re out”.
That was a turning point for me and I was on my own from that day.
Dr Louise Mahler will be speaking at the 2014 AHRI National Convention & Exhibition. Her keynote presentation, ‘The missing leadership ingredient: vocal intelligence – making voice a choice’, is on 20 August 2014. Registrations close 7 August 2014.