"Ooh yes, I have something to learn from this baby," says Corinne Winters as a squall from the smallest occupant of the next cafe table threatens to drown out her recollections of discovering her soprano range. There is a moment's pause for appreciation of a fine performance, well delivered, before she takes up the thread.
"Funnily enough, my husband – who is also a singer – and I often talk about how children are the best technicians," she says. "They can scream all day long and not lose their voice because they use their vocal cords efficiently. It's just ingrained in us. Singing is primal!"
Winters is 35. She always knew she liked to sing. Growing up in Maryland, she sang alto in the school choir. Her solicitor father played for fun in a rock band. Opera might as well have been another country.
"I grew up in suburban America without exposure to classical music," Winters says. "I thought I didn't like opera – merely because I didn't know anything about it, which I think is the case with most people. I only knew I loved music and I loved the chamber aspect of choir singing: multiple people in close proximity making music."
So she thought she could do a minor at college in music. "And then I took a voice lesson. Of course, I had no technique, but the teacher said 'you have an operatic voice – it would be a shame if you didn't pursue this'."
So she did. "It's one of those things where you're a teenager and when you are told you're good at something, you go 'oh well, I'll give it a go'," Winters says. It took a few more years before a new voice teacher told her to try singing up the scale beyond her usual mezzo range. Up she went. "And it was like my world went from black and white to colour. I thought 'this is right'. Like putting on a shoe that fits."
That's the way Winters' career has gone: as a series of timely discoveries. At the point where she found her top notes, she was considering ditching opera because she didn't like the "pants roles" suited to her mezzo range. As it is, she has found her signature role in Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata, which opens next week in Melbourne. Opera Australia's revived production will be her 10th. Although Winters has other favourites – Tatiana in Eugene Onegin, for example – she makes a convincing case for Violetta as far and away the best role in the canon.
"God, she's a soprano's dream!" she enthuses. "The scope of her singing: it's everything from high coloratura to low chest notes, all the range of colours. And from the acting standpoint, it is a character with a central conflict, which not all dying heroines have; they can be kind of one-dimensional."
Violetta's life as a courtesan has brought her independence in a sophisticated urban milieu. "But she's got this duality, which is 'this is who I am, but I also want to be loved and to love someone more than anything'. And I think that is an incredibly modern problem. It really resonated with me, because I know many women in my business are very independent and very emotional and open-hearted and want to experience that as well."
Violetta does find happiness with Alfredo, but sacrifices it to allow his sister to marry into a "good" family that would have nothing to do with the likes of her. That stigma is much harder to square with modern thinking. "That's interesting," Winters says. "Because you have to act appropriately for the period, but the emotions are modern at any point because we all feel these things." Until very recently, to be gay or trans put people beyond the pale; where she comes from, couples of different races were shunned. "So I tried to think of a modern issue like that and ask if I were in a situation like hers, how would I react?"
Unlike Violetta, Winters hasn't had to choose between love and work: she is married to English tenor Adam Smith. They are both loud singers, she says, so they roster practice time in their London flat; if she is doing her daily vocal exercises, he goes to the gym. "When we're cooking I'll always put on some pop or rock music or some Brazilian bossa nova and we'll dance around chopping vegetables and singing along. It is a musical household for sure!"
Her favourite singalong music? "Joni Mitchell," she says, without a second's hesitation. "Pop and rock artists move me in the same ways my favourite opera singers do, in that they're all about the text. We're word painters, which is what makes us different from violins or cellos."
It is easier to sing in a language she already understands, of course. She speaks Italian, which helps her get by in other romance languages. "But certain languages lend themselves to certain vocal colours," Winters says. She has a dark, rich soprano, best suited to Italian or the Slavic languages; German, with its fuselage of consonants, suits brighter, sharper voices. But if a character is to seem authentic, in her opinion, the voice and the singer's personality must match it.
"Dramatic sopranos tend to be either really funny and down to earth or quite intense," she says. So which one is she? "I think I am on the one hand really intense and serious and on the other hand really silly – but only certain people are privy to that." She smiles. She is also "incredibly focused and driven". I know that: she recently ran a half-marathon.
But she also thinks that every performer has "an inner message" they need to get out into the world. Her message is all about getting ordinary people – "suburban American kids" like she was – through the door to see how opera can be real, rich and relevant to them. Relevance is not about making the classics sexy with risque on-stage antics supposedly designed to pull in the young. That can work with the right piece, Winters concedes, but the core experience is always the sense of power and possibility in those voices.
"Opera changes people on a molecular level," she says. "The unamplified voice is a frequency that changes them. Maybe my particular frequency, my particular aesthetic, won't move everybody – but it could move someone." Winters is moved in turn, when she finds comments on Facebook or Twitter from opera-goers telling her that her performance made a familiar piece seem new.
"Or someone saying 'I went to the opera for the first time and I didn't expect to like it at all, but I was so moved'." Then she knows the message is getting through. "That's it for me. That makes all the hard times worth it."