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Saturday, July 24, 2021

Canberra’s new National Opera has ‘ridden the storm’

In the face of coronavirus, Canberra’s new-fledged National Opera has “ridden the storm” to bring world-class Australian singers to the ACT. The inaugural production of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito opens in Canberra this coming weekend, on Saturday 10 April.

“It is a magnificent score,” said artistic director Peter Coleman-Wright. “It has a relatively small cast. It is a poignant and very human story which unlocks all the qualities that we address in our own lives: love, passion, loyalty, revenge, ambition, clemency, and forgiveness; understanding, trust, strength, guilt, and remorse – and it is all by Mozart, probably, possibly the greatest of them all.”

Tito (1791), one of Mozart’s last operas, is set in the reign of the Roman emperor Titus (Tito). Although his friend and a woman he loves try to kill him, Tito understands, pardons all.

Tito is sung by the heldentenor Bradley Daley, who has sung some of the most challenging German and twentieth century roles both in Australia and in Germany: Siegmund and Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring, Florestan in Beethoven’s Fidelio, the Kaiser in Strauss’s Frau ohne Schatten, Mao Tse-tung in Adams’s Nixon in China.

“The role needs the weight and the gravitas of a Roman emperor,” Daley said. “He has three quite big arias, and tessitura (where the voice sits) is very high. You need that heroic sound in the voice.”

But Tito is also a compassionate role, Daley finds. “Tito built the Colosseum, but he refuses to throw anybody to the lions. He continually forgives and listens to what everybody has to say” – a wonderful message for the political turmoil of our age.

“In this political climate, everybody has their opinion, Facebook sends out what we want to hear, and we don’t listen to each other. Here you have this magnificent ruler standing up and taking hit after hit, as happens in politics. Instead of reacting with all the power he has, and destroying his opposition, he embraces his opposition, and shows some love. He leads by example, and he changes the whole political environment around him, which is quite poisonous at the beginning, to something all inclusive. He sees a way forward.”

Daley has not sung Mozart for a long time. Like other heldentenors, he began his career as a lyric baritone, and sang Figaro and Guglielmo (Così fan tutte).

“You sing Mozart like any good music: you support it; you have lots of line; you know what you’re singing about, and sing with passion. You be honest. It’s not much more complicated than that.”

Tito is not Mozart’s best-known work, but Daley believes it has all the ingredients of any fantastic opera.

“It’s got a great story. It’s got Mozart’s music; it’s got fireworks arias, coloratura, and very introspective, beautiful, tender moments. It deals with every gamut of human emotion in a short time.”

Daley encouraged Canberrans to see National Opera’s production, and “get the bug” for opera. “It’s world-class music; it’s music being made at an international standard.” It featured seasoned performers – Catherine Carby and Helena Dix – alongside talented newcomer Mikayla Tate, conducted by the sought-after Dane Lam.

“Given the chance, [the company] will grow and grow and grow. It’s a difficult climate to sell opera at the moment, especially with the pandemic and shorter attention rates, but to see a show like this is a form of meditation. I think we need that in our lives right now.”

The last year has been “pretty rough”, Daley admitted, with opera houses and concert halls closed. “If you’ve got no contracts and no hope of theatres opening, it’s very hard to get out of bed and work.

“As an artist, you’ve got to keep motivated; you’ve got to keep match fit. [Opera singers] are like athletes. If you’re not singing every day, it only takes two weeks before the muscles deteriorate and atrophy sets in.”

He sang the tenor role in Richard Mills’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll in Adelaide, and performed the first post-COVID solo classical recital in Australia. He took his dog for long walks on Gold Coast beaches, where he lives.

But teaching young singers via Zoom “got me out of bed every day”. Daley said he particularly felt for the young Australian singers who were given scholarships to the Berlin State Opera, then had to return home.

“They’d spent so much money investing in their voice and training, and had a chance to start earning some money back, when suddenly it all collapsed.”

2021, however, is a better year. After Tito, Daley will appear in The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Queensland, singing “two lovely character roles”, Don Basilio and Curzio.

Then begin rehearsals in Brisbane for the Ring, Wagner’s epic tetralogy. Daley will cover the role of Siegfried.

“It’s a huge role; it took two years to learn, so I’m grateful to be given the chance by Opera Australia to keep it on the boil, for when things open up and I go back overseas.

“I love going to the theatre; I’ve missed being able to go to the theatre.”

The National Opera production of La Clemenza di Tito is on 10, 13, 15 and 17 April at the Llewellyn Hall, ANU School of Music.

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