‘Trouser roles’ – male characters, often teenagers, sung by women – are mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby’s forte. In National Opera’s inaugural performance of Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito (opening this Saturday 10 April), she sings Sesto, a troubled young man whose girlfriend manipulates him into trying to kill his best friend, the Roman emperor Tito (Titus).
“I don’t mind wearing a pair of trousers to work, I have to confess!” Ms Carby said. “I’d rather be in a pair of trousers than in a big corset and frock.”
Ms Carby has returned from the UK for this production. For the last few years, she has been based in London, singing with the Royal Opera, Covent Garden, English National Opera, and English Touring Opera.
But she is well known to Australian opera-lovers. Her roles with Opera Australia include Bizet’s Carmen, Donna Elvira in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, and an award-winning Cornelia in Handel’s Giulio Cesare in Egitto. Her ‘trouser roles’ include Mozart’s Cherubino (The Marriage of Figaro) and Idamante (Idomeneo), Octavian (Strauss’s Rosenkavalier), and Romeo (Bellini’s Capuleti e Montecchi).
Reviewing one such part, Opera Magazine said: “Carby is superb in trouser roles, taking on masculine qualities in subtle, interesting ways without a trace of strain.”
Far from feeling strained, Ms Carby finds Sesto rather relaxing. She is the seconda donna. “The huge responsibility of the show doesn’t sit on my shoulders. I get to do a nice chunky, meaty role that’s heavily featured without the stress of being the soprano.”
The part also sits happily for her voice. “This is my kind of bread-and-butter role, really.”
Sesto’s most famous aria is ‘Parto, parto’, with its clarinet accompaniment, but Carby finds the ensembles – a duet, a trio – more interesting than the arias.
“Mozart is good at giving everyone their own distinct voice, their own trajectory, and their own journey; but it makes a beautiful, cohesive whole.”
As a mezzo, Carby is the lower female voice in ensembles. Singing Donna Elvira, for instance, she always takes the top line in ensembles: “You’re working really hard for not much reward, whereas this is fantastic for me.”
Two weeks in quarantine
Rehearsals have gone well, coronavirus permitting. Ms Carby spent two weeks in quarantine when she returned from the UK. “Yeah, not fun! I would not recommend it to anyone. It’s awful. But I did get lots of singing done. My poor neighbours – there was the odd noise complaint!”
Her neighbours must not have been opera lovers. Carby been praised for her “extraordinarily beautiful voice” (Tim Ashley, Guardian) and “world-class singing” (Michael Church, Independent).
This is Carby’s first live performance on stage since last year. Like other artists, coronavirus put a stop to performing. A Traviata in London was cancelled after one performance when theatres closed. Carby has made some broadcast and pre-record performances for various companies during the year, but nothing live.
“I love to be on stage. That’s where I prefer to be, rather than on the concert platform. When I spend too much time on the concert platform, I’m aching to get back onstage; I like the theatre lights and the smell of the theatre and the live audience.
“Why would you want to work in a normal job when you can work onstage and play dress-ups for your whole life?”
Carby is surprised that Clemenza di Tito is not Mozart’s most popular opera; one reason, she speculates, is that it demands a strong soprano and a tenor who can sing the challenging role of Tito.
“Come and see it if for nothing else to hear some fantastic music that you mightn’t know; it’s instantly recognisable as Mozart, but you may not have heard it before. So it’s like rediscovering Mozart – new Mozart, if such a thing could be imagined.”
Ms Carby will return to the UK to appear in a 20th century comedy by Malcolm Arnold. She hopes to be involved with National Opera again.
“Absolutely! God, if they’ll ask me, I’ll happily come back any day of the week to Canberra! I love Canberra; I think this company is so worthwhile. I just can’t believe it’s taken this long to get a company in Canberra, so I hope it goes on from strength to strength. I really hope that this is the beginning of something big for them.”
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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