Opera branches out at the arboretum

In our cover story this week, arts editor HELEN MUSA previews the upcoming ‘Voices in the Forest’ concert at the National Arboretum

OPERA in the vines, opera in the mountains, opera in the caves, opera in the park, opera by the lake… the list goes on.

But we have our own ACT variation, “Voices in the Forest” coming up at the National Arboretum later in November.

The trees may be young, but the voices will be mature, with Korean superstar Sumi Jo, tenor Stuart Skelton and soprano Amelia Farrugia bestriding the outdoor stage.

I caught up with Farrugia, who is no stranger to Canberra, having performed last year in the National Gallery’s Gandel Hall.

The daughter of mixed Maltese and Australian heritage, she was raised in western Sydney and trained in singing for four years at Sydney Conservatorium.

Farrugia has earned her stripes, performing from 1990 to 1994 in shows such as “Buddy” and “The Phantom of the Opera”, then winning about five major singing competitions that brought in more than $100,000, allowing her to study overseas.

She was one of 10 winners in a Metropolitan Opera (New York) competition that she says “helped me get a job”.

In 1994 Moffatt Oxenbould offered her a job straight-up as principal artist in what is now Opera Australia, where she specialised in comic roles in opera and operettas such as “The Merry Widow” and “Orpheus”.

Perhaps her most demanding part has been the tragic title role in Massenet’s “Manon”. That led to an invitation from The Met to fly to understudy Anna Netrebko in its production of “Manon”. “Unfortunately”, as Farrugia so politely puts it, the celebrated Russian diva never did break a leg.

“That was disappointing, but it was still an amazing opportunity,” she says.

And anyway, before Netrebko arrived, Farrugia got the chance to rehearse the first half with principal conductor of the Met, Fabio Luisi, and stage director Philippe Laurent.

Now, she is focusing on Canberra and “Voices in the Forest”. She’s been advised to pack sunglasses because the singers will be looking straight into the sun.

She’s recently done two opera-in-vineyards shows and says: “You can be yourself, and you can show the audience your own personality.”

Of the famously dramatic coloratura soprano Sumi Jo, she says “I haven’t met her before, she has a very different repertoire from me.”

She’s looking forward to meeting Skelton again, with whom she studied at the Con. Her Decca album, “Joie de Vivre”, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra, continues to sell well, and she’ll be singing Alice Ford in Verdi’s “Falstaff” for OA next year, a role she describes as “perfect” – as is “Voices in the Forest”, which she says, “is going to be beautiful.”

“Voices in the Forest” directed by Chris Latham, at the National Arboretum, gates open 2pm for a 4.45pm start, Saturday, November 24. Bookings to voicesintheforest.com.au/tickets-3

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