IT’S a thrill to be talking to Australian superstar Tina Arena again after a few years, and she’s lost none of her zest for life – and art.
The last time we talked was in 2014 just before a concert at Llewellyn Hall, where her touring technicians miraculously turned the sober auditorium into a canvas for stupendous lighting effects, while Arena brought the house down with numbers old and new.
In May next year she’ll be back at Llewellyn, which she describes as “a wonderful place”, with indigenous violinist and dancer Eric Avery, backed by a band and string quartet for a concert called “Enchanté: The Songs Of Tina Arena”.
Arena can hardly suppress the excitement she feels about performing with Avery, one of the most talented classical fiddlers around the traps and a well-known figure at the Canberra International Music Festival.
“How excited am I that Australia can see this exquisite talent?” she says.
“I feel humbled and excited to share this stage with him.”
She first saw Avery performing acoustically and was so blown away that she couldn’t speak.
“At the end I went up to him and said, ‘we’ve never met’ and he replied, ‘I know who you are’, then we had a hug,” she says.
Arena adamantly refuses to give any idea what’s going to be in the coming concert, except to say that it will be as “enchanting” as the title implies.
“What we will do is that it’s not formulaic, and I’m really excited about the beautiful, spontaneous moments that will happen,” she says.
Tina’s in the mood to talk about her family and speaks admiringly of her father, who emigrated from Sicily to Innisfail where he cut cane, married her mother by proxy, moved to Melbourne, met a bloke at the Victoria markets who told him about a house on the market and greeted his wife when she arrived with a home to live in.
“He’s that kind of person,” Arena says.
As for her son Gabriel, back in 2014 he was a shy little boy sitting in the front row at Llewellyn Hall and gazing adoringly at his mum on stage. At that time he was getting used to the differences between the Australian education system and that in France, where he was born.
But now he’s a soccer-playing 15-year-old heading for year 10 next year at a Melbourne Catholic school and while still a fan, Arena says, he’s more inclined towards irritation than excitement when he learns she’s off on tour again to eight Australian cities. Mind you, she’s quick to assure me, she won’t be away every day.
Luckily, ever since repatriating to Australia with Gabriel and his father, French-born Vincent Mancini after 20 years in France, Arena has been able to call upon her devoted parents, who have provided love and access to the Italian language, along with the English and French he already spoke.
Arena and Mancini toyed with the idea of putting Gabriel into a bilingual school and even thought about moving to Canberra, where they’d heard the bilingual school opportunities were very good – “Canberra has the crème de la crème of everything”, she tells me in perfectly-articulated French.
No surprises there. Just as she had taken Australia by storm from an early age, she quickly wowed the French, so much so that she received a French knighthood from Nicolas Sarkozy for her contributions to French culture.
The big tour doesn’t begin for a few months, so she’s in the middle of rehearsals right now.
“There is a process we need to follow and where this will lead us I don’t know,” she says.
“I like a blank canvas, I don’t like a systemic approach and I like to think outside the box. This year has been a very different time and we need to come together. To me, art is a salvation.”
One thing’s for sure, this won’t be a parade of “greatest hits”.
“To me, art is feeling free,” Arena says.
“My freedom of speech is my civil right and I’m not going to be told what to think.
“But we will be there to enchant.”
“Enchanté: The Songs of Tina Arena”, Llewellyn Hall, Saturday, May 29, bookings from November 16 at tegdainty.com