Carby wears the trousers in ‘La Clemenza’

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Catherine Carby sings the plum “trouser” or “pants” role of Sesto in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito”… “Sesto has some of the best music in the opera.” Photo: Bob Workman.

“I’M NOT loving being inside a hotel. You can’t get any fresh air and it’s doing my head in – I’m an outdoor person,” says mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby, holed up in the Wentworth Sofitel under quarantine regulations.  

Worse, her daughter turns 14 the day rehearsals start for Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” (The Clemency of Titus) in Canberra, but at least technology allows communication – “she’s all grown up these days”, she says.

Carby is no stranger to this town. A graduate of the Canberra School of Music in the heyday of vocal studies, she was deeply involved in the local music scene. 

But after studying in the UK, then returning to Opera Australia as a principal for several years, she sang without a professional break until COVID-19 struck. “That’s the most time I’ve had off singing,” she says.

She, her husband and daughter have been living in England for 10 years, but she’s in Canberra to play a key role in the debut production for the National Opera, directed by Peter Coleman-Wright, who’s supported by star conductor Dane Lam and a galaxy of creative Canberrans, including assistant director Ylaria Rogers, assistant conductor Leonard Weiss, Canberra Symphony Orchestra costume designer Fiona Victoria Hopkins, and lighting designer Mark Dyson.

“La Clemenza”, one of Mozart’s later operas, revolves around the clemency of Emperor Titus, known for completing the Colosseum, for relieving the suffering caused by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD79 and a fire in Rome in AD80, and most of all, for forgoing acts of vengeance.

Vitellia, the daughter of the previous emperor, plots Tito’s assassination and enlists the help of her young admirer, Sesto. The plot fails, leaving Sesto wracked with guilt as he faces execution.

Carby gets to sing the plum “trouser” or “pants” role of Sesto – that’s where a female singer plays the man. In former times it would have been sung by a castrato, but nowadays it usually goes to a woman and it’s familiar territory for Carby.

“I’ve done the part before and it’s pretty well in my line – Mozart trouser roles, or Handel, or Rossini.”

Mezzo-soprano Catherine Carby in the “trouser role” of Arsace in Opera Australia’s “Partenope”. Photo: Branco Gaica.

True, she created a sensation with Opera Australia in 2011 and 2013 in the trouser role of Arsace in Handel’s opera “Partenope”, and gave some hilarious interviews about it with the soprano who was her “love interest”.

In spite of the apparently complicated plot, once “La Clemenza” is set up, she reassures me, it’s pretty easy to understand.

“It’s a love triangle revolving around attempted revenge and it has a happy ending. The wrongdoers don’t get punished; they get forgiven.”

“Isn’t that a bit boring?” I ask.

Maybe, Carby says, “but Tito was famous for being clement and there’s no getting around that”.

“Besides, Sesto has some of the best music in the opera… the two biggest arias are pretty well-known, as are all the central pieces, particularly the lovely duet with my bromance friend, Annio.”

That’s another trouser role, played by fellow ANU School of Music and Royal College of Music graduate, soprano Eleanor Greenwood.

Carby’s become well-known for her trouser roles, having also sung Wagner, Hoffmann, Richard Strauss, all sorts of stuff, she says, with a strong track record at Covent Garden.

In fact, Carby was due to have sung there, in a role in “La Traviata”, before Boris Johnson announced the closure of theatres.

“We did the opening night and were due to open on the second night… at 5pm I was on public transport when Boris made the announcement, so I went home and I haven’t been on a stage since,” she says.

“It’s nice to be coming back and particularly good to be coming to Canberra. 

“I have a sentimental attachment to it because I went to the ANU to study and also, my in-laws live in Canberra.”

Her husband works outside the opera world and has no desire to be in the arts at all – a good thing, in her view.

There are still no theatres open in Britain and particularly where they live in Essex, for most of the last eight months they’ve been in lockdown.

She’s worked with director Coleman-Wright before and with his wife, soprano Cheryl Barker, even more, so knows them both well and feels very comfortable about the whole engagement.

When the season is over and she flies back to London, she’ll be going straight back into rehearsals for the Buxton International Festival – ”everything is opening up again”, she says.

But meantime, watch out, Canberra. As soon as her daily rehearsals are finished here, she’s heading straight for town.

“I want to go into a shop,” she says.

“La Clemenza di Tito”, Llewellyn Hall, April 10, 13,15, 17, book here

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