Long journey to getting the National Opera back on track

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Coleman-Wright, rear, with singers at the “snazzy” launch in February. Photo: Helen Musa.

IT’S been more like a merry-go-round than an operatic gala for baritone Peter Coleman-Wright since he joined the fledgling National Opera company as artistic director in Canberra early this year.

First, armed with a $50,000 bequest from the John Drabble Fund to be directed towards the development of new singers, he set about gauging the quality of singing in Canberra, a search aided by the fact that his wife, the soprano Cheryl Barker, was teaching voice at the ANU.

National Opera’s artistic director, baritone Peter Coleman-Wright. Photo: Helen Musa.

Then in February there was a “snazzy” gala launch at the National Portrait Gallery, where it was announced that “La Rondine”, Puccini’s answer to “The Merry Widow”, would be the company’s first production at Llewellyn Hall this December with Canberra-raised soprano, Lorina Gore in the lead role. Kate Gaul would direct and Stephen Mould would conduct.

Then we heard the venue had been changed to the more stage-friendly Canberra Playhouse, which had meant Gaul and Mould were no longer available.

Next big news was that veteran Opera Australia director, Gale Edwards, would replace Gaul and that Canberra theatre artist Chris Baldock would design the show.

Finally, in late August it was announced that “La Rondine” had been postponed to late 2021.

What a year, but now, Coleman-Wright tells me by phone from Sydney, things are back on track.

“I’d come onto the Canberra opera scene at the end of 2019, full of optimism that I could create a company suitable for launching young opera artists in Canberra, but with covid, everything came crashing down and now we have to be really careful,” he says.

“It’s a really positive and exciting journey ahead, but it’s baby steps now in a safe, healthy and happy way.

“I always made it quite clear that I wanted to work with young singers and I needed to know who was out there in the community. It was going to be a win-win.”

Lorina Gore at the autumn launch. Photo: Helen Musa.

Now, because of changed dates at Canberra Theatre, they’re back in Llewellyn Hall again, where semi-staged, costumed productions of Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and “La Rondine” will run in April and October.

Conductor Dane Lam. Photo: Glenn Hunt.

Both will feature the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Chinese Australian hot-shot conductor Dane Lam, back in Australia because of Covid and, as Coleman-Wright says, “a real spitfire – I’ve worked with him.”

Semi-staged productions with big orchestras are all the rage, he says, and since there is no wing-space on one side of Llewellyn Hall, a pragmatic approach prevailed.

Styling himself as “blunt”, Coleman-Wright says he’s noticed that not all theatre companies are fastidious about social distancing, but he will be. Luckily, by the time they get to perform the Mozart and certainly the Puccini, regulations will allow them to run at 75 per cent capacity and possibly more.

The first opera, “La Clemenza di Tito”, set in ancient Rome, he describes as “a relatively static piece, but a vehicle for gorgeous singing” and, he believes, a “safe” choice, since Mozart, like Puccini, is loved by audiences.

So far so good on the gorgeous singing front. Apart from the dazzling leads in “La Rondine”, Henry Choo and Gore, he’s enticed ANU alumnae Catherine Carby and Eleanor Greenwood back to Canberra from international careers to sing the roles of Sesto and Annio in “La Clemenza”.

Edwards stays on board as director and Toby Cole will remain with the company as chorus master.

“He’s an integral part of it all,” Coleman-Wright says. 

“Toby sat in auditions for us and played a very important role and Cheryl will start rehearsing the principals too.”

“We can’t come up with the big, full-on productions at the moment, so what we want to do is to emphasise really incredible singing.”

This time round there will be no set, but much-awarded Canberra-raised lighting star Mark Dyson will transform Llewellyn Hall into a place of magic.

Added to the mix will be costume designs. To that end, he has engaged the sensational design of Fiona Victoria Hopkins, who recently won a Canberra Critics’ Circle award for her Lakespeare designs.

Coleman-Wright describes Hopkins as “that gorgeous costume designer”, saying, “she is imaginative, she listens and she does her homework… I’m going to enjoy working with her immensely”.

He has nothing but good to say of the people he’s come in contact with so far, “all lovely people”, he says, adding, “Canberra is full of talent”. 

He’s keen to make a very strong connection with the Canberra Symphony Orchestra, whose retiring director Nick Milton he knows from Willoughby Symphony, where Pacific Opera, which he also directs, is based.

“I want to start encouraging people to come to Canberra… it’s the national capital and when I think of all European cities, even small ones, they have opera companies. We must encourage this art form here,” he says.

“Just imagine an opera house in Canberra.” 

“La Clemenza di Tito”, Llewellyn Hall, April 10, 13, 15, 17. “La Rondine”, Llewellyn Hall, October 21, 23, 25 . bookings at nationalopera.org.au

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Helen Musa
“CityNews” arts editor

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