With Fringe World around the corner, avid Perth theatre fans are trawling through the exciting number of shows on offer this year at the Fringe Festival. Perth opera duo DivaLicious (made up by the sassy sopranos Penny Shaw and Fiona Cooper Smyth) have stolen the spotlight, not surprisingly, and have managed to secure the only opera show this year. Directed by Ian Toyne and Music Directed by Tommaso Pollio, the DivaLicious girls have reeled in Igor Sas and Robert Hoffman for their new show DivaLicious and the Impresario (mostly by Mozart). Last week our very own Katherine Goyder sat down and chatted with Penny about all things opera and what to expect in their upcoming show.
What makes DivaLicious unique?
PS: I don’t know if it is that unique really. It’s probably unique in Western Australia but there are numerous similar acts throughout the UK, Europe and the US. It’s just putting opera into a different context..
People always think of opera as “music for old, rich people.” Where would you like opera’s audience to be?
PS: In an ideal world it’d be great to attract a new audience for opera, especially people that would never even imagine going to an opera. We love them to come thinking that they won’t enjoy it and find themselves pleasantly surprised. Operas were the hit music of the day, and the reason that they’ve survived is that they are universal. It’s just good music! Anyone who enjoys hearing good music performed live will enjoy opera but I just think it’s hard to get people to come along and give it a go.
People find quite an intimidating art form, but I often remind people that they wouldn’t go see and enjoy a band if they hadn’t heard any of their music. You have to do a bit of research and put a little bit of time in, just listen to a little bit of the music, read up about it! Do a bit of research.
I guess that’s where the DivaLicious shows come into their own, they are more instantly accessible and hopefully go some way to persuading people that opera is fun and that it’s not just for old rich people.
You started out as a jazz singer…
PS: I did! At that point I didn’t really want to become a classical singer; I was having classical lessons but my first professional work was in a Jazz band. I’ve worked in musical theatre, Jazz, theatre, film, as a recording artist and in opera.
If you want to work as a singer it pays to be versatile. I don’t think I was ever going to be an international Opera Diva, I’m not sure I have the patience! I am not a perfectionist and I honestly think you have to have a particular personality to enjoy life as an international soloist. First and foremost I am an entertainer, but it has taken me a long time to realise that.
For young singers wanting the big opera career, I think you have to really listen to yourself and be realistic, first of all about your vocal abilities but also your ability to put the required hours in. That’s why I would suggest keeping your options open when you are young. Say yes to everything, don’t be snooty!
Would you encourage other singers into something like DivaLicious? You two are the only opera act at the Fringe.
PS: There’s a lot more to it than the singing, there is writing, comedy, production management, PR skills, technical knowledge etc. so experience in other areas is essential. Just try and get involved in as many things as you can. I would also always recommend travelling. If you’re West Australian, try and leave then come back with a little bit more experience from outside of Australia. But yes if you feel the urge – put something on! Book a venue and worry about it later. Be entrepreneurial!
Now let’s talk about DivaLicious and the Impresario. What can audiences expect?
PS: The Impresario is an opera set in an opera company and a comedy about (in Mozart’s words) “the vanity of singers!”. All voice students should attend!
In 1786, Joseph II held a musical competition at his palace in Vienna, challenging rival composers Mozart and Salieri each to write a one act opera set in an opera company. Mozart’s German singspiel was presented at one end of the room, and after, Salieri‘s Italian comedy was performed at the other. Salieri’s Italian comedy was the winner, (he was the official court composer and favourite after all!). It’s been reinvented many, many times but we’ve “Divalicioused”* it.
*Divalicioused: To create characters and starring roles for the divas to show off their capabilities and wailing high notes.
There are quite a few in-jokes about opera and musical theatre that might go over the head of some audience members, but that isn’t to say you have to love opera to enjoy it. We put a sneaky bit of Mozart’s other opera repertoire in there as well – but you’ll just have to come along and hear what other Mozart DivaLicious has to offer!
Warnings for first time DivaLicious go-ers?
PS: No warnings! You certainly don’t have to have seen our other shows to enjoy this one. Expect to be surprised. Mozart described it a “A comedy with music” and that’s what it is.
You may not know that a big inspiration for The O Word was the fact that opera is a toxic word in showbiz. Can you tell us about your experiences with the word “opera” in the title of your shows?
PS: The first time we did Opera Rocks at Fringe World, we just called it DivaLicious because we had noticed that opera is a really, really hard sell. Unfortunately the O-word does put people off! And it’s such a shame because those of us that do love opera don’t want to hide that we’re opera singers simply because there is a stigma attached. It really is tricky. I think people get anxious. They want to give it a go but are concerned they won’t enjoy it or they will feel stupid; that they’ll get there and someone will say, “What are YOU doing here?! YOU don’t know ANYTHING about opera!!” So there’s a real fear.
Audiences these days, however, have it easy as they have surtitles to follow. When I first went to the opera there were just the program notes so you just had to read up before it started. It really is a shame though that people have that sense of feeling like they are not qualified enough to go. I think it’s just entertainment! It’s just a story told in a different way! Give it a crack!
Why is classical music important?
PS: All the arts are important and classical music is part of the wider picture, but I don’t think it’s any more or less important than any of the other art forms. But we do know that anything that is still being enjoyed and listened to hundreds of years after it was written has to have something going for it!
Do you have any advice to Classical voice students in Australia?
PS: Singing is just one part of your life, don’t let it overwhelm you. It’s so easy to become so focused on one part when you’re doing something with such intensity that you neglect other areas. I was very obsessive in my twenties and I think because of that I missed out on a few opportunities due to focusing on one particular direction. It looks like I’ve done lots of things in my career, but there are lots of things I didn’t do. Keep it flexible and keep your eye on the bigger picture. Follow whatever path comes up!
DivaLicious and the Impresario (mostly by Mozart) has four performances during Fringe World, with two performances on Thursday the 28th of January (at 6.30pm & 8.30pm) and another two on Saturday the 30th of January (also at 6.30pm & 8.30pm) in the Art Gallery of Western Australia.
Book your tickets quickly before they sell out.
Written by Katherine Goyder and Louis Hurley