This week, we caught up with Soprano Harriet O’Shannessy, Chairman of Perth’s new opera company Freeze Frame Opera, to gain some insight into what Freeze Frame Opera is all about.
Starting with you, you first studied a law degree, what sparked the change from this to Opera?
I went straight into studying law from school. I was always passionate about criminal law and defending the downtrodden. After finishing my degree and my articles, I worked as a defence lawyer for a few years. I really enjoyed it. In many ways, it was like being on stage and performing. It gave the same adrenaline rush at times. Music had always been a part of my life, I had always sung, and I guess I couldn’t resist the pull towards singing. I thought I’d regret it forever if I didn’t give singing a go, so I auditioned for WAAPA. As much as I enjoyed criminal law, there was also a really sad and dark side to it all, so it was quite a beautiful change to go from being in court one Friday, to singing at WAAPA the next Monday, and hoping to benefit humanity in another way!
After you had decided to pursue a career in singing, what was next step for you?
I studied at WAAPA for 2 years, and then went over to Sydney Conservatorium where I did post graduate studies. After that, I worked for Opera Australia’s touring company, Oz Opera. I performed Gretel in Hansel and Gretel for the schools tour. It was lots of fun, three shows a day, performing to kids up close. They couldn’t believe the power of the voices, and it was great to see their little, happy faces.
When that contract finished, I was at a bit of a loose end so I decided to move over to London. I spent some time studying, auditioning and working as a lawyer on the side, while I waited for the auditions to happen. I attended the Neil Semer Vocal Institute in Germany, and studied with Neil often when he was in Europe. However, in 2009 I had a baby and that sparked our move back to Perth. Once back, I joined WA Opera as became a Young Artist there, and I have been working with them doing chorus and small roles, and as a freelance opera singer ever since.
What inspired you to create something like Freeze Frame Opera (FFO)?
It began as an idea to put on La Boheme, in a pub. To perform an opera in a non-traditional venue, to give the audience a more casual and up-close experience of opera. This then lead to discussions of how people always want to hear the “best bits” of opera – the songs that soar and transport. It spiralled from there. I suppose you could say I’m inspired a little by my cousin, Tim Minchin; he didn’t really fit into the mould so created his own niche, which is what I am aiming to do here. I really wanted the opportunity to perform more roles and I think we need to create more opportunities for singers to get experience. I also want to spread the love of opera by introducing new audiences to its magic. I hope to be able to do this through the vehicle of FFO.
How would you describe FFO and its mission?
With FFO, I wanted to do two things; firstly, to make opera more accessible to audience members through new and interesting venues, lower ticket prices, and bringing shortened versions of the operas with explanations of the plot where necessary. We’re changing the format of opera slightly by actually freezing the action on stage for a narrator to explain what’s happening, hence the name FFO.
Our second aim is to create the performance opportunities for people who are ready to perform major roles, but who may have a lack of performance experience or opportunity to do so. By bringing opera right up close to the audience, and letting them experience these amazing voices, in a different and intimate setting, we are not only generating work, but showcasing the talent Perth has to offer.
How do you find interesting spaces, and are they difficult to work in?
We began wanting to perform operas in a pubs, but with access for rehearsals, it’s not really possible. So now we are looking more towards small theatres (eg. Camelot in Mosman Park) or art galleries (PSAS, Kidogo Arthouse, The Goods Shed) that can give us the time and space for us to rehearse. If anyone has an abandoned warehouse, that would be perfect. We’re looking for a home! The audience proximity makes it different and interesting.
What can we look forward to with your upcoming concert At the Movies?
You can look forward to some of the best bits of operas sung by some outstanding Perth based singers. Not only that, we have a drag queen flying over from Melbourne, Lady Diamond, to re-enact the Priscilla/Traviata scene with Emma Pearson singing Sempre Libera.
When I began looking at different movies that have incorporated opera into their soundtracks, there are some really iconic movies you wouldn’t have ever imagined would have a place for opera. For example, the film True Romance has the Flower duet from Lakmé juxtaposed against a very intense interrogation/torture scene. I think directors use opera because they’re aware of its intensity and ability to affect the audience, so even if you’re not an opera lover, I think there will be songs in our concert you will recognise because of films and tv.
Also, we have free Cobs popcorn, the bar is open from 7 pm and you can sit down with your drink while you watch the concert!
What else can we expect from FFO?
Next year, we are performing a short version of La Boheme – we are calling it “La Boheme.. A Pie and Pint and Puccini”. We are performing at Camelot on 25-27 May 2017. We have some more exciting things in the works, but I can’t give you the details yet.
We can’t wait to hear about it all! Now for the tough questions:
What advice would you give to young singers?
I think it’s really important that you have a good teacher. Fundamentally, you need to have a secure vocal technique, so it’s worth going wherever you need to go to have that. There are some awesome teachers here, in Perth. At the same time, I would advise a young singer to study in the place you want to work and live. If you want to work in England, you should probably study there, as it really helps to know people in the industry. Sometimes it takes a long time to get auditions, so get settled with work and a teacher first.
Why do you think we need opera in the 21st century?
It’s important to be involved in something that moves people, that makes them feel their emotions. It’s a thrilling experience to hear an amazing voice in full flight for anyone of any generation. The point of opera is to move people!
If you could turn ANYTHING into an opera, what would you choose?
That’s a tough question. Haha maybe Peppa Pig?? I’d make a packet! I do really love the traditional operas. I love Boheme. It’s hard to imagine creating a score to rival the greats.
Lastly, Opera companies rely heavily on the support of their audience, how do people get more involved in FFO?
It’s great to try and see and support as much as you can in Perth. People will only keep coming if what we do grabs them. Opera in this exciting new format will hopefully do that.
If people want to get more involved, they can check out our website. We are always happy for volunteers to help at concerts with ticket sales/ushering/selling lolly bags. Or join us for our launch concert At The Movies, which runs Nov 17th-19th. You can also purchase a raffle ticket, as a small launch-support donation which will put you into the draw to win a 1.04ct Argyle Diamond!
Tickets can be purchased here
Freeze Frame Opera’s website: