Opera is full of complex characters…
The musical choices a composer makes and the casting of different voice types gives us clues about these characters and helps us to gain a deeper understanding of their emotions, actions and motivations. It is then up to the director, artistic crew and opera singer to tell the story as honestly and as real as they can. Perth’s most recent opera company, Freeze Frame Opera recently brought the complex characters of Puccini’s La Boheme to life in A Pie, A Pint and Puccini, a sold out and highly successful show. We sat down and spoke to soprano Naomi Johns, who recently played Musetta in this production, about her opinions on opera and Freeze Frame Opera’s upcoming show Opera Heroines.
“When a character is given real drive and honesty, they become a lot easier to play.” Said Johns, “It’s funny, because I used to hate Musetta. She’s quite often seen as an object and is often played very haughty and ‘basic’. When it came to Freeze Frame Opera’s production though, Rachel McDonald (Director) had such a clear idea about how she wanted the show. She wanted Musetta to be very visceral and have a lot of drive as a woman and that made all the difference playing her. Freeze Frame’s production was so big on the characters being real and responding to actions with integrity. It was really nice to expand the character of Musetta in that way.”
The plot of an opera relies on the grand choices the characters make that lead to big statements. From Norma to Mimi, Brunnhilde to Carmen, it is often the female characters that end up getting the short end of the bargain. Perhaps some might make a choice that audiences find incredibly drastic (#Toscaout), and other heroines try to save the ones they love (#YouTriedVioletta)… Many look at these actions from female characters, predominantly created by male composers, as weak: Naomi Johns sees them differently. “When you look at characters such as Violetta, Desdemona, and Liu, you’re looking at women who decided to make huge sacrifices in the name of love. Some may look at it in a disempowering way but to justify their actions you have to look at the character’s decisions as a conscious choice made. You can be weak and dying of consumption, but still have inner power and dignity.”
The Choices that Make Us Who We Are…
Whilst careers in interior design and directing have caught her eye and helped support her journey, Naomi has always had opera at heart. “For some weird reason at nine years old I declared to my mother that I wanted to be an opera singer…” Johns began, “There’s something magical when an orchestra, performers on stage and audience are all totally present in the moment, you can feel it. Those are the moments that make it all worth it. Whilst I might not be a fan of listening to excessive amounts of Britten and Phillip Glass, there’s this moment in Peter Grimes where the entire chorus almost scream/sings GRIMES! and it hits you straight through the chest… There’s no way you can be in an audience and not feel that. When you watch any good opera you subconsciously identify in a way with the characters and through their choices and the ramifications (which often ends in tragedy,) you think about what’s important in your life and what sacrifices you make…”
It’s certainly clear today what is important to Naomi in her life. Whilst juggling international summer schools, auditions and interviews between Sydney and New York, Naomi moved back to Perth when her dad was suddenly diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. Whilst caring for her father, Naomi met her husband Michael and everything changed from there. As we drink coffee and talk passionately about opera, her gorgeous son chases a blue ball across the green grass down at Cottesloe Beach. Our interview is occasionally interrupted by laughs at the loss of a shoe, the cries for food stolen by seagulls and the desire to explore playground equipment. “My voice has changed since having the baby… As a result, in the Opera Heroines concert I’ll be singing my first public scenes as Marguerite. That’s what’s really nice about Freeze Frame Opera: we are given the chance to expand our role repertoire. As well as my own pieces, some highlights will include Harriet O’Shannessy performing Santuzza and Caitlin Cassidy singing Carmen and Suzuki. (“A Siren and a Maid – the mezzo repertory in a nutshell!” says Cassidy).”
What makes this opera performance so special is its support and dedicated time to the Zonta Club. The Zonta Club is dedicated to empowering woman all over the world. Advocating to end violence against women and providing safe birthing environments for young mothers are just two examples of what the Zonta Club does for the women in our communities. Members of Zonta Club stride to make a world where women have the same equal opportunities as men do. With such a powerful and important goal, Freeze Frame Opera have decided to donate the entire income of one night’s show to this wonderful organisation.
Opera Can Make a Difference
“It’s always exciting to sing repertoire that perhaps we wouldn’t be able to otherwise. Sopranos in Opera land can be quite competitive and there are so many of us around that it’s nice for us to come together in a Freeze Frame Opera Production and celebrate singing heroines!” As well as her involvement with Freeze Frame Opera, Naomi is also a member of the West Australian Opera Chorus and is incredibly passionate about the life of opera in Perth. “I think it’s important to be delivering works that are relevant, interesting and provide opportunities for a broader Perth audience to see more opera. At the end of the day, it’s an entertainment industry. You have to ask why and what are we doing this for and what is the point?”
“I love the music of Massenet as it is very lush at times but I also love Puccini and Verdi for dramatic effect. Opera needs to have strong characters with integrity and have believable motives. It has to feel real and stand the test of time. If you want to tell a story through opera it needs to be easily accessible and relevant to the current Australian public. As a society we are so bombarded with sensationalism, all you have to do is look at the news: it’s all terror attacks, environmental disasters, and who wore that where. And really, who cares what Rebecca Judd wore? It would be interesting to see an opera written that explores a deeply romantic relationship of two people of contrasting religions who suddenly find themselves having to deal with their family fallout surrounding the political turmoil that followed after the Sydney Lindt Siege. It could be an amazing love story and have a great message. I’ve seen movies with similar themes, it’s not a new idea, but it could be done well if the music serves the text and the story correctly. That’s what makes Puccini so great – it’s about the big things in life!”
Naomi’s final words were advice to young singers: “Don’t be afraid to stop at a Bachelors Degree. Degrees are great for learning the skills they think you will need but no amount of training can prepare you for actually being on stage in an opera company and learning how to handle yourself. The biggest thing you can learn is how manage yourself and to get yourself out of vocal trouble, as your teacher won’t always be there to help you. You need to become responsible for your own learning and make choices for yourself: Figure out what works for you.”
Frame Opera’s show runs from the 12th-14th of October at 7:30pm in the Camelot Theatre. Whilst Thursday is already SOLD OUT, there are still tickets left for Friday and Saturday night. Do not miss out on the opportunity to see Perth’s very own heroines (and occasional hero!) in what is sure to be a great show. So don’t make the wrong choice… Buy your tickets today!
Thank you to Naomi Johns for her time, commitment and input into this blog.
Interview and Photography by Katherine Goyder