Creative Director of Harbour City Opera Sarah Ann Walker talks about why she is forming a new company and announces that Britten’s ‘The Rape of Lucretia’ is in the line -up for 2014.
Sarah Ann Walker admits that she hasn’t slept properly in 7 months. The cause of this insomnia is that she is in the throes of forming an opera company. Readers may well decide that her angst is self- inflicted but admire her you must, as she embarks on this adventure to fill a niche in opportunities for some Sydney singers to learn and perform opera.
Sarah Ann Walker is the Creative Director of Harbour City Opera which promises the ‘pursuit of excellence’ in adopting a professional policy of presenting ‘fabulous opera in iconic, unusual and historical spaces, (with) technologically exciting sets and utilizing some of Australia’s most exciting vocal talent’. Importantly, it also has a social policy which explains that Harbour City Opera aims to provide opportunities to both singers and audiences alike, developing a programme that will bring opera and music to new audiences with no previous access to the art form.
And so, life for Harbour City opera kicked off in 2013. This week the company presents a fully staged production of Puccini’s one-act opera Suor Angelica. the experienced and revered production team includes Music Director Sharolyn Kimmorley, Director Andy Morton, revival director for OA’s La Boheme, Italian language coach Renato Fresia, Lighting Designer Wesley Hiscock and Set/ Costume Designer Adrienn Lord, a NIDA graduate. The singers include Sarah Court as La zia Principessa, Adele Johnston as The Abbess, Sarah Sweeting as The Monitoress, Eleanor Greenwood as The Mistress of the Novices and Walker herself as the ill-fated novice, Suor Angelica.
“It’s the chicken and the egg ‘thing'” says Walker. “It’s hard to be accepted into a training programme for opera singers without the roles, and you don’t get the opportunity to perform those roles unless you’re in a training programme or a company. Singers might have the goods but without ‘roles’ on their CV don’t get the opportunity to show those goods. I figured I could complain about it or I could do something about it. I found that there were quite a few of us in a similar position. That was the reason for beginning and it has grown into a career platform for artists who are out of work and who still want to perform, some of whom are going back into the workforce.”
As well, Sarah Ann Walker sees Harbour City Opera offering a broad choice of repertoire. “I was hoping that pulling together a company like this might offer more performance opportunities not necessarily in the most popular operas, but still ones that are well- known.”She continues “Suor Angelica for example hasn’t been done here for a long time. I’m hoping to find ways to put into a smaller setting some of the repertoire that is performed overseas that we don’t get here.”
With patrons Sharolyn Kimmorley, Glenn Winslade, Brian Castles-Onions and Christine Douglas for guidance, somen of the most experienced names in Australian opera are on-side. Consider some of singers in the company – David Corcoran, Henry Choo, Margaret Plummer, Sarah Sweeting, Adele Johnstone, Brad Cooper, Emily Edmonds, Anna Dowsley and Andrew Moran, and you realise that Harbour City Opera is to be taken seriously. As performing arts companies struggle through, Walker is emphatic that having the right team on board is a major part of success. “A company like this needs to have a very strong business focus and a very strong artistic focus. The two have to find a common ground which I think can be hard without the right people doing it.”
Inevitably, the conversation turns to funding. “I’m doing this completely on my own at the moment”, says Walker, “but – I’m hoping that by having done a couple of successful productions this year, both corporate private donors will want to be involved.”
Walker’s own story is a breathtaking fast track. “I came to singing quite late, in New Zealand, when I was 21. I’ve been singing for over 10 years now. All through school I was told I couldn’t sing and wasn’t allowed in the choir so I started singing in church and sang for a friend’s concert. My first singing teacher was there and offered me lessons. I’d been singing for just 3 years when I became a Young Artist with New Zealand Opera. It was a massive awakening to the pressures of the profession. When I moved over here I started working with Glenn Winslade – who is a God – that can go on the record! – he is wonderful teacher! – and Sharolyn Kimmorley, and other coaches at Opera Australia. Now, I’ve been a casual singer the Opera Australia chorus for about 2 years.”
Next year is already in the planning stages. “We’re going to reprise Suor Angelica and pair it with I Pagliacci in March/April. There will be a concert of scenes from opera in July and I’m thrilled to announce we’re doing Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia in October. Lucretia is written for just 13 instruments and it will be our inaugural orchestral production.”.
“I really do hope as well for a real focus towards the right voices for the roles. I’m a firm believer that opera isn’t dying, it’s that were trying to present inaccurate opera. We’re in an environment where we’re under casting vocally, so that we might have the beautiful sounds for the first half but it’s gone in the second half, or the orchestra has to play down and the power which is vital for verismo drama which is built on that strength is lost.” she affirms.
Where would Walker like Harbour City opera to be positioned in 5 years’ time? “I dream big – I’m not good at small dreams?” she laughs. “I would love to see this small company to have grown to a place where it can be a solid, alternative, to and a training ground for the major opera companies. Obviously we will never have the same profile or funding, but this city is big enough for an alternative that presents the best in singing and productions and gives opportunities to singers who can also take on a bit of training for some of the emerging ones. There are too many of us who don’t have the chance to learn what it is to work in a professional environment and whether we’re good enough or not to have an Anna Netrebko career is not the point. The point is that this music must be performed and these singers must be heard. I imagine Puccini would be really happy that nearly a century after his death his music is still being performed. and there are a lot of us who want to sing it.”
Walker is hoping that the community, especially the opera community will get behind this fledgling venture. This week’s production of Suor Angelica at Paddington Uniting Church promises to be intimate and dramatic. “You wouldn’t think that opera would work in there but because its Angelica, which is set in a convent, it becomes very real.” It will be played out on a two levelled rostrum with a stone altar as a backdrop and a 6′ image of the Virgin Mary.
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Harbour City Opera presents Suor Angelica at the Paddington United Church on September 25th and 26th. Click here for more.