Opera singer, Amelia Farrugia. Photo: Marco Del Grande
Voices in the Forest: It sounds like a fairy tale and indeed there'll be magic in the music and wizardry in its performance by a thrilling assembly of artists at this year's concert at the National Arboretum on Saturday, November 24.
Renowned Korean soprano Sumi Jo, Amelia Farrugia, Stuart Skelton, a combined youth choir, the Oriana Chorale conducted by Roland Peelman, the Royal Military College Band and a special double wind orchestra to accompany the singers will all feature in this unmissable musical event.
It was Bob Winnel's dream to exploit the natural amphitheatre of the site to bring glorious music to a large audience while, at the same time, making people aware of the dramatic scope of the National Arboretum. ''The setting's very unusual,'' he says. ''The amphitheatre's been totally reshaped since last year's concert and there'll be seating for 3000 people with space for another 1000 on the grass. And this year people will be able to get a sneak preview of the visitors' centre. They'll be able to wander through during the interval and to use the facilities.''
Stuart Skelton performing the role of Peter Grimes, right, with Peter Carroll, left, as Dr Crabbe.
Inside the visitors' centre, the Tasmanian oak beams reach upwards to the roof as the branches of thousands of arboretum trees will spread and reach upwards as they mature. There is the opportunity to buy tickets for dinner and further entertainment featuring Amelia Farrugia and Louise Page at the visitors centre after the main concert.
Tenor Stuart Skelton has become internationally known for his rich and expressive voice. ''They describe me as a Heldentenor,'' he says. This voice type, which has depth but also the ability to reach the tenor upper tessitura, is considered one of the rarest of voices. Skelton's most recent successes in the role of Peter Grimes in Benjamin Britten's opera and in Wagner's Siegfried have had opera companies clamouring to secure him and it was a stroke of good fortune that he was available to sing at Voices in the Forest prior to rehearsing in Sydney for concert performances of Tchaikovsky's opera Pique Dame (Queen of Spades) with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra on December 1 and 3.
He has also shone in the role of the Prince in Dvorak's Rusalka and as Florestan in Beethoven's only opera, Fidelio. ''Right now there aren't many roles that I'd like to do that I haven't already sung,'' he says. ''The only ones that I haven't crossed off my list yet are Otello and Tristan - these are a couple of years down the track from now. You want any performance to be thrilling and compelling theatre for the audience. It's very important to have the right conductor and director. I've had great experience with Sir Simon Rattle and I'm heading back to Berlin to work with him again next year.''
Stuart Skelton. Photo: John Wright
Skelton's repertoire for the concert is far from Wagner and Britten. ''I think there was a certain brief for Voices in the Forest,'' he says. ''There's a perception, certainly with these big outdoor concerts, that Italian repertoire such as Puccini and Verdi is what you bring to an audience so that there's instant recognition - and that's very clever programming.''
Chris Latham, who lends his planning expertise to so many Canberra music events, has been responsible for this clever choice of repertoire.
Skelton will sing Vesti la giubba from Leoncavello's Pagliacci and the boisterous Funiculi Funicula by Luigi Denza; the divine E lucevan le stelle from Puccini's Tosca, You Are My Heart's Delight from Lehar's Land of Smiles and the show-stopping Nessun Dorma from Puccini's Turandot. He'll also sing the ever popular Granada and then join with Sumi Jo in arias from Verdi's La Traviata and some more Lehar from The Merry Widow.
Skelton hasn't sung with Sumi Jo before and is looking forward to this experience but he regrets that he has no duets with Farrugia who has been a friend for 20 years since they were both at the Sydney Conservatorium.
''I guess that's because we don't really have any repertoire in common,'' he says.
He's extremely diplomatic about his favourite singers - and he's performed with many acclaimed singers such as Renee Fleming. ''They're all amazing performers who each bring something unique and all their own to a production,'' he says. ''Everyone in the group can inspire each other to bring another dimension to the performance.''
Singing in the open air can present problems and for this concert the singers will be miked. ''There's no way around it,'' Skelton says, ''there has to be some sort of amplification. An acoustic changes from auditorium to auditorium just as it does from indoors to outdoors. The acoustic is malleable in that you have sound engineers to make it as favourable as possible. You just sing as you always do and trust the professionals to make the voice sound as natural as possible.''
Soprano Amelia Farrugia has had a busy year singing in Australia as well as the excitement of covering Russian soprano, Anna Netrebko, in the Metropolitan Opera's production of Massenet's Manon in New York. ''I love that role,'' she says. ''It's my signature role and I've sung it in Sydney and Melbourne.
''I'm really excited to be singing with Sumi Jo and Stuart at this concert. I've got some beautiful repertoire - several waltzes as it turns out: The Laughing Song from Die Fledermaus, Musetta's Waltz Song from La Boheme and Juliet's Waltz Song from Romeo and Juliet. One of my favourites is from La Rondine and also by Puccini there's O mio babbino caro from Gianni Schicci.''
Next year she'll sing the role of Alice Ford in Opera Australia's production of Falstaff, a neat development from her role as Alice's daughter, Nanetta, in the 1999 production when famed Welsh bass baritone, Bryn Terfel sang the title role.
Farrugia is unfazed about singing outdoors.
''It's often more intimate because you've got people right there and you can talk to them and be a bit more yourself than when you're in character in the opera theatre. You can have fun with the audience, be a bit cheeky …''
Skelton says, ''It's the sort of program where people will go away at the end still humming a tune.''
This year, to avoid the problem of fierce afternoon sunlight, the program will begin later with Alex Sloan's introduction at 4.45pm followed by the fresh young voices of the Combined Youth Choir. Then the drama of the music will be accompanied by nature's drama - gold and pink light, grey twilight and, finally, a starry night sky.
■ Voices in the Forest at the National Arboretum, Saturday, November 24. Gates open at 2pm, concert begins at 4.45pm.
Phone: 6207 8353, voicesintheforest.com.au.