Covid has been a nightmare for Canberra's most ambitious new arts project.
The star singer caught the disease and was lucky to survive. On top of that, the newly-formed National Opera's opening year has been completely disrupted.
But now singer and company are up and running and raring to go next Saturday.
The opening night of Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito will be the culmination of a year of doubt, defiance and now, the company hopes, triumph.
At the start of the epidemic, star soprano Helena Dix was confined to hospital on a ventilator, struggling to breathe, let alone sing.
The hotel I'm currently in @novoteldh are running a competition to find their Quarantine Queen.We were asked to create a throne, crown and gown from items in our room. I, of course went for a subtle approach,with a dash of high notes.— Helena Dix (@HelenaDix) March 6, 2021
I give you 'La Regina'!#quarantinequeenndhpic.twitter.com/R82o6Wxw5p
But now she's in rehearsal for her starring role in Canberra.
"There's so much anticipation for all of us because it's been such a dreadful year," she told The Canberra Times.
"Coming back to work was like getting on a bicycle again," she said. Initially, there was that wariness but then the once-familiar skills returned.
But the route was hard, even for an optimist. She is an inveterate Tweeter who Tweeted bulletins of her progress from her hospital bed. As she recovered, she broadcast videos of herself singing arias with the beeps of hospital machinery in the background.
Well, here I am, 5 weeks into my recovery post Covid19/evil lung clot.— Helena Dix (@HelenaDix) May 22, 2020
On day 1, I couldn't sing a bar of this without collapsing.
Every day I've been at the piano, hoping to gain strength.Week 5 and I'm starting to see some progress.
Small steps, but she's getting there ❤🙂🙃 pic.twitter.com/Drej5fSOWM
In recovery back home, she would sit at the piano each day, working on her voice, increasing the range a note at a time. "It was like 'slow and steady wins the race' as they say," she said.
"For the first couple of weeks I used to cry quite a lot. I spoke to several people that I trust immensely and they said I needed to give myself small goals and really keep a positive focus."
She was born in Melbourne but has based her globe-trotting career in London. To sing in Canberra and later in Melbourne, she arrived back in Australia a month ago and went straight into quarantine in Sydney - from where, of course, she Tweeted. She is, after all, a diva in the grand style.
"Many thanks to these Aussie Army lads for escorting my bags and I to my quarantine hotel room last night. I gave them a high note in exchange! Last humans I'll see for two weeks, it was only fair!" was one Tweet, with a picture of "two Army Aussie lads".
"My only friend in Hotel Quarantine is the miniature version of my dog that hubby got me to travel with years ago. I give him a little kiss each morning. He hasn't answered back yet so my sanity is still intact...JUST! Feeling the impact of a 14 step room with no windows now."
But now she's free and rehearsing for the first of four big nights at Llewellyn Hall on the ANU campus.
Her part, Vitellia, is the love-lorne daughter of the Roman emperor, Tito. The late Mozart opera is about love, power and maybe death (aren't all operas?) and the role is a great role with fabulous music.
The opera is rarely sung but it is mature Mozart and so with sublime music.
"The music is incredibly beautiful," she said.
"I love doing her. She's a bit crazy, but what empowered operatic soprano role isn't, quite frankly? It is a fantastic part."
It is not one of those Mozart operas with japes and lots of entries and exits. It is more of a psychological thriller as Vitellia's love, and the potentially tragic course it takes, unfolds. Will she survive?
Helena Dix describes the character as complex. She likens her interpretation to peeling the layers from an onion to reveal new aspects of the character's hidden depth. The singer says she often plays complex women and feels "it's important to unlock these ladies" by revealing nuance and depth of character.
Out of necessity, the set in Llewellyn Hall is sparse. It is a concert hall and not an opera house or even a theatre, both of which would have proscenium arches and a back stage, for entrances and exits.
But out of that necessity has come a device which National Opera's artistic director Peter Coleman-Wright thinks works.
The stage is set as a piazza in Rome. Characters interact within the square as they might in a piazza. The chorus has the role of a commentator on affairs (as it does in Greek drama), rather than as a crowd which rushes to and fro.
The drama is in the minds and in the music. "It has such a huge gamut of emotion. Nothing stops. It really goes and goes," the artistic director said.
"I don't want it to dip at all. I'm keeping a strong energy through the story."
Director Coleman-Wright is ambitious for this particular production and for the company.
National Opera is a rebirth of Canberra Opera but with bigger ambitions. The title National Opera was chosen, he said, because so many institutions in Canberra are national.
The cast of the production is of a high order. Baritone Peter Coleman-Wright has sung on the world's greatest stages, from the Metropolitan Opera to Covent Garden to La Scala in Milan to the Sydney Opera House. He knows about opera production at the highest level.
The Canberra Symphony Orchestra is a high-standard ensemble capable of matching top singers.
Brisbane-born conductor Dane Lam is young but with a career spanning three continents, including as the principal conductor of Xi'an Symphony Orchestra in China. He is in demand.
So is money. Company artistic director Coleman-Wright wants the same standards of excellence as he's used to - but without the same luxurious budgets.
A gift of over $500,000 from Canberra opera enthusiast John Drabble helps greatly but Mr Coleman-Wright says that public funding is also needed.
"We won't survive unless we get funding," he said. "We don't have the resources. We have to hire church halls and scout halls. We had some very kind and generous donors but we are heavily reliant on box office."
La Clemenza di Tito runs at the Llewellyn Hall on Saturday, April 10, Tuesday, April 13, Thursday, April 15 and Saturday, April 17. All performances start at 7.30pm except the final one at 2pm.
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