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Features/Music

Operatic ANZAC tribute

25 April 2020

Rosalind Appleby discovers how street opera is helping West Australians mark special occasions and connect with their neighbours during this emotional time.

It is an ANZAC Day like never before. Today there is no dawn service to commemorate Australians and New Zealanders war veterans and those who fell fighting for their countries.

But if you head to Cottesloe you might hear a lone trumpet on the back of a Hilux ute, with two sopranos singing an operatic tribute.

Local company Freeze Frame Opera (FFO) have engaged trumpet player Zoe McGivern to perform with Bonnie de la Hunty and Pia Harris as part of their street serenades program. The serenades are an ingenious adaption of FFO’s schedule of recitals and opera productions to work within the parameters of the current COVID-19 environment. The ANZAC Day special is one of 25 concerts they have given in just 12 days of operation.

Soprano and Freeze Frame Opera founder Harriet Marshall. Photo by Nik Babic.

“Opera stirs the emotions,” explains soprano and FFO founder Harriet Marshall. “This is an emotional time and people still need to mark special occasions, connect with their neighbours, and have some joy back in their lives again.

“Our mandate as a company is to bring opera to people who wouldn’t normally attend. We want to make it easy for people to experience opera in their lives, and with the street serenades all you have to do is walk outside and it’s there.”

FFO have established a reputation for their fresh, accessible approach to opera. The street serenade idea was dreamed up by Marshall and FFO director Rachel McDonald well before the Italians began singing from their balconies. West Australians love outdoor concerts and the concept, initially spread through word of mouth, has been enthusiastically received.

Singers have performed from the back of a Kombi van or Hilux ute everywhere from North Fremantle to Bassendean. The bookings include surprise birthdays, anniversaries, engagement parties, gifts to neighbours, a virtual performance via Zoom to Jervis Bay and the ANZAC Day tribute. Future plans include a Mother’s Day special with sopranos Bonnie de la Hunty and Sara Macliver.

The joy of shared opera

Nedlands resident Jan Sumerling loved the idea of an operatic experience without all the formalities and as soon as she heard about the serenades she booked a performance for her street to enjoy.

“Having an opera singer on the front verge was an experience out of this world. It was just us and them and the music. Real people within reach and honouring us with full operatic qualities,” Sumerling said.

“It certainly achieved what I hoped and more. The response from neighbours was spontaneous, full of warmth and unqualified admiration. We are gifted with the ongoing joy of that experience shared with so many others. As one neighbour said ‘Dreams do come true’.”

As well as bringing joy to the listeners, the performances have provided income to ten singers and pianist Tommaso Pollio who would otherwise have been unemployed due to cancelled concerts.

Marshall says the responses of people on the street has confirmed her belief in the power of opera to move people.

“One guy who had never been to the opera before said to me ‘I’m welling up, is that normal?’. Opera can connect with everyone. They just need to open their front doors to it and we will convert them.”

Just us and them and the music. Cottesloe residents enjoy a performance by Robert Hoffman and Penny Shaw, accompanied by Tommaso Pollio on keyboard. Photo supplied.

The critic’s verdict

Seesaw critic Sandra Bowdler has been mourning the lack of concert performances and was delighted to be invited to an opera performance happening just down the road during the week. She recounts strolling down the street on a balmy Cottelsoe evening and being greeted by the warm resonant tones of Robert Hoffman rolling out the Toreador Song from Bizet’s opera Carmen

“Accompanied on an electronic keyboard by Perth stalwart Tommaso Pollio, we could have been in a lush recital hall, as every word and note could be heard, an excellent balance of outdoor acoustics. The operatic favourite ‘O mio babbino caro’ (Puccini’s Gianni Schicchi) was delivered with perfect clarity by soprano Penny Shaw and the two singers then met on the back of the ute – deployed as an effective mini stage – for the seductive duet ‘La ci darem la mano’ from Mozart’s Don Giovanni.  By this time the crowd had swelled considerably, with a range of ages, genders and species (birds and dogs), while passers-by perambulated up and down the hill. Two of my dog friends (Sandie and Casey), felt impelled to join in on ‘Prima Donna’ from Phantom of the Opera  The program concluded on a patriotic note, Peter Allen’s ‘I still call Australia home’, encored by ‘You’ll never walk alone’ (originally from Rogers and Hammerstein’s Carousel,).  Ample streaming options, DVDs and CDs can’t replace live concert-going and the interactions with fellow audience members, known and unknown; for a brief magic moment, this filled the gap.”

Book an ANZAC Day tribute or a street serenade for your own special occasion from Freeze Frame Opera.

Pictured top: Pia Harris and Bonnie de la Hunty are accompanied by Tommaso Pollio as they perform a street serenade. Photo supplied.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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