Witty winter antidote

20 July 2020

Opera divas get vicious as Government House Ballroom reopens its doors. Sandra Bowdler relishes this opera parody by DivaLicious.

DivaLicious, ‘Opera Rocks’ ·
Government House Ballroom, 19 July 2020 ·

Western Australia’s success in holding off the coronavirus has been rewarded not just with a football game, but also a concert at one of Perth’s, indeed Australia’s, loveliest venues, the Government House Ballroom.  DivaLicious is the brainchild of sopranos Fiona Cooper Smyth and Penny Shaw, who graciously allow baritone Robert Hofmann to share their stage for their Opera Rocks show. The cabaret show is not the first to parody the excesses of operatic performance, but it is one of the wittiest. The highly polished show is nearly a decade old, but comes off as bright and fresh as a ray of sun in this gloomiest of winters.

The evening began with Cooper Smyth and Shaw delivering “O Fortuna” from Orff’s Carmina Burana with new English words; the most important takeaway here being the rhyming of “DivaLicious” with “vicious”, aptly demonstrated by the divas as they attempted to upstage each other, physically and vocally. This continued through Verdi’s “Sempre libera” (La traviata) and “Der hölle Rache” (Die Zauberflöte), the latter featuring a very clever rivalry of interspersed high notes, culminating with the ladies jumping up and down in fury. 

Rival divas Fiona Cooper Smyth and Penny Shaw. Photo Michael Porter.

The famous “Barcarolle” duet from Offenbach’s Les contes d’Hoffmann features a male and female (although the former is usually sung by a mezzo soprano) and here was an unspoken attempt by each singer to usurp the female role by interfering with the other’s props. At this point, (appropriately) Hofmann entered the fray in full evening dress and delivered a very suave rendition of “Some Enchanted Evening” from South Pacific.

The stage was set for the divas’ rivalry over the charming male participant, through a further series of arias and songs from opera, operetta, Broadway shows and Andrew Lloyd Webber.  Zany moments included the divas both retiring from the stage to “slip into something more comfortable”, and reappearing in matching rainbow-hued unicorn onesies (where did they even get them?). These were swiftly discarded for floaty kaftans for “I could have danced all night” (My Fair Lady), and a rendition of “Vilja” (Die lustige Witwe) where Shaw was supported by Ken and Barbie dolls and a certain amount of audience participation.

One of the funniest moments was Hofmann as Don Giovanni (Mozart version) beginning “La ci darem la mano”, with Shaw response as Zerlina pre-empted by the Don switching to falsetto.

The show was performed straight through with no interval, but the half way point was marked by a rollicking performance of the theme from the movie Pirates of the Caribbean by the evening’s accompanist, pianist David Wickham.  His performance was a tour de force in itself, and I quite often forgot we weren’t hearing a full orchestra.  Some more serious moments included Cooper Smyth’s a capella version of the traditional Irish ballad “She moved through the fair”, and a joint rendition of “Over the rainbow” ending in a lovely blue note.

Needless to say, the women took many opportunities for extravagant costume changes, finally culminated in full virginal bridal array, accompanied by Handel’s famous coronation anthem “Zadok the priest”, which segued into the Hallelujah chorus (same composer) which segued into … Mamma Mia (yes, the Abba one) appropriately sung. The very final item was a quick duetto run-through of the Puccini soprano repertoire including “Un bel di” (Madama Butterfly) and “O mio babino caro” (Gianni Schicchi) and the less sopranistic “Nessun dorma” (Turandot). The continuously entertaining and frequently laugh-out-loud show was obviously thoroughly relished by all present.

Picture top: DivaLicious sopranos Penny Shaw and Fiona Cooper Smyth compete for the attention of baritone Robert Hofmann. Photo Michael Porter, from a Broome performance.

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Author —
Sandra Bowdler

Sandra Bowdler is an archaeologist who has been writing about music for some twenty years, most recently for Opera magazine (UK), Bachtrack and Handel News. She is also the author of “Handel’s Operas in Australia, a performance history” Händel Jarhbuch (2017). Her favourite piece of playground equipment would be the picnic bench with smoked salmon sandwiches and champagne.

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