Opera essentials from the back of a truck

10 August 2020

“At a time when we can only dream of overseas holidays, Freeze Frame Opera reminds us that art, music, memory and culture keep us connected,” says Tiffany Ha. “You won’t even need to change out of the sweats and Ugg boots you’ve been wearing the past five months.”

‘Truck-O-Rama: The European Tour’, Freeze Frame Opera ·
Centenary Pavilion, Claremont Showgrounds, 8 August 2020 ·

What do toilet paper and opera have in common? They’re both essentials, says Rachel McDonald, artistic director of Freeze Frame Opera.

The off-beat opera company, founded by soprano Harriet Marshall in 2016, takes the good stuff from traditional opera – the well-loved repertoire, the outstanding musicians – and repackages it to make the art-form more accessible and exciting for contemporary audiences. Think pizza trucks, informal settings, beers, and invitations to come dressed in warm, comfy clothing – “as if going to the footy”. 

In the midst of COVID lockdown – what many performing artists refer to as “The Dark Times” – FFO had a spark of brilliance: if people can no longer go to the opera, why not bring the opera to them? The company put out a fundraising call for a truck that would serve as mobile concert stage, bringing performances to the streets of Perth and offering classy ‘Window Serenades’ to anyone in the market for a private singing telegram.

Truck-O-Rama: The European Tour features FFO’s recently acquired 1975 Bedford farm truck – now parked inside the Centenary Pavilion at Claremont Showgrounds. On Saturday night, the wooden platform on the rear of the truck was adorned with vintage suitcases and an old brown leather bar stool. The venue fit out was minimal yet tasteful, and attendees were limited in number due to social distancing. The overall vibe sat somewhere between ‘sophisticated barn dance’ and ‘informal birthday soiree’.

Harriet Marshall, soprano and founder of Freeze Frame Opera. Photo Robert Harrold

The seven musicians set out to take the audience on a musical journey through four different countries, offering “tastings” (song selections) from well-known operas, with a couple of detours to art song and folk song along the way. First stop: France, with soprano Naomi Johns as tour guide. Her sensuous, soaring voice handled a range of styles and emotions with ease: from existential ennui in Poulenc’s “Hôtel” lieder to panicky desperation in “Dis moi que je suis belle” from Massenet’s Thais.

Tenor Jun Zhang took us to Italy with a touching, intense rendition of Salvatore Cardillo’s song “Core ‘ngrato” and a powerhouse performance of “Nessun Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot. Zhang wowed the audience with his sensibility for vocal colour and expression: the rich, dark hues of his lower register contrasted beautifully with the lightness and vulnerability of his upper register.

Next stop: Germany, with soprano Marshall and baritone Robert Hofmann taking turns at the helm. Marshall was beautiful and captivating, meeting the demands of each song with seasoned professionalism, from the exuberance of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (The Valkyries) to the ruminating interiority of Schubert’s lieder “Gretchen am spinnrade”.

Hofmann rounded out the evening’s itinerary with his signature cabaret flair. He paid homage to Marlene Dietrich with a raw, moving performance of “Illusions” (composed by Frederich Hollander) and roused spirits with a traditional Schunkl Walzer (traditional German drinking song).

The singers were accompanied by the delectable Trio Tiramisu – featuring Tommaso Pollio on piano, Cathie Travers on piano accordion, and Sophie Curtis on cello. The musical arrangements were dynamic enough to rival a full orchestral scoring, interesting enough to fill a program on their own, and at all times wonderfully supportive of the vocal line. The choice of instrumentation was truly inspired; nothing evokes summer in Europe quite like the sound of a piano accordion.

And at a time when we can only dream of overseas holidays, Freeze Frame Opera reminds us that art, music, memory and culture keep us connected to one another (I’d almost forgotten what it felt like to be amongst a cheering audience), to distant loved ones and to a sense of joie de vivre.

Take your cooped up, opera-appreciating friends and family to this show. You won’t even need to change out of the sweats and Ugg boots you’ve been wearing the past five months.

Picture top: L-R Cathie Travers, Sophie Curtis, Harriet Marshall, Robert Hofmann, Naomi Johns, Tommaso Pollio and Jun Zhang.

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Author —
Tiffany Ha

Tiffany Ha is a pianist, composer, arranger, music educator and vocalist with a soft spot for anything a cappella. She has degrees in Music (Composition) and Arts (English) from UWA and works as a freelance musician. Her favourite playground equipment is anything that involves climbing and balance: monkey bars, rope towers, trees, human pyramids!

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