Features/Kids/What to SEE/Music/Opera

From Rossini to Rapunzel, with love

23 May 2023

A popular fairytale gets a snip and a makeover in a fun-loving opera for children. It’s just one of the reasons the multi-talented Penny Shaw loves telling stories through music, writes Julie Hosking.

“Do you think we could do the Barber of Seville as Rapunzel?”

It only took Penny Shaw a minute to answer in the affirmative when Freeze Frame Opera’s Harriet Marshall approached her to create the company’s next children’s production.

“It’s basically the same story, without the hair,” she says with a laugh. “Rosina is trapped by her creepy old guardian and obviously Count Almaviva comes to rescue her; like Rapunzel, it’s an escape story.”

The soprano is a huge fan of Rossini’s opera and played Rosina for an extended tour when she was still living in the UK. “It’s brilliant, the music is really accessible, there are so many great tunes,” she says. “We’ve just cut the songs down for this, so everything moves very quickly, and there is lots of dialogue, too.”

While keeping the essence of the Grimms’ fairytale, Shaw has weaved a fourth character into Freeze Frame’s Rapunzel, which is at Liberty Theatre this weekend and next. For where would an adaptation of the Barber of Seville be without the barber? Enter Rapunzel’s hairdresser. “So Bartolo, who’s Rosina’s guardian, has become the witch, and Rosina is Rapunzel, the count becomes the prince or knight in shining armour, as it were, and then you have Figaro.”

Rapunzel is full of song and laughter. Photo: Maks Pavic

Like Rosina, Rapunzel has plenty of chutzpah. “It’s the classic commedia dell’arte, with the smart, younger, seemingly powerless woman getting one over the authority figure,” Shaw says.

With young people to keep amused, the production is high on humour as well as song. When Figaro comes out to introduce himself with his famous aria, for example, he has his hairdressing scissors in his pocket but he also sports a pair of garden shears.

“And he has a water bottle that he sprays the children with, singing I’ll cut your hair now/don’t look so scared now,” Shaw says, bursting into song herself. Then there’s the lovelorn prince who’s trying to get into the tower by disguising himself as a French student who has booked a room on Hairbnb.

“He has a fight with the witch, where she pulls out her wand and he pulls out a very floppy baguette. It’s all very silly but the kids seem to love it,” she says.

The multi-talented artist, who also directs the opera, knows this because, aside from previews earlier this month, Freeze Frame has been taking the opera to schools throughout the term. “I kept rewriting, and chopping and editing down,” Shaw says of the creative process. “I’ve written quite a lot of comedy stuff now and there are so many places the children can really get involved – it’s just so nice to see them leaning into it.”

As a critic as well as a performer (she regularly reviews for Seesaw Magazine), Shaw loves the immediacy of children’s responses to live shows.  “You can really tell with children – if there are any dull points or any points where the energy dips, or anything goes on too long, you just lose them. You have to keep them engaged.”

Not that Shaw is any stranger to winning over audiences with a clever combination of comedy and song. One half of DivaLicious, she’s been delighting audiences around Australia (including on TV shows such as The Voice and Australia’s Got Talent) for more than a decade with her partner in crime, Fiona Cooper Smyth, blending opera and popular music with very wicked senses of humour.

They recently entertained Perth’s A-list at a lavish party at the Como Treasury and the duelling divas will take the audience Behind the Spotlight with Lit Live at Kidogo Arthouse early next month for an evening of “backstage banter and stunning songs”.

two women in red gowns perform either side of a man in a tuxedo
Fiona Cooper Smyth and Penny Shaw compete for Robert Hofmann’s attention in one of DivaLicious’ delicious performances. Photo: Michael Porter

It’s just one of many strings to the bow of the English-born performer, who started as a jazz singer before falling in love with opera. She had classical singing lessons while studying Human Sciences at Oxford University, eventually moving to London to fulfil a wishlist that included singing the title role in La Traviata, appearing on a poster on the London Underground, and landing a part in a West End musical.

“Having exhausted London, and indeed Europe, she moved to Australia where she has been creating new people” (Shaw’s DivaLicious bio is a lesson in levity). In between raising four children (the youngest is 15), Shaw somehow managed to find time to start her own production company (Daisy Productions); sing in numerous operas and other productions; start the devilish DivaLicious; obtain a distinction in Radio Broadcasting Skills at Edith Cowan University; co-present an arts show on Radio Fremantle; and create a podcast, Diary of a (teenage) Diva. (Anyone else exhausted?)

Next up, though, is another production for Freeze Frame: the reworking of a little-known Italian opera, Adriana Lecouvreur, first performed in Milan at the turn of the 20th century.

“Usually when people don’t do an opera it’s either because it’s fatally flawed, or it’s got a cast of thousands or it goes on for six hours or only half the music good – but the music absolutely blew me away,” Shaw says.

Based loosely on the life of an 18th century French actress of the same name who was having an affair with a man also entangled with a member of the royal family, it’s a classic love triangle. Freeze Frame, as is the company’s way, is moving the action to the 1950s.

“It’s basically going to be Marilyn Monroe, Jackie Kennedy kind of feel, where Adriana is a movie star doing Broadway to show she’s a serious actress,” Shaw says. “Then there’s the theatre manager who’s in love with Adriana, though he’s stringing her along because he wants her on his arm but the princess is the one who’s extremely wealthy.”

Rehearsals for Adriana Lecouvreur start in August, before it opens at Fremantle Town Hall in September. It will be Shaw’s second stint in the director’s chair for Freeze Frame (of adult opera, that is).

A man and woman dressed in coats and scarves hold each other's arms as they sing on a blue lit dark stage
Penny Shaw directed Harriet Marshall and Paul O’Neill in ‘La Boheme’. Photo: John Marshall

When the company asked her to direct last year’s La Boheme, she was initially reluctant.  “It wasn’t something I’d have thought about. And then as soon as I started, I was like, ‘oh I obviously know what to do’. It’s a funny one,” she says thoughtfully. “I think I’ve still got a bit of impostor syndrome around it. Why wouldn’t I be able to? A lot of directing is just understanding how to get the best out of people; it’s being a team leader.”

After 30 years as a singer, Shaw isn’t ready to turn her back on that part of her creative life, but she relishes any opportunity that involves storytelling. “One of the things I love about singing is getting inside the character; I’ve never been much of a concert singer, I prefer the theatrical side,” she says. “And you get that with all the characters when you’re directing — you get to be inside the heads of them all as you’re trying to make sense of it, to bring it together.”

This means creating something that resonates with audiences, old and new, and helps remove some of the stuffiness oft associated, wrongly or rightly, with opera. “I’m a very firm believer that opera is entertainment, nothing more, nothing less,” she says. “Yes, there are different levels of it and some you need to work harder, but really your Barber of Seville, Cosi Fan Tutte, Marriage of Figaro were the light entertainment of the day.”

It’s why she’s such a big fan of the irreverent approach Harriet Marshall has taken to staging productions with Freeze Frame Opera. “You need to make them as entertaining as possible for today’s audience, and it really does have a knock-on effect,” she says. “A few years ago, I was sitting next to a group of ladies who had come to see La Traviata because they had seen DivaLicious and they thought ‘ok, that’s fantastic, let’s go see an opera’. It made them feel like it was something for them.”

Shaw is hoping for a similar effect with the young ones – and their families – who come along to enjoy the music and mayhem of Rapunzel. “You never really know how children are going to react to things, but the tunes are fabulous, the costumes are great, as is the set, and it’s just a lot of fun.”

Rapunzel is at Liberty Theatre, Perth, on 27-28 May and 3-4 June 2023, with two performances each day.

Pictured top: Penny Shaw loves the storytelling involved in opera and musical theatre, whether singing or directing. Photo: Callen Dellar

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Author —
Julie Hosking

A journalist with more words to her name than she can count, Julie Hosking has worked for newspapers, magazines and online publications in Melbourne and Perth. She has been a news editor, travel editor, features editor, arts editor and, for one terrifying year, business editor, before sanity prevailed and she landed in her happy place - magazines. If pushed (literally), she favours the swing.

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