AFTER a nine-month COVID-induced hiatus, opera stars Celeste Haworth and Andrew Moran were excited to be back treading the boards, for the show-stopping Handa Opera on the Harbour La Traviata, no less.
But they may have found more than they bargained for at their first real rehearsal on the large outdoor harbourside floating stage earlier this month ... in the pouring rain.
"It was very wet," laughed Andrew Moran, who also regularly volunteers as a local surf lifesaver. "There were some pretty awesome moves, with the dancers madly dancing across the stage while the rain was pouring all over it. It was pretty spectacular."
Added Celeste: "Like Singing in the Rain! It was fine, we were breathing in the fresh nice air, combatting the elements. It adds another element to the performance that I think the audience will feel, too. Being out in the elements makes it more special. It unifies everyone in this grand experience because we all go through this together. It really is pretty special to be a part of a floating stage on the harbour, with the water all around and the garden beyond. It will be an adventure - rain, hail or shine; and somehow the unpredictability makes it all the more fun."
It seems nothing will dampen the spirits of these excited Opera Australia singers, who both told the Northern Beaches Review they feel so lucky to be back doing what they love, and performing in the one of the few opera productions in the world since the pandemic halted the arts.
Opera Australia's Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini recently recalled the shock of having to shut down last year's event in the final days of construction, only two weeks out from opening night, due to the pandemic. "It was entirely surreal - seeing months and months of hard work literally being torn down without a note being sung," she said. "It was really distressing for everyone."
Director Constantine Costi plans to present the Sydney show based on celebrated director Francesca Zambello's original 2012 production of La Traviata, which launched opera on Sydney harbour. The original set has been revived, with the breathtaking nine-metre high, 3.5 tonne chandelier with its glistening 10,000 Swarovski crystals again taking centre stage. The show-stopping aria 'Sempre Libera' and the legendary drinking song 'Brindisi' will be performed by the cast and conducted by acclaimed maestro Brian Castles-Onion.
Since that 2012 performance, the Sydney Harbour opera concept has attracted more than 400,000 attendees from across Australia and around the globe, and is considered a signature Sydney event.
Andrew is a Senior Principal Artist with Opera Australia and had performed more than 30 roles with the company, before he was stood down on March 14 last year, unable to work until December 1. "It was a bit demoralising at times, I won't lie," he said. "Sometimes I wondered whether we'd get back into the theatre at all."
Celeste agreed. "When we closed, it was very tricky because at the time we didn't know if audiences would be willing to ever come back. We didn't know what the shape of the future was. But at the same time, we all continued to train and have lessons."
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She tried to keep busy last year with Zoom rehearsals and regular coaching, believing it important to keep working out her greatest asset - her vocal cords.
"I kept on with my training and preparing because you can't lose that, and also because to not sing for a year would have been like cutting off a limb," she said. "You have to adapt and make do, so that's what we did - and I'm so glad because it made it all so much easier to come back."
One imagines that the skills needed to become a famous opera singer would include perseverance, patience and dedication, which would have stood them in good stead for this year that was. Born and bred - and still residing - in Elanora Heights, 34-year-old Celeste was inspired by her Pittwater House singing teacher to pursue a classical career. Which she did - initially at the Sydney Conservatorium, followed by the Vienna Conservatorium.
"I was always singing; you could never shut me up as a kid," she said, adding that she has put in many hours since. "You have to work hard in order to make something of it, because it does require a lot of dedication and can be very competitive. It's work that I absolutely adore though, so I'm fine with that. It's a joy to spend one's life making music. I think there is an incredibly powerful feeling when you are singing on the stage. Beautiful sounds fill my day, and then I get to sing with an orchestra and share these incredible melodies with an audience. There's a lot of blood, sweat and tears, but there is this incredible romance that goes with it."
She has performed around the world - for Die Soldaten by Bernd Alois Zimmerman in Germany at the State Theatre of Wiesbaden, the audience sat on the stage and the singers performed from the seats. "There was this big helium blimp in the theatre and images were projected on the screen of the blimp and we were singing and dancing where the public usually sit, everything was turned around," she laughed. "That was really fun to be a part of. But Opera on the Harbour is a completely next level. We stepped out onto the stage for the first time and my heart skipped five beats. It was huge. It is ginormous and looks fantastic; all the lights and that beautiful chandelier. It's so exciting to be a part of."
Andrew, 41, was inspired by a playdate to move from Artarmon to Dee Why with his wife Fiona and two children (Connor, 11 and Abbey, 9) eight years ago, and has adopted the suburb with glee, even serving as a volunteer lifesaver at the local surf club. "I didn't want to just sit on the beach and watch my kids do Nippers," he said, as locals wondered past the Dee Why rockpool phot shoot and complimented the picturesque opera couple.
Celeste's character is Flora Bervoix; the courtesan lover of his role Marquis d'Obigny. The sumptuous Verdi opera follows the famed courtesan Violetta, caught in a love story impacted by tragic family politics.
"I've done this role before, but never like this, on Sydney Harbour," he said. "It's pretty fantastic. The set-up is staggering in its enormity; the scale is extraordinary. There are 15 dancers, the full chorus of 48 singers plus all the principals. Even the crane they used to drop the huge stage chandelier onto the stage is one of the biggest things I've ever seen.
"Not to mention, all performed with some of the finest music ever written, spectacularly sung and performed with the Opera Australia orchestra."
Andrew decided early in in his life that he wanted a career on the stage, but still can't quite believe his luck. "It's the only job I've ever done so I'm pretty used to it by now," he said. "It's my dream job. There's not a day that goes by that I don't pinch myself. It's a privileged position and we are fortunate here in Australia that we can now perform."
Their excitement is infectious, and it's clear that the audience will be all the more entertained for the cast's lack of action over the past year.
"It's going to be a hell of a lot of fun, it will feel like a party, with a fantastic view of the greatest city in the world," said Andrew.
Meanwhile, Celeste is revelling in the long days and nights of physical and emotional exertion. "It has been wonderful to be so busy," she said. "We've been preparing our lives for this and to be able to share it with audiences again is such a joyful experience. We were all so grateful and a little bit teary. It is a fantastic, grand extravaganza; it's epic. Even the adrenaline of being there is exciting but there are lots of extra exciting things in store for the audience. Everything is next level."
Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour La Traviata runs from March 26-April 25; tickets from $99
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