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Sydney Opera House

Catherine Carby spreads her wings

When Catherine Carby, Arsace in Christopher Alden’s new production of Handel’s Partenope, which opens at the Sydney Opera House this month, takes her final bow on March 31, it will be a while before she is seen on an Australian stage again – she and her family are moving to London, where they plan to stay indefinitely.

“It’s exciting in a terrifying kind of way,” she says, with a laugh. “We’ll have no house, no car, no credit card, no jobs…and a four-year-old.” The singer and her husband, who is English, were motivated by the lure of professional opportunities in the UK and Europe, and he was also keen for their daughter to grow up experiencing European culture.

In Sydney, Carby has been working hard overcoming the not insignificant vocal challenges of her role in Partenope. And the biggest one is Arsace’s “enormously scary” aria in Act II. Describing it as “very runny, very fast, with lots and lots of notes,” Carby feels that it would be all too easy to get into a panic while performing it. “I’m not quite sure how you overcome that…you practise it as much as you can I guess, until it becomes second nature.”

Conductor Christian Curnyn asked the Partenope cast to write their own cadenzas, a request that did not faze Carby at all. “I write my own cadenzas as often as I can because it enables you to show off what you do really well,” she says. “You write your ornamentation to suit your own voice too.”

Director Christopher Alden, known among OA audience members for his controversial 2010 Tosca production, has set his Partenope production in 1920s Paris. “It’s a gorgeous show and I don’t think anyone will find it alienating,” Carby says. “It’s funny, it has a fantastic cast and Christopher has succeeded in telling the convoluted baroque story in a simple way.” Baroque opera is “quirky”, Carby says euphemistically, but once you get past the style elements – women singing men’s roles, men singing alto roles, women dressed as men dressed as women – it’s very enjoyable. 

She’s enjoyed working with Alden. “He gives you a lot of suggestions, but he also gives you leeway to take away what you will.” A veteran of the “pants” role, over the years she has studied men’s body language closely. “Men walk differently, they sit differently, and as they get older they tend to show less emotion in their faces,” she says, adding, “But Arsace is a young, elegant and gorgeous man.”

Her most memorable roles have all been with Emma Matthews, who sings the title role in Partenope. “We sang together in Lulu, Romeo and Juliet, Der Rosenkavalier, Julius Caesar. In fact, we’ve been boyfriend and girlfriend so often that Christopher Alden was a little taken aback at how easily we slipped into our roles. Emma would text me ‘Hi Boyfriend, what are you doing?’ and I’d text back, ‘Hi Girlfriend, I’m..whatever.’”

Having begun her career at OA in 1997, as a cover, Carby acquired different skills under different managements. “When I started with the Company I was a student, really. Working with it turned me into an opera singer. From Moffatt Oxenbould – a great theatre person – I learned stagecraft. Simone Young’s focus was on voice. Richard Hickox taught me about musicianship. And Lyndon Terracini’s focus is yet again on voice.”

If she’s experienced career highs, Carby is frank about the lows too. Having to pull out of Dead Man Walking in 2007 was an all-time low. “I had a six-month-old baby and I had to learn this incredibly difficult, dark role about the murder of children. I developed vocal problems and had to pull out. Performing in Alcina a few months later was very difficult – it was an enormous role: seven big arias with high notes, low notes, runs – and I felt that my voice had let me down before; that it was controlling me rather than the other way around. It was very frightening but I got back on the horse and rode it. I knew then that the vocal problems I’d experienced in Dead Man Walking were just a glitch.”

Although excited about the big European adventure ahead of her, Carby stresses that she will be back in Australia next year. “Several things are being negotiated with OA, and there are possibilities of performing with other Australian music organisations.” She may never have been a full-time singer with OA, but it certainly feels like her home company. “I’m part of the furniture,” she sighs.