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Sydney Opera House

Cheryl Barker's role debut in Capriccio

The great Barker adventure continues with Capriccio

Allerta!: Looking back on your role debut as the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier last year, what are the challenges of performing Strauss’ music? 

Cheryl Barker: In Strauss’ music there are always tricky musical moments where you must count to yourself in order to stay on track. These days we don’t have the luxury of prompts in Australia, which is interesting, as many German houses still employ them. Also, one cannot always rely on the conductor to cue singers as he is invariably busy with keeping the orchestra in order.

A: Which particular hurdles have presented themselves in your preparation for Capriccio?

CB: Capriccio is even more difficult than the Marschallin as it is a very conversational work, with moments of beautiful soaring phrases. On first hearing it was horrified at what I thought was the opera’s lack of melody, but the more I listen to it, the more I realise that it is full of melody.

A: What do you enjoy about this opera?

CB: It’s a brilliant work that makes me laugh, as the text echoes what us singers are always complaining about: the orchestra being too loud, the intricacies of some early opera plots, music that does not reflect the text it represents.

A: Like Rosenkavalier, it’s a wordy opera. How do you go about memorising large chunks of text?

CB: The key to memorising wordy text is to know what you are saying and what is being said to you. It is a very long process and there is much preparation to be done before commencing rehearsals. It also involves repetition, repetition!

A: Capriccio is a debate about the relative importance of words and music in opera. What is your personal position in this centuries-old debate?

CB: My personal position is prima le parole, poi la musica!  A composer may have a melody swimming in their mind, but they need the words for the music to blossom.  [Having said that], in opera, one needs the other in order to exist, otherwise it is not opera.

A: You’ve worked with director John Cox before, in Arabella. How would you describe his directorial approach?

CB: I count myself very fortunate to have John directing me in my debut in this role as I consider him to be a world expert on Richard Strauss. He is gentle, kind and patient and has impeccable taste.

A: You are still doing new roles all the time, despite your stated wish to revisit a few old ones….do you sometimes feel like saying no to a new role?

CB: I look upon these Strauss roles as an investment. They take a lot of hard slog to learn but once learnt, can be useful to have up one’s sleeve. Of course I feel like saying no, offer me something I already know, but as an artist you have to keep expanding your horizons and pushing the boundaries. Sometimes the characters are not terribly exciting and I guess I have been spoilt playing roles such as Tosca, Emilia Marty, Violetta and Angelica. There is always something interesting to find in the roles I have already played.

A: Which old roles would you particularly like to revisit?

CB: Arabella, the Marschallin, Salome. I’m doing Tosca in Brisbane this year and hope to perform Butterfly again before my knees give up!  Emilia Marty is always thrilling and Katya is a very special role for me.

A: In opera, which if any mountains would you still like to climb?

CB: I am often asked this question and I have to say, I think I have climbed all the mountains I have ever wanted. I have played some wonderful characters and discovered a lot about myself in performing them.

A:  As your son grows up, is having this career becoming easier or more difficult? 

CB: As I am writing this, I am in Strasbourg performing Vec Makropulos. Prior to coming to France, Gabriel and I were with Peter in Milan as he was performing Death in Venice at La Scala. We decided it was better for us to be together as a family and have been home schooling Gabriel. His teachers have been great keeping us abreast of what the class have been doing. This will be the last year we can do this as he starts High School next year. I call this his ‘Grand Tour’ and he has been throughout Italy, visited Germany, Switzerland, France, the UK and even visited Conal Coad in Belgium. This has to be an education in itself. He is longing to get home and misses his friends so much. Skype is a great thing!  As Peter and I still have International careers, it is difficult and one is always torn at having to leave the other two behind. We juggle and compromise, spend most of our fees on airfares but in the end it is worth it. It has been a great adventure for us as a family.