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Sydney Opera House

It takes stamina to be Helena

Back in Australia after a four-year sojourn in Berlin, Lisa Harper-Brown sings the role of Helena in Opera Australia's revival of Baz Luhrmann's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream.

"This is my third season of Dream, and it remains as beautiful and magical as the first time I worked on it," Harper-Brown says.

Singing the role is difficult because Britten was "very exploratory" in the score, and because Helena is very physical. "She's up and down and on the floor and on all fours and desperate to find Demetrius and win him over. And the set has lots and lots of stairs."

Harper-Brown, who had her first child, Mimi, just over five months ago, had to work hard to build the stamina to sustain her through the night. "There's no way you can run around on such a set, and then sing what you need to sing, beautifully, without being fit," she says. "Singing while climbing up a staircase may look glamorous [she bursts out laughing], but in fact there's quite some effort there."

So Harper-Brown has been working out it the gym and walking as much as she can to get physically fit. She and her husband loved living in Berlin, but decided to return to Australia because they "could not imagine having a babe away from the family". The most valuable lesson that Berlin taught Harper-Brown was that she could handle anything.

"Berlin is a welcoming, multi-cultural city, much like Sydney, and yet it was very difficult to re-build a web of human and professional contacts there." It didn't help that her German vocabulary was limited when she arrived in the city. "If I went to the dentist or the chemist or the supermarket, I'd have to look up the words to explain myself. I even had to look up the word for being pregnant! But having relocated to a place where I had limited cultural and language skills, and having managed it, I feel that there is nothing that I cannot do. I feel worldlier, more capable."

Professionally Harper-Brown expanded her horizons with appearances at concerts and festivals, and the role of First Lady in a 2006 Hamburg State Opera revival of The Magic Flute.

Now home in Perth, where both her and her husband grew up and where their families live, she plans to return to Berlin in due course. "We'd like to build on the life we’ve made for ourselves there, and we feel that Mimi can only benefit from attending International School," she says.

In the meantime, Harper-Brown, Richard John (Piano) and Paul Tanner (Percussion), who perform together as Voyage, are developing a concert tour to take to Western Australia at the beginning of next year. "The plan is to perform a program of classical music with a modern edge and contemporary music with a classical edge, in outdoor settings," she says. The production is an amalgam of music from Bach to Jeff Buckley, orchestrated for voice, piano and percussion and interwoven with dialogue, anecdotes and narrative.

Whether it's on the opera stage or under the stars, performing is in Harper-Brown's blood. "I'm more comfortable on stage than in "real" life," she says. "Marrying music with character on stage is something I've been doing for so long, it's just normal".

Performing with Opera Australia again feels like having come home, and she'd like to repeat the exercise. Dramatic roles appeal to her especially. "Fidelio would be great and I'd love to do Fiordiligi again. I'd like to revisit Salome and Elsa, and you'd have to be mad not to want to do Sieglinde."

But in the immediate future, there's Helena in Sydney and later this year in Melbourne, and there's Mimi, named not for Bohème's tragic heroine but for the actress Mimi Rogers. Sort of. "I realised that it could be a real person's name when I saw a film with Mimi Rogers in it," Harper-Brown says. "My husband likes the name because everyone in Europe knows how to say it."

Harper-Brown relishes being a mother. "I woke up a few days ago and, looking at this little bundle which I'd brought to bed for the early morning feed, I thought, I get to spend the day with you."

Finding her way back into singing has been a challenge. Not to mention finding her way back into her costumes. She laughs when describing how she had to "shed the kilos" before a New Year's Eve Concert last year. And she did. As she says, these days there are no challenges, only opportunities.