Sydney Opera House

Hobson in triple-threat Merry Widow debut

Hobson in triple-threat Merry Widow debut

David Hobson, Danilo in Opera Australia’s new production of The Merry Widow, which opened at the Sydney Opera House this month, refers to Franz Lehár’s piece as a “triple-threat” show – one that calls for a high level of singing, acting and dancing ability.

And yet, says conductor Andrew Greene: “It has to seem simple. The public has to think: ‘I could do that’.”

Allerta! meets the musicians for a chat in a quiet coffee shop with book-lined walls, next to Australian Hall in Elizabeth Street, where the The Merry Widow cast is rehearsing. Comfortably dressed and softly spoken, Hobson seems the perfect vehicle for making treacherous notes, tricky steps and complicated dialogue seem like a walk in the park.

Nothing could be further from the truth of course. A consummate professional, he puts in countless hours to make his roles his own. “I hate feeling out of control,” he says, plonking an aniseed-flavoured teabag from his back pack into the cup of hot water that he’d ordered. He doesn’t drink coffee (dislikes the taste), or alcohol (leads to lack of control), and carries a supply of tea bags with him.

For Hobson, making The Merry Widow look easy began with an in-depth study of Kit Hesketh-Harvey's English translation, which extensively adapts the original. That included studying the original German, to get a flavour of it. “Since text dictates how the phrasing goes, the piece becomes a different animal when done in English,” he says. 

Andrew Greene adds: “Hesketh-Harvey's reworked many of the German jokes, which would be lost on contemporary English-speaking audiences, and he improved the Count’s monologue and some of the dialogue. And that is acceptable because if you’re performing a work in English, you have to make the English work. But there have been moments where I have said, no, he’s gone too far; it’s against the nature of the piece.” By going back to the original, an artist is able to reach such a  conclusion.

Hobson, who has sung in almost every style of music from rock to opera, does not feel out of control when it comes to performing with amplification. “You don’t even think about it,” he says. “In OA’s Merry Widow production, the amplification of the singing is minimal anyway – it’s not like recording a pop song in a studio, where you’re about four inches away from the microphone and whispering into it.”

For the musicians, adapting the voice range of Danilo’s role to Hobson’s instrument was more of a challenge. Says Hobson: “The role is sometimes sung by baritones, sometimes by tenors. Since I’m a high lyric tenor, Andrew transposed some of the music to a higher key for me. It’s the kind of piece in which you can do that – Richard Bonynge made extensive changes to it when he conducted it.”

Switching from spoken dialogue to singing, which many singers find difficult, does not worry him. “When you’re singing, you’re talking on pitch. For me there’s no big difference between the two.”

Waltzing was a different matter. “It’s the hardest step to achieve – I don’t know why but choreographers and ballet dancers all say so. It looks easy and elegant but it’s actually a radical dance – you’re in each other’s faces and it’s very physical.”

With so much time spent rehearsing together in the run-up to opening night, casts tend to become like families. But for many, finding opportunities to be with their real families can be difficult when pursuing a career that regularly demands time away from home. 

For Hobson it was a matter of conscious choice. “When my wife and I decided to have children, I made the choice to be present,” he says. “Life is about compromises, which for me means accepting jobs that don’t take me away for too long. You can go chasing your tail around the world and not have as meaningful a life as a peasant who spends his days tilling the same piece of land.”

His children, now 10 and 12, are both musical,  but, says Hobson, with a smile, “they’re highly embarrassed by me”. He’s perceived to be a dag and not very cool. “When recently I was asked to appear at my daughter’s school for a charity function, she said, ‘Dad, could you please not sing?’.”

With the afternoon rehearsal about to begin, the artists get up to go. Outside on the sidewalk, with his back-pack slung over his shoulder, Hobson looks like just another ordinary city person on his way somewhere.

But you know that when the The Merry Widow curtain goes up and he walks on stage, audiences will be finding themselves in the presence of a triple threat.

You also know that by the time the first waltz begins, they will be thinking, “I could do that”.

The Merry Widow is showing at the Sydney Opera House from 4 August to 2 November: Click here for more information and tickets.