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There's a big birthday party brewing at Bennelong Point. 2013 marks the bicentenaries of both Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner and the hundredth birthday of Benjamin Britten, and the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs are celebrating in style, with a grand opera gala. Under the banner “Opera’s Triple Threat”, the Philharmonia has assembled an exceptionally meaty program of music from all three composers, and they’ve drafted in an impressive pair of soloists: soprano Cheryl Barker and heldentenor Stuart Skelton, two of Australia’s most acclaimed international opera singers. Conducted by Artistic Director Brett Weymark, the concerts will include arias, duets and, of course, choruses from Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s Lohengrin, Tannhäuser and Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and Britten’s Peter Grimes.
Sydney opera fans who remember Opera Australia’s rapturously received Peter Grimes in 2009 will be keen to hear Skelton in the title role again. The Sydney-born tenor is excited too. “Grimes has pretty much become a signature role for me,” he says, “so it’s really fantastic to bring it back to my home town. The response from Sydney audiences last time was incredible.” He’s also sung In fernem Land, from Lohengrin, “about fifty times” (the role is another mainstay of his career) but the Otello excerpts are, he says, “brand new! I’m preparing to make my debut in the whole role soon – watch this space! – but this is the first time I will have sung any of it in public.”
Barker will also bring one of her OA successes to the party, singing Desdemona’s Willow Song and Ave Maria and other excerpts from Otello – an opera she’ll soon be performing in its entirety again for Opera Queensland. Wagner has not previously featured in her career, but after a week of rehearsals, Skelton who, as he sheepishly admits, sings “almost nothing but” is raving about his colleague’s Wagnerian credentials: “Cheryl is truly sensational. The amount of control she has over every aspect of her voice is just staggering.” And he’s starry eyed over her Ellen Orford, another new role for Barker. “She should be singing this everywhere. You’ve never heard anything like it.”
The concerts are also an opportunity for the Sydney Philharmonia Choir's Festival Chorus – a non-professional chorus with basic vocal training who commit to two concert programs per year – to strut its stuff in opera. The choir has been preparing several months, and assistant chorusmaster Anthony Pasquill is full of praise for their hard work on this challenging repertoire. “This is my second year with the choir,” he says, “and as the music gets more demanding each year, their ability never ceases to amaze me. There may be a few choristers out there who have sung some opera before but I doubt that many have ever sung choruses from Peter Grimes and Meistersinger before!”
This weekend’s performances are also a milestone for Pasquill himself: in two excerpts from Lohengrin – including the famous Bridal Chorus – he’ll replace Weymark on the podium, making his orchestral conducting debut. “It’s always been an ambition of mine to conduct at the Sydney Opera House, and to have the opportunity to conduct Wagner is incredibly exciting, especially something as 'human' and magic as In fernem Land. And working with Stuart Skelton? “I can't describe how amazing the opportunity actually is!”
Tickets are still available for both concerts, and the Philharmonia has made a host of special deals available to last minute buyers: a two-for-one deal via their own site, and from Friday, a 50% discount when booking through the Opera House with the code “VERDI”. Student rush tickets will also be offered at $20 apiece one hour prior to each concert. With the choir singing its heart out, two superstar soloists and a thrilling program of repertoire all too rarely heard in Sydney, this triple-barrelled birthday celebration promises to be one of the year’s unmissable operatic events.
Opera's Triple Threat plays at the Sydney Opera House, June 8 & 9