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Jacqueline Dark and Kanen Breen are respected members of Opera Australia’s Ensemble, not just for their fine voices, but especially for a level of dramatic finesse that gives the lie to the old saw that acting in opera is artificial. As it turns out they also happen to be comedy gold, both on and off the stage.
But wait, there's more. As close friends and colleagues for many years they took the plunge last year and decided to have a baby together. I caught up with them backstage at the Sydney Opera House as they prepare to play the suitably eccentric leads in Benjamin Britten’s rural comedy, Albert Herring and discovered an endearing partnership, a riotous double act and an enviable family unit. Not unsurprisingly they had plenty to say – so much so that at times it was difficult to get a word in edgeways...
In the press release for Albert Herring, you’re described as “best friends in real life”. So what’s it really like playing opposite each other?
Kanen: It’s a failure. An absolute failure (laughs).
Jacqueline: (fixing him with a stare) It’s brilliant being in a show with Kanen. He’s extraordinary on stage and he’s so creative. He finds ridiculous things to do that no one else would think of, so working with him is always this voyage of discovery. If you work with a creative mind, then you create more yourself…but having said that, he’s also excruciating. He has done things on stage designed to put the other friend off, shall we say?
Ah. So Kanen, do you feel that working with Jacqui gives you more license for that kind of ‘creativity’?
K: No – I think people feel they have a license to just start laughing and then blame me. And I’m frequently just standing there going “I have done nothing. I don’t know what you people are on about.”
J: But sometimes you do.
K: Well sometimes so do you.
J: Exactly. So that’s the joy of working with someone that fabulous and supportive on and off stage. You know someone’s got your back and you know someone’s wishing you to succeed.
K: But we can’t play love interests.
J: Oh God no! The only time we did a sexy scene together we got letters of complaint. I think we were too sexy. I was looking at him going, “what are you doing?” and he was like, “I don’t know. I just got excited!”
In Albert Herring there’s quite an age gap between your two characters (Lady Billows and Albert) – the two of you are obviously of a similar age…
K: Jackie is considerable older, she really is.
J: I’m really not, I’m a couple of years older than him.
In the opera though the age gap would be, say, 40 years?
K: Let’s just say it’s pronounced. Jacqui will not struggle to play that.
Alright then Jacqui, in the opera what does your character think of Kanen’s?
J: I’d say she thinks he’s very lowly. And very common. And the fact that he is the only possible choice to be the May Queen has really got her goat. But now she’s discovered that there’s no other option she’s decided to mould him into her own concept of what a May King might be. She was horrified by the idea that he was so disgusting and appalling and a little fruit-monger, but now she’s decided, “Right, we’re going to make him into what we want him to be.”
And Kanen, what does the little fruit-monger think of…
J: I suspect you’d be intimidated by me, surely?
K: Oh, do you think? Well, I imagine I’d be uncomfortable in your presence but I don’t imagine that they’d spend a great deal of time in any kind of social interaction. I don’t imagine she comes into the shop and buys turnips.
J: It’d be like Camilla Parker-Bowles walking into his fruit shop.
Interestingly Lady Billows traditionally goes to older sopranos. Does that make it an interesting role for you to tackle?
J: It is. But I like it when I get reviews that say: “That sounded very young.”
I think I said something like that about you as Herodias in Salome. So often that part goes to a…
J: Crusty soprano on her way down.
Yes, exactly. With a terrible wobble.
K: As opposed to a crusty mezzo on the way up.
J: And both roles, in Salome and Albert Herring, are extraordinarily hard to sing, so to give them to someone who’s getting a bit dodgy in the old vocals, is really insane. Anyway, it’s good to hear people say “it’s nice to hear all the notes sung” and that kind of thing.
What is the top note out of curiosity?
J: It’s a C. I think there are about four top C’s.
K: Which is good because she can’t manage an A in Forza (laughs).
J: Lyndon [Terracini] always has a method to his madness. I was given Elvira in Don Giovanni and I have had a few sort of soprano-y things, so it’s possible that I could be a dramatic soprano. I’m trying to avoid it for as long as I possibly can, but it does feel quite comfy.
The Albert Herring production is from 1976.
K: I wasn’t born but Jackie was.
J: You were born; we were both born.
And who’s directing it?
K: John Cox is the original director but now it’s Matt Barclay.
Do you have much license to change things?
K: I hope so.
J: Even if we don’t we take it.
K: Look, yes and no. I mean it’s impossible to recreate something exactly, and it’s a resident director’s job to keep it as close as possible to what it was, but I think he’s going to struggle with this cast to play that particular game.
J: To reign us in.
Can we talk about career paths? Kanen, you’re a tenor with a light, high, attractive voice. But you often seem to be cast in comical character roles. Is that something that you’ve actively sought out?
K: No, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I find myself more and more disinclined to do anything else. When it first became obvious that that was the direction my career was heading with Opera Australia, I baulked and I thought: “why is this happening and why wasn’t I trained to become an opera singer”, but if I go back further in time and think about it I didn’t want to be an opera singer anyway – I just wanted to be a performer. Really all I wanted to do was dress up and prance around, and I don’t think there’s anybody in the company that’s given more of an opportunity to do that. So I suppose I spent a couple of years where I was a bit mystified and thought well, there’s a great deal more to me than this. But, then I thought, fuck it, I don’t want to stand around singing, holding soprano’s hands going, “I love you, I love you”. (retches). It’s just not as much fun – it’s not as interesting.
J: I can vouch for that. People have seen him do so much comedy but I’ve seen him do dramatic stuff and it’s extraordinary. I don’t think people realize that he can do that anymore. They’re so used to seeing him in comedic roles that they forget that he has this whole other dimension.
I always think comedy is more difficult, just in terms of the actual craft.
K: Funny that you say that, because there’s an article in the latest Equity Magazine, where a couple of great Australian comedy actors talk about the craft behind it. And they all completely agree with you. There are different approaches. Some say it’s more about the emotional truth and some say it’s like a mathematical equation – if you want to get a laugh at the end of something you have to set up x, y, z to get it happening. Both are true.
J: And some of the best people who do funny – like Warwick Fyfe – he always comes off after people have laughed at him saying, “I don’t know why they’re laughing, I was serious”. And that’s why they’re laughing, because you don’t play for laughs.
That’s where instinct comes into it. And having watched both of you on stage you both seem to have very good instincts.
K: I am a total nervous Nelly, but I’m never nervous about what I’m doing on stage. I’m more nervous about the singing side. I consider myself very lucky to be that way. There’s a huge element of stuff that I don’t have to concern myself with whereas I see other people who are so neurotic about putting one foot in front of the other and I think: “you poor bastards! How do you have the courage to step on stage at all if it’s that difficult?”
Going back to career paths. Jacqui, you’re doing Fricka in the Ring. Is that the heaviest role you’ve sung?
J: It’s low, which makes it harder for me but probably the Composer [in Ariadne auf Naxos] was bigger. Fricka’s a big sing but it’s only a 20 minute sing in Rheingold. The Composer was 40 minutes pretty much straight, hard and loud, which was fabulous. But that sits higher so it’s much more in my fach than Fricka. I can’t tell until I sing it with orchestra but it doesn’t feel hard. There’s nothing particularly high in it – there are a couple of A’s and things but it doesn’t feel high. It just feels like it’s sitting in the middle voice so you just have to keep pumping it out.
Oddly enough I’ve heard many recordings, and I’ve seldom heard a bad Fricka.
K: Watch this space.
J: (laughs) Here it comes. Thanks for the support.
It seems like a grateful part – people don’t seem to struggle with it.
J: It’s interesting because Susan Bullock and Stu Skelton were talking about that. They both said that Fricka’s often given to an older voice. The middle voice is always fine, but overseas they always listen to the top. There are two or three notes where they often go, “ouch”. So they said it’s nice to hear a younger voice sing it – ‘Cause I am quite young…
So do you see that as the way your career is going?
J: I think so. The Composer was the first thing like it I’d sung. It felt like I was opening my mouth and notes were pouring out. There as just no effort, it was just easy. This feels the same. So Strauss and Wagner I think is probably my thing. And I love it. I’m lucky. I really love that music.
And you do early music as well: you were both in Partenope for example. But Kanen, where do you see your vocal career going?
K: Well, it’s very hard for me to say.
J: I’d say that his voice has got bigger. Kanen used to sing Mozart and Handel and it was beautiful and high and light and gorgeous, But suddenly since he’s reached his late 30’s it’s got this depth and it’s a much bigger voice. So he’s now singing Wagner successfully.
K: There is still an element of me musically that I feel hasn’t been touched by the company and probably won’t be. And probably will never be unless I up-stumps and go somewhere else. But given the current climate in the opera world, you are unlikely to go anywhere and encounter a great deal of enthusiasm or success, unless you’re very lucky. Jacqui’s very lucky to get my early-morning soirées in the shower where I sing my Wagner and Strauss. As it is, I see my career reaching greater and greater heights of comedic delight and then hanging myself at about 50.
You’re clearly very comfortable in each other’s company. How did the two of you meet?
K: (laughs) Do you want the real version or the version we tell journalists?
Why don’t we go the whole hog and have both?
K: This is the real version. We were in the chorus together at Gilbert and Sullivan’s Ruddigore for Victorian State Opera in 1995.
J: He recruited me basically. And I’m thrilled, because he’s never recruited another person in the history of…
K: I’m a total misanthrope, and so I don’t love people.
J: He hates everybody! And looking back at the time I thought, “oh that’s nice, he wants to be my friend”. And I’m just so glad he did because it’s so out of character for him – I feel very special.
K: It was a very boozy cast, and so we just went out and got drunk a lot. She was the stayer at the end of night. So I thought: “she’ll do!” But the version we tell other people is that Jacqui was touring Victoria with her one-woman show and that she pulled me out of the audience to sing a duet with her. And then we became social lacrosse players. And we got that in a few articles.
J: Yeah it’s been in a few.
Great. I’m happy to pedal both there. But the relationship goes a lot deeper than that, doesn’t it? I mean you have a home and a child together.
K: Yes. Well I maintain my own home in Potts Point, but I spend a lot of time at Jacqui’s place with her and Alexander.
That was obviously a big choice to make. Was it a difficult decision?
J: No, because I’d always wanted a child. It was getting to a point where I thought, if I don’t do this… I mean, you wait for the perfect time when you have no fabulous role and it just never happens. (laughs) Well that does happen, actually that happens all the time, but you know what I mean. But eventually I just thought, “I’m going to do it”. And Kanen said, “I’ll support you in any way I can, do whatever I can.” So yeah, he (the baby) is gorgeous. And he’s completely bonkers, as you can imagine with us as parents.
And how old is he now?
J: He’s 13 months in two days.
Apologies if this is too personal a question but is he your child Kanen?
J: Not biologically.
K: No, but I am "Papa".
And do you know the father? You can tell me to mind my own business…
J: No, it was an IVF donor. But I do have photos and all the information. So it’s not a sort of random, sight-unseen. I do know who it is and all that kind of stuff. But thank you for being courteous and asking. We’re happy to talk about it. We don’t want Alexander growing up to think there’s anything wrong with it.
K: There isn’t.
J: Exactly. And I’ve had so many other women, from the company and from outside the company – I reckon about 50 people have contacted me – to say, “Hey look I’ve been thinking about it, I’m in the same situation”. So obviously there’s a lack of information out there. And people think there’s a sort of taboo or stigma attached to it. So I’m keen to get it out there as something that’s joyous because he’s just incredible and the light of both of our lives. And I’ve said to all of these people. I’ve said, “Just go for it, and don’t think twice. If it’s something you want to do, don’t wait.” Because as Mark Twain said, you regret more the things you don’t do, not the things you do. And if I hadn’t done it there would be this hole in my life, so I’m delighted that at my advanced, ancient age...
So does your relationship tie you to the company? Do you feel that because you have a child you’re both somehow wedded to Opera Australia?
K: Not necessarily. I think especially these days it’s very difficult to feel tied to any one particular opera company. But I think we’ve been very fortunate in that we’ve both been employed consistently with the company thus far.
J: Obviously I don’t want Kanen to be away from Alexander for six months. So I couldn’t go and do a gig in Germany or the USA without talking to him – without maybe saying “can you get work there or can you take six months off, and if I get enough money you can stay home.” But if Alexander’s away from him for even a couple of days he misses him, so I couldn’t do it.
Jacqui Dark and Kanen Breen star in Opera Australia’s Albert Herring, Sydney Opera House, August 16-30