It might be fair to call opera’s Santuzza one of those conflicted roles. But not only is the ‘heroine’ of Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana a bundle of emotional complications, she’s also a bit of a vocal puzzle. Soprano or mezzo? In the past she’s been successfully tackled by the sopranos such as Renata Scotto, Maria Callas and Julia Varady, but then she’s also proved a hit for Agnes Baltsa, Violetta Urmana and Fiorenza Cossotto, to name a trio of ambitious mezzos.

What about Jacqueline Dark, then, who is currently in rehearsal for State Opera of South Australia? Asked if she’s a mezzo with soprano ambitions, Dark laughs: “I don’t really have ambitions, my voice is just kind of leading the way and I’m following it.” Dark admits that Santuzza was not always on her radar. “It never really crossed my mind when I was a real kind of mezzo mezzo, but the higher my voice got, it was a role that I wanted to sing.”

“I’ve always loved Santuzza as a character,” she admits. “She is completely relatable and completely sympathetic and I absolutely love her. I hear so many people say ‘ah, she’s so unlikable’, but I think she is every one of us. I mean, which one of us hasn’t done something foolish for the sake of love and then regretted it immediately.”

Kanen Breen and Jacqueline DarkKanen Breen and Jacqueline Dark. Photo © Simon Parris

Intrigue, revenge, adultery, and death – if you want emotion on an operatic scale, Cavallaria Rusticana does not disappoint. Turiddu (Rosario La Spina), returned from the war, finds his fiancé Lola (Catriona Barr) married to Alfio (Jeremy Tatchell). He first seduces Santuzza, then abandons her for Lola’s allure, only to face Lola’s husband in a duel with disastrous consequences.

Dark has a five-year-old son, Alexander, who she is bringing up with fellow opera singer and best friend, tenor Kanen Breen. As a mother, she has a lot of empathy for Santuzza. “In this production we play her as pregnant, which is a fairly standard assumption to make, because of some of the things she says and the fact that she is being excommunicated.”

Dark believes that Santuzza succumbed to Turiddu’s advances, because she thought it was going to be for keeps. “Turiddu is the love of her life and she thinks they would end up getting married and having lots of babies,” she says. Rather than putting blame on Santuzza, Dark considers Lola to be the manipulative character in the story. “Santuzza thinks it’s forever, so she’s done what was right for her, but then after that found out that Turiddu is a complete cad.”

“Mind you,” Dark says with endearing honesty, “I often get into my characters and judge other character off my own. So that could be Santuzza talking.”  Mamma Lucia, Turiddu’s mother, on the other hand is in her good books. “Mamma Lucia is the mamma of the village. I’m a romantic and, if I think about Santuzza’s future after the opera, I think Mamma Lucia is going to take Santuzza in and take care of her.”

Dark is well qualified to judge. After this latest Cavallaria Rusticana she will have performed all three roles. “I covered Lola for Victoria State Opera, sang Mamma Lucia for OA, and now I am singing Santuzza for SA,” she says.

Singing with Rosario La Spina as Turiddu and Teresa La Rocca as Mamma Lucia is something Dark is thoroughly enjoying. “Working with those two guys is fantastic. Because Teresa and I have been good friends for a long time, we can pack a lot of emotional punch into a single look. There’s a lot of conflict in staring! And I love Rosario. We’re both quite fiery, physical actors, not the stand-there-stare-at-the-conductor kind of singers, and having him to work off is such a gift.”

Working for State Opera SA, she reckons, is like being part of a family, a situation that suits her nature. “Me being me, I like the interactive bits more than the solos bits.” She even sees her famous aria Voi lo sapete as an emotional duet with a lot of interaction. “It’s me trying to get through to Mamma Lucia. It’s a real plea to her to help me.”

With her character leaping from one emotional outburst to another, Dark sees the most important challenge as finding the light and shade, and in particular picking out the internalised and quiet aspects. When it comes to Voi lo sapete, she is adamant that it is not about just standing there. “Each moment needs to come out of the scene and be informed by the scene.”

Dark also refutes the notion that this story with its gender politics is out of date. “We know these things are happening in the world today,” she says. “And certainly, the violence against women is happening. I saw it on the street today. There was a guy yelling at girl saying, ‘why didn’t you do what I asked you to do, I told you to do this, and you didn’t do it’. I was like ‘that’s it, that’s it!’. That’s exactly what’s happening. You see a woman spurned, who goes and says something stupid. Like OJ Simpson, all of those cases. People find out their ex is cheating. It happens. It’s absolutely contemporary, I think.”

When on stage, Dark is famous for giving it her all – one of the secrets of why audiences warm to her as performer and person – but with every role the singer consciously factors in the emotional toll a part may take on her and her voice. “That’s the thing with me. I can’t just stand there and sing. It’s full on and it’s emotional,” she says. “I have to consider not just the range and whether I can sing it in a rehearsal room, but can I also sing it while I’m crying or raging. I’m not going to be singing them under the ideal circumstances. I am going to get emotional. That’s just who I am on stage.”

Jacqueline Dark as the Mother AbbessJacqueline Dark as the Mother Abbess. Photo © Simon Parris

Dark spent most of last year touring nationally as the Mother Abbess in The Sound of Music where she opened many new ears to the operatic voice.  Her performances as Fricka in the Melbourne Ring Cycle at the end of last year won her a Helpmann award. One critic credited her with “a tour de force performance that is as impactful as it is meticulously calibrated.”

She admits she had to challenge herself to play the lead in Rufus Wainwright’s Prima Donna at the recent Adelaide Festival, which one praise for its excellent soloists. “When I looked at the score first up, I thought, look, it’s a soprano role, there are top Bs and Cs all over the place. Then I kind of kicked myself and said, come on, be brave, you’ve got these notes, you can sing this role. And now I suspect that I’ve made that break-through there are a lot of things I kind of like to have a little peak at. It’s opened some doors.”

When asked about dream roles she would like to be singing in a few years’ time, she mentions Lohengrin’s Ortrud and some of the big Richard Strauss roles – “And Kundry,” she adds, referring ruefully to the role she was scheduled to sing in Opera Australia’s upcoming concert performance of Wagner’s Parsifal.

With her recent successes, it is still hard to comprehend why OA made this sudden and unexpected cast change, substituting American soprano Michelle de Young for Dark to sing the part opposite star tenor Jonas Kaufmann. The company declined to comment on the casting decisions, but Dark did not publically withdraw from the role and is not shedding any light on the circumstances for the change, either.

However, Sydney’s loss, in this case, looks set to be Adelaide’s gain as Dark plans to follow up her performances as Santuzza with the latest outing for Strange Bedfellows, her hilarious and risqué club act with friend and co-parent Breen at this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival.

State Opera of South Australia’s Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci is at the Adelaide Festival Centre April 18 – 22. Jacqueline Dark and Kanen Breen perform Strange Bedfellows at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival June 22 – 24.