Soprano Natalie Christie Peluso is the latest to step into Hanna’s shoes for Graeme Murphy’s art-deco fabulous production of The Merry Widow, soon to open at Opera Queensland. Here she talks about playing a young Hanna, the challenges of operetta, and putting on a show a là Liza Minelli.

Natalie Christie Peluso as Hanna. Photo: supplied

Have you been in the audience for Graeme Murphy’s The Merry Widow previous to rehearsals?

I haven’t had the privilege yet! Obviously I’ve seen lots of photos and videos and I’ve tried on the costumes already. It looks absolutely spectacular and I can’t wait to be involved. But no, I haven’t had a chance to see it, which is a good thing I think. There’s a desire to come in fresh and do my research on the character and the music and the world of Hanna and Danilo. Really make it my own.

This production calls for a younger Hanna and Danilo than we’re perhaps used to seeing. How does the youth of Hanna shape the way you play her? 

I think she’s supposed to be this young anyway. I think the word ‘widow’ in the title makes us assume she’s an older woman, but she was married very, very briefly, humorously so. A matter of mere weeks before her octogenarian billionaire husband died. I think the youth of the character is there in the piece and does colour perhaps her motivation for marrying the first time round – she specifically says it was because her father was poor and she wanted to be a dutiful daughter. Given that the love of her life, Danilo, was unable to marry her because his parents thought she wasn’t good enough, I think she’s perfectly justified to walk off and say, “well, I have a broken heart, I can’t marry the man I want to, so I’m going to sacrifice my happiness to provide for my father”. And it’s a joy to bring out the youthfulness of these characters because it’s so there in the music, certainly in the way Hanna and Danilo spar. It’s very screwball, traditional romantic banter. These two people desperately want to be together but are kept apart by these strange social conventions.

Have you worked with your Danilo, David Hobson before?

No, I haven’t but I’ve admired him from afar for a long time. He was one of the very first singers that I saw as a student. He was this young, strapping man and I remember how great it was to see someone who not only sang really well but also acted very naturally. He was on my radar from a very young age and now to be performing together, it’s a huge buzz.

Do you find there are specific challenges to performing in an operetta?

It’s really the original musical I think. We have the pleasure of playing with spoken dialogue, which is a particular joy of mine. I think treating it that way is a really important attitude to have for a s performers because then we remember the lightness of touch that’s required, especially with something like this which is tune after tune after tune. That waltzy glamour is not a heavy, melodramatic thing, but it doesn’t take away from the pathos and the truth of the story. That balance is what makes operetta tricky because you can’t be heavy handed with it in the same you can’t be heavy handed making a meringue or a pavlova.

You have to do quite a bit of dancing in this production. Are you up for the challenge? 

Oh God, don’t! [Laughs] I’m up for the challenge! Whether or not I measure up to the challenge remains to be seen. I love dancing but I’ve never had professional dance experience other than two weeks of flamenco in Spain back when I was a student. My biggest concern is the significant height difference between David and myself. I’m only five-foot-four. I’m confident though. Graham is experienced enough to be able to shape us in ways that make us look amazing. People won’t be like, “where’s that soprano… oh, that little person right there!” I can’t be the first short dancer that Graham’s ever worked with before, so I can’t wait. The waltzing and there’s a whole cabaret number at Maxim’s with a top hat – just get me in there!

Hanna sings the aria at Maxim’s that is normally performed by Valencienne. Do you find that complicates the character?

Oh absolutely. This idea that she’s thinking, “I’m going to make Danilo even more jealous than he was before. I’m going to show up at his favourite club as one of the Grisettes”, challenges both his idea of her and his lifestyle. It shows a cheeky, playful, naughty side to Hanna that you perhaps wouldn’t see with Dame Joan Sutherland. This earthy, irreverent side to her. And I get to do this kind of Liza Minelli-esque dance number straight out of Cabaret!

Lehár’s score is jam-packed full of tunes like you say. What are you most looking forward to?

There’s barely a bad phrase, certainly for Hanna. One second she’s very lyrical and sparkling and there’s this frisson in the voice, and then there’s the love duet towards the end which is so simple but so heartfelt. Musically I’m relishing that opportunity to just be very lyrical and playful at the same time. So much of Hanna’s music is very well known, especially her aria Vilja which I’ve sung so many times outside of the work. To sing it in context is so exciting, it’s a love song. It’s a bit like Susanna in Figaro where she sings Deh vieni but it’s really for Figaro. Vilja is this strange folk song about a huntsman falling in love with this spirit in a wood, and I feel she’s singing to Danilo the entire time. Her journey from feigning indifference to finally admitting her feelings in that last duet, it’s just one long arc musically as well as dramatically. That score that Lehar’s written, which is so deceptively simple and light and frothy but is so full of love and heart, that’s what I’m looking forward to really digging into.

Graeme Murphy’s The Merry Widow plays the Lyric Theatre, QPAC from June 22 – 30


Audiences aged 30 and under can get same-day rush tickets for $30.