When the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs presents a one-off performance of Joseph Haydn’s The Creation on Saturday it will be a special occasion. The oratorio itself, written between 1797 and 1798, is one of the great 18th-century choral masterworks, and considered by many to be Haydn’s masterpiece. The performance will feature Australian soprano Taryn Fiebig, who is making her return to the stage after surgery and chemotherapy for ovarian cancer. What’s more, her husband, New Zealand-born bass Jud Arthur is also a soloist at the performance.
Taryn Fiebig and Jud Arthur. Photograph: supplied
Fiebig is a very popular Australian artist, who has gathered a real following at Opera Australia with her clear, graceful soprano, her lithe presence and excellent acting skills. Her roles include Musetta in La Bohème, Susanna, Zerlina and Despina in Sir David McVicar’s acclaimed Mozart trio (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così Fan Tutte), The Woodbird and Gutrune in Wagner’s Ring Cycle, and Eliza Doolittle in My Fair Lady with Richard E. Grant, among others. In September, she will play the Mother in Metamorphosis by Brian Howard.
Her numerous other credits include Michal in Barrie Kosky’s production of Handel’s Saul at the Adelaide Festival and Hanna Glavari in Graeme Murphy’s new production of The Merry Widow for West Australian Opera.
On March 11 this year, having already had chemotherapy to help reduce her tumours prior to surgery, which she had kept largely secret, Fiebig put a post on her Facebook page in which she said: “I’ve been trying to find the words and the best time to let you know… And now that my singing commitments are finally done, I can. I have ovarian cancer and on Tuesday I will have surgery, where my bits and pieces and a bit more will be removed, then 3 more rounds of chemotherapy while healing back to full recovery.”
She talked about having to pull out of WAO seasons of La Bohème and The Cunning Little Vixen, and about having performed that afternoon in Strauss’s Four Last Songs with the Tinalley String Quartet and Daniel de Borah at the Adelaide Festival. The experience, she said, had had “a feeling of being both inside and outside the music at the same time. The beauty, the meaning, the ache and peace of it put me in a time and place I’ll never forget. I was moved to tears by the standing ovation. It was a connection with the audience I’ve never felt before. They didn’t know I have cancer or that I’ve been thinking about my own mortality in sharp focus, but it was as though we were all sympatico to the music’s meaning and we understood each other.” Three days later, she posted that the operation had gone very well. Now, just two months on, she is about to return to the stage.
Taryn Fiebig as Susanna in Sir David McVicar’s The Marriage of Figaro for Opera Australia. Photograph © Prudence Upton
Fiebig and Arthur agree to talk to Limelight at their Elizabeth Bay home. Fiebig looks lovely in simple but beautifully tailored black pants and soft, loose white top with a “boiled egg” head as she quirkily puts it. She has a wig, she explains as she makes tea and coffee, but it feels tight and constrictive so when she can she prefers not to have to wear it. Later, Arthur quips that they will open a bottle of champagne after she has her first haircut.
There had been some discussion prior to the interview about whether she would discuss her health, but Fiebig gives the go-ahead beforehand and is incredibly open and generous about it, with Arthur lending touching support. There is also lots of laughter between them about how they met, and how much it means to them to now be performing together in The Creation.
Haydn’s epic, life-affirming masterpiece evokes the creation of the world, drawing on the Book of Genesis. It is structured in three parts with the three soloists representing the archangels Raphael (bass), Uriel (tenor) and Gabriel (soprano) in Parts I and II, and the bass and soprano representing Adam and Eve in Part III.
The Sydney Philharmonia Choirs’ performance will take place at Sydney Town Hall, with more than 350 singers. The Company’s Music Director Brett Weymark will conduct, with The Metropolitan Orchestra appearing with the Phil for the first time.
When the season was announced, another bass soloist was scheduled to sing alongside Fiebig and tenor Nicholas Jones, but when they had to pull out Arthur was thrilled to take part. “I had recently worked with Brett at the Adelaide Festival in [Brett Dean’s] Hamlet,” says Arthur, “and we spoke about The Creation when we were there. As soon as the opportunity came up, he thought it was a lovely story – particularly with Adam and Eve – and I thought it was really nice that he’d given me the opportunity.”
“Any opportunity to sing with Taz is great because we don’t do a lot together. We do a lot of corporate stuff together but something like this will be really special,” adds Arthur.
The two of them met at Opera Australia. Fiebig (who started her career as a cellist) joined the Company’s Young Artist Program in 2004 and was an ensemble member until 2010 when she became a freelance artist. Jud started out as a professional sportsman representing New Zealand in showjumping and playing three years of professional rugby in Italy before a knee injury forced a career-change and he began singing. He arrived at OA in 2002 where his many roles include Fafner and Hunding in the Ring Cycle, Timor in Turandot, the Bonze in Madama Butterfly, and the Commendatore in Don Giovanni among many others. In July, he plays The King in Aida.
A huge photograph of him as Fafner in Siegfried, sitting naked inside his cave and applying an actor’s motley make-up to his face, while a giant image of his face shows on a screen, sits on the wall in their hall, bought as a Christmas present for him by Fiebig.
Jud Arthur as Fafner in Siegfried. Photograph: Jeff Busby
Asking how they met leads to all kinds of funny stories, and laughter about what they can and can’t say. Essentially, for two years after Arthur’s first marriage split up he kept asking her out. “She’d just laugh at me and walk off and I thought, that went well,’” he says with a big laugh.
“You were nice, but I never honestly thought of him that way,” says Fiebig, who was previously married to musician, composer and collaborative artist Iain Grandage.
Then after she had been on a trip to the UK and was feeling dreadful jet lag, he offered to let her use his room which was just across the road from the Melbourne Arts Centre where OA was playing, while he rehearsed. She said no, but the generous, if rather flirty, offer made its mark.
“From that moment, I felt myself blush from my toe nails to the roots of my hair and I thought, ‘oh!’,” recalls Fiebig laughing. “And he said something very cheeky and I blushed even harder and I said thank you for that very kind offer but I will sleep in dressing room 21. Anyway, that night I was all dolled up to the nines for the opening night, and decided to go to the bar afterwards and then I saw Jud there. And it was within six hours where the whole chemistry changed… Anyway that’s how we met.”
They have both sung The Creation before – Arthur about 20 years ago with the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, and Fiebig with conductor Johannes Fritzsch and the Canticum Chamber Choir in Brisbane in 2009.
“I am looking forward to singing it again, it will be remarkably different I would imagine,” says Arthur. “I went and caught up with Brett a couple of weeks ago and we went through it and I put all of my movements on my phone and I just sit in the car and that’s my session. I sing it every day or other day just to familiarise myself with it. It’s funny how I have like an elephant memory with music, it becomes ingrained so that much of it has been coming back. It’s funny because I started to sing it the way I did 20 years ago because it’s all those muscle memories, so I had to revisit it with a new technique.”
Fiebig, who works on her scores at the piano, is also finding that a lot of it has come back pretty quickly. “The hard bits are not as hard anymore but as you play it, it comes out of the grey matter. It is amazing what the brain retains. But it really does put you in a time and place, you go back to the person you were doing it at that time, the maturity, what you were like, it’s like a portal really, it’s weird.”
Taryn Fiebig and Alexander Lewis in The Merry Widow at the West Australian Opera. Photograph © James Rogers
“It’s lovely to sing The Creation after what I’ve been through. It’s the first thing back singing after surgery and treatment. The last thing I sang before treatment was the Four Last Songs and now it’s The Creation. The symbolism hasn’t passed me by – because I am a different person to the one I was six months ago. I’m actually quite naïve by nature and I expected everything to just come back [after surgery and chemotherapy] and it would be the same – but no.” She laughs and then is quiet. “No.”
Asked if there was ever any question that the operation would affect her singing, she says: “I just said to the anaesthetist, ‘this is my instrument can you please be so, so super-careful. Could we do something above the larynx?’ and he said ‘not for this major surgery, but I will be so careful’. I didn’t sing, I didn’t test it [at first]. Then after the second chemo I waited the first week, which was just awful, and then I gently tested it and it was completely there. When they went in, the prognosis wasn’t great. They said, we may have to reset your bowel – I was measured for a colostomy bag – and we may have to strip your diaphragm.”
“Which would have meant you wouldn’t be singing now, that’s for sure,” says Arthur.
In fact, she didn’t need surgery on her diaphragm. “It was just a full hysterectomy, the appendix and the peritoneum. So that’s all been stripped, removed. But I’ve been able to maintain quite a positive attitude around it all, and stay on task, and not be too morose about it, just put complete faith in my doctors who are absolutely heaven. I tried to lead as normal a life as possible. The worst thing for Jud was not to be able to do anything because he’s such an able person and so helpful.”
“I’m a fixer but I couldn’t do anything for Taz other than support her, it was just her and the oncologist and the doctor, and that for me was really hard. I wanted to pull out of Hamlet…” says Arthur.
“But I said absolutely not. He wanted to pull all the ranks in and stop everything and we’d sit and watch each other for six months. That would drive me crazy because I’d be worrying that he was worrying, so I didn’t want that. I said there’s no way you are pulling out of Hamlet because I want to go and see it,” says Fiebig.
Taryn Fiebig, Jud Arthur and Jo Litson at the interview. Photograph © Julie Clark
As to her decision to share the news on social media, she says: “I decided to wait until I’d finished all my commitments as I said in that post. I didn’t want all my performances to be about that, I wanted it to be about the music. But strangely after the Four Last Songs it was a standing ovation and I just burst into tears because I’d been holding it for so long. It had been such a private moment until that time, just close family and friends, and then there was this tsunami of affection that just came over me, it was extraordinary actually. I hadn’t had an idea that my life had touched so many people. Lots of them I didn’t know, but the power of music and what we translate to each other, having never even met – that felt really special. And I thought, I had done well in life when that all came back.”
Cancer has, she admits, changed her. “You suddenly have the perspective that this is all you’ve got, make sure you do well in it. Look, if I was hit by a bus tomorrow I would say that I’ve had a good life, but I’m so glad I’ve been touched by so many people, I think that’s lovely. You often think that at funerals, if they’d only been here they could see all this, it’s all so lovely [but] the only person missing is the one in the box. It’s a bit like that and knowing you’ve done well. It’s a funny thing cancer. I think in one way…. Would I do it again? Would I have cancer again? Yep, I actually would [in terms of] what I’ve learned and what it’s taught me about myself, and about the people I love.
“Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I’m shit and sometimes I feel foul. But it makes you a better person. I work myself very hard and I’m very hard on myself. Now I have a myriad scars and I literally wake up every day and go, ‘OK, that’s right. I need to take care of myself’. If I didn’t have those scars I might go back to what I’d always done. So yes, it shakes you up, sorts you out. You get organised and you get organised emotionally, the things you don’t want [in your life] you address because you don’t want them in your system any more. I’ve gone through the things that don’t work for me and as hard as they may be to address, you address them and get rid of them,” she says.
She has stopped drinking alcohol just because it wasn’t agreeing with her, and she has introduced meditation to her life. Beyond that, knowing that she has friends and family, as well as work to look forward to, gives her the lift she needs.
“For me it’s having a sense of purpose,” she says. “If I didn’t have that, if I didn’t have a sense of purpose, I think that would be difficult.”
The Creation plays at Sydney Town Hall, Saturday May 26 at 5pm