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Opera’s tragic heroines should remain centre stage: singers

One of Australia’s leading sopranos, Cheryl Barker, who has played the title role of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly, said the opera speaks to strength in the face of persecution, and any suggestion that “poor tragic figures in opera not be performed because they offend people is absolutely ludicrous”.

Jacqueline Dark: There is public hunger to see presentations of women that are more complex and less traditional.

Jacqueline Dark: There is public hunger to see presentations of women that are more complex and less traditional.

“Everyone’s a victim in opera, but oftentimes they might seem to be a victim when in fact they are incredibly strong women who make their own choices, whether it is to take their own life or to kill someone else,” Barker said. “If you try to be too politically correct in these things it makes for a very boring opera.

“Opera is about drama and something has to happen in an opera, there has to be some kind of victim – whether it is a male victim or female victim – and it’s still relevant today in the fact we can see these people cope with the fact that they are being persecuted.”

There are ways to bring classic opera works up to date to help them resonate with modern audiences, as has occurred with the collected works of William Shakespeare. Dark said she would be fascinated to see how a female director might bring Madama Butterfly’s plight to the stage.

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“There is a real hunger in the public at the moment to see presentations of women that are more complex and less traditional,” she said, referring to the popular acclaim of Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Mary Stuart.

“I’m one of those Pollyanna people who think that with creativity you can find magic. You can get the most misogynist play, or the most misogynist opera or an opera with no agency and turn it on its head,” Dark said. “I think it’s doable, I really do. I think you can present pieces in different ways and make them say different things. I truly believe you can.”

While Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini agreed there should be a conversation around women’s representation in art, he said the work of the great composers remained crowd-pleasers.

Still, Terracini said Opera Australia remained committed to modern works, commissioning Whiteley by female composer Elena Kats-Chernin among other original works.

Both singers saw the need for a balance of female voices at board level and as artistic administrators across all art forms.

“If there are no female voices helping drive the company there will be no female voices to drive female outputs,” Dark said.

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