Opera Queensland opened their 2022 season with the world premiere of The Sopranos, a moving and visually striking new work which sought to emphasise and recontextualise the role of women and their stories within opera as an art form.
Written by award-winning Brisbane poet Sarah Holland-Batt and directed by Laura Hansford, The Sopranos was divided into two Acts, each of which included 10 pieces for a soprano from an array of classical and modern operas. Women were also at the core of the production, from the design to the onstage delivery.
There has been much discussion in recent years around the gendered violence in opera narratives (among other concerns, such as racial caricatures) and the ways in which opera’s women, even as protagonists, are so often victims of this. CEO and Artistic Director of Opera Queensland, Patrick Nolan, wrote in his program note that, “In the first half [of The Sopranos], we encounter women who are forced into untenable situations because of their gender. In the second half, trauma is still present, but this time women refuse to behave as they ‘should’”. The Sopranos was my first experience of a number of classic operas; however, in both Acts I encountered women tormented by impossible choices, subjected to madness and murder, but also rebelling against their circumstances with the limited power that was available to them.
The repertoire of The Sopranos spanned more than 350 years and five languages, taking in big names from the classical canon, from Monteverdi in the 1600s to Madama Butterfly in the early 1900s. One quarter of the pieces performed were from more recent works written by women, such as Peggy Polias’ 2020 one-act opera Commute, which recasts the journey of Homer’s Odyssey into one modern woman’s walk home at night. While these works are fictional, some immortalise the lives (and deaths) of real women and the very real violence that they suffered in their lifetimes, such as the Roman empress Claudia Octavia, and the Carmelite nuns who were guillotined during the Reign of Terror and so became the Martyrs of Compiègne.
The second last piece of the evening was the longest, the final scene from Act 3 of Eugene Onegin. In this piece, the titular character pursued Tatyana, whose declarations of love he had scorned when they were younger. Tatyana, now married, asserts that she still loves Onegin but that she will remain faithful to her husband, and questions whether Onegin is only interested in her now because of her wealth and social position. He denies this but she asks him to leave and, when he will not, leaves him alone. The inclusion of this piece at the end of the program left Onegin with the final word, not only in this scene but also in The Sopranos, as the performance concluded with the wordless Humming Chorus, and this felt counterintuitive to the production’s focus on women’s stories and voices.
Narrated by Nicoletta Bianca, Amy Lehpamer, Barbara Lowing, and Megan Washington, a voiceover helped to establish the context and emotion of each piece for the audience. This was especially helpful for someone, like me, who was not familiar with much of the operatic canon. The narration was used as a transition between many (although not all) of the pieces and spoke to the key themes of the entire performance in lyrical language, with overlapping voices and rhythms reminiscent of spoken word poetry. Supported by the projection of a name, place, and date as each piece began, this narration succinctly provided a clear picture of each character’s trajectory – where she had come from, what she was currently experiencing and, usually, how she would die.
The Sopranos saw 10 sopranos taking the stage in the various roles, supported by three baritones, the Opera Queensland Chorus, and Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The power and clarity of their voices and their emotion was astonishing, ringing throughout the Concert Hall. Queensland Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Jessica Gethin, was also positioned onstage and the intensity and volume of the orchestral music rose and fell masterfully with the singers. The voices were not overwhelmed by the musicians for the majority of the performance, even in the most passionate musical moments, but there was some overlap in the Act 3 final scene of Eugene Onegin.
With dramaturgy by Jane Sheldon, the staging of The Sopranos was filled with dramatic visual imagery, complemented by the striking costuming, and lighting design by Christine Felmingham. Mannequins upholstered in purple velvet created a further divide between the orchestra and the singers, blending with the Chorus when they stood onstage and occasionally acting as props in the storytelling. Subtle movement and expressions from the Chorus added further texture to the stage, and small physical interactions between the sopranos during transitions helped to strengthen the conceptual thread of the production.
Concept design by Marg Horwell and costuming by Karen Cochet and Bianca Bulley used a simple colour palette of red, white, and black to create interesting shapes and striking silhouettes that evoked haute couture. Each soprano’s costuming had layers, one of which she would leave onstage after her performance was finished. Arrayed on one of the mannequins placed between the singers and the orchestra, each character left this piece of herself behind, adding to the next woman’s story and building a collective backdrop of their passion, resolve, grief, and contemplation.
Surtitles were projected above the choir balcony, although only some key phrases were projected for the piece from Eugene Onegin. Live video projection was used to great effect, particularly in Mon coeur s’ouvre à ta voix from Samson et Dalila, showing the audience a different perspective of Tania Ferris’ Dalila as well as a closer view of the physicality of her singing.
The vocal performances throughout the show were consistently excellent, and each of the sopranos brought something different to the stage: Hayley Sugars was a self-assured Carmen and an emotive Dido, Tania Ferris was a stoic Claudia Octavia, and Katie Senzel gave a spine-tingling rendition of the well-known Queen of the Night aria (Der Hölle Rache) from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. Eva Kong performing Il dolce suono as Lucia was a standout for me; the unbelievable control and variation in her voice echoed in my ears, and I especially enjoyed her call-and-response with the flute. Eleanor Greenwood was also notable, gutsy and hopeful as Leonore from Fidelio and icily regal as Abigaille from Nabucco. Lisa Harper Brown was unable to perform on the opening night, and her roles were shared among the other sopranos – Dominique Fegan opened the performance as Tosca, Amber Evans performed the role of Sappho, and Eva Kong took on In questa reggia from Turandot, which she performed with sheet music. Impressively, Kong moved straight into this piece following her duet with Simon Lobelson, Mouth – see it, from the 2012 opera Written on Skin.
Salve regina from Les dialogues des Carmélites, sung by Amber Evans, Dominique Fegan, Tania Ferris, Hayley Sugars, Sofia Troncoso, and the Opera Queensland Chorus, was an incredibly moving conclusion to the first Act, with the harmony and richness of their many voices diminishing under the swish of the guillotine. Another personal highlights for me was the tense Please don’t die, Jan from Breaking the Waves, brilliantly performed by Sofia Troncoso and Michael Honeyman. The performance concluded with the Humming Chorus from Madama Butterfly with the full company onstage.
Although the thematic throughlines and poetic framework could be further refined, The Sopranos is an admirable and ambitious undertaking by Opera Queensland. While the same series of operatic excerpts could have been assembled for a “best of”-style production, the interrogation of these works through a modern lens, as well as the commitment to staging it with a women-led team, takes this operatic collage to a new height.
As someone who hasn’t seen much opera, I found The Sopranos to be an interesting introduction to a wide range of classic and newer operas, as well as a thought-provoking reframing of women’s stories within the canon. Dramatic staging, lush costuming, and sensational vocal performances made this a memorable evening.
The Sopranos will play at the QPAC Concert Hall from 29 March – 2 April 2022 and will tour regionally in May 2022 with dates and venues to be announced.