West Australian Opera – 1995-2005 – a view from the trenches……

It seems like only yesterday that, having moved from London to Perth two years earlier, I joined West Australian Opera as Head of Music in 1995, with Lindy Hume as Artistic Director.

Richard Mills was appointed Artistic Director in 1996 and the thirtieth birthday of WAO was celebrated in 1997 both with a Gala Concert at Perth Concert Hall and a series of four recitals featuring Young Artists of WAO and guest singers from Perth and Sydney.

The Gala Concert was held at Perth Concert Hall, featuring Perth singers Elisa Wilson, Jolanta Nagajek, Bruce Martin, young WAO singers in various ensembles, the WAO Chorus and WASO, conducted by Richard Mills. The programme was a decidedly eclectic mix of operatic ‘lollipops’ and choruses, with operatic orchestral works featuring WASO.

I’d love to be able to say that the lasting memory of that concert was enjoying the wonderful music created on stage. However, reality prevails. Actually making the orchestral parts was the lasting memory. For those who are unfamiliar with this task – imagine creating twenty operatic excerpts from twenty different operas, multiplied by whatever the number of orchestral players involved – probably over forty players – all with clear instructions pencilled on each score, before photocopying all the parts.

Nevertheless the careful work paid off, and thankfully no disasters befell the players faced with multiple excerpts on the music stands.

Over the period of ten years, many lasting friendships were forged and some beautiful voices were discovered and developed: James Clayton, Aldo Di Toro, Rachelle Durkin, Caitlin Hulcup, Sara Macliver, Paul O’Neill to name but six, and with chorus members ‘stepping up to the mark’ in character or comprimario roles, this was always a delight to see and hear.

Looking forward to working with some singers and conductors was always a mixture of happy anticipation – or concern! You knew that some conductors would always inspire and reveal new musical insights, while others were capable of euphemistically ‘making waves’ – and from the keyboard perspective “oh where’s that beat?!!”

Referring to old diaries, I wondered if I’d seen daylight during some seasons! Production Manager Mandy Farmer reminded me that 2004 was a particularly busy year. We began  with Richard Mills’ modern classic opera Batavia, set in Western Australia. Chorus rehearsals were first.  A great deal of work had already preceded these actual calls, with Chorus members voluntarily attending pre-rehearsal calls in order to prepare the difficult music. Opera in the Park chorus calls also ran concurrently. Batavia studio rehearsals and performances continued, closely followed by Cinderella rehearsals. Baby Grand Opera, the WAO ‘touring’ performance was appearing in Mandurah during Cinderella calls, including some cast members from Cinderella. Next was Carmina Burana for His Majesty’s Theatre Centenary Celebrations with Faust music and production rehearsed during the Carmina preparations, and three weeks later Norma chorus calls began, closing the year in early November. However! – annual chorus auditions followed, and a final Baby Grand Opera in Broome. This was a memorable occasion, when tenor Paul O’Neill was asked by a genial dinner guest “Mate, when didja know yer were a soprano?”

During all of these various rehearsals, Young Artists programmes were planned.  The ‘YAPS’ were coached, cajoled, encouraged gently – and sometimes not so gently – and reminded of the standards required in this most demanding of art forms.

Yes, it was hard work, but everyone fulfilled their job description to the utmost, ensuring that all ran smoothly and bringing the ‘jigsaw’ together seamlessly at the end. Mary Peck was a wonderful Artistic Administrator, working above and beyond the call of duty to ensure no detail was overlooked. Most importantly, Accountant Ian Adams made sure everyone got paid! Production Manager Mandy Farmer was always ahead of the game, pointing out stage production details that might challenge singers – forewarned is always forearmed. Artistic Director Richard Mills never interfered with the daily detail, but was always there with answers or solutions. And of course, leading us all, the imperturbable Carolyn Chard. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’ – surely a motto for the arts in general, and especially that indescribably wonderful art form of opera!


Marilyn Phillips

Head of Music WAO 1995-2005


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