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WAO Playlist Series VIII Curated by Penny Shaw

This week acclaimed soprano Penny Shaw shares her Opera playlist. Penny’s playlist features arias from Don Giovanni and La Traviata and songs from beloved musicals West Side Story and Pirates of Penzance as well as a track from her own son Finn Pearson. Read and listen to Penny’s playlist below.

Waltz in A-Flat Major – Johannes Brahms

One of my earliest musical memories is listening to my mother playing the piano, she would play just after I’d gone to bed, and I would sneak down and ask her to play this Brahm’s Waltz. I can’t have been more than 4 as I also clearly remember begging to be allowed to learn the piano (my brother had lessons) and being told I would have to wait until I was 5. I don’t know if it was a favourite because she played it well or for some other reason but I still love it, particularly with all the correct notes!

How Beautifully Blue the Sky – Pirates of Penzance

Around the same age, my Mother must have tired of endless piano recitals for Princess Penny and bought me a cassette player and some Gilbert and Sullivan tapes which I was allowed to listen to after lights out. I played them endlessly and still, I know all the words to all the parts of both The Mikado and HMS Pinafore. I think Gilbert and Sullivan are hugely, underrated and certainly, for me, they were pivotal in learning the joys of listening to a story told through music. They are also such an important part of community theatre, both in the UK and here in Perth. When I was 14 I was cast as Edith in The Pirates of Penzance in a youth theatre production, I had the time of my life and so I’ve chosen this track for my playlist. Mabel and Fredrick look like they are getting together so Mabel’s many sisters, lead by Edith, do the only decent thing, they close their eyes and talk about the weather!

Tonight – West Side Story

I began having singing lessons age 13 after an appearance in a school concert wearing pointy ears, a tail and some whiskers singing, of course, Memory from Cats. I really wanted to be Elaine Paige when I grew up but my voice had other ideas and my singing teacher steered me into the operatic repertoire. She wanted me to apply to Music College so I could become an opera singer; my parents wanted me to go to university so I could get a proper job. My compromise was that I would apply to Oxford University where I could still study singing with my current teacher and, if I failed to get in I would apply to Music College the following year. Somewhat miraculously I was offered a place but my parent’s ideas of university leading to a proper job were misplaced! Whilst I was a student I scored my dream role of Maria in West Side Story, such drama, high notes, dancing at the gym, a dream come true!

Protegge il Giusto Cielo – Don Giovanni

The same semester as West Side Story I was also involved in a production of Don Giovanni where I played Zerlina, the saucy peasant girl who almost gets seduced on her wedding day. I was considerably less excited about playing this role, opera was still very alien to me, not to mention very embarrassing but by the end of the run I had fallen for Mozart, opera and my leading man and I never looked back! People often ask me what inspired me to become an opera singer and I always reply that I decided to become an opera singer simply because I was in an opera. I went on to sing the role of Donna Anna many times as a professional and I’ve chosen the trio at the end of Act 1 when Donna Anna, Donna Elvira and Don Ottavio arrive at Don Giovanni’s party in disguise, steeling themselves to apprehend him.

Sono Andati? – La Bohème

While I was still a student I was lucky enough to perform 2 other major roles in operas, the title role in Undine (British Premiere and never performed since as far as I’m aware!) and Violetta in La Traviata and I went to every opera production that passed through the city, student tickets were cheap and I would go on my own. Welsh National Opera’s production of La Boheme made a particular impression on me. I cried not only during the show but also throughout the interval because I had read the synopsis and knew what was coming! By this point in my life I was obsessed with Maria Callas (I still am, to be honest!) I have chosen her recording. Towards the end of Act 4 Mimi and Rodolfo enjoy some time alone, she knows she is dying, he insists everything will be OK. Get the tissues out!

Miserere d’ un alma – Il Trovatore

After Uni I packed up and moved to London determined to audition for everything and anything and landed the roles of Papagena in The Magic Flute and Inez in Il Trovatore for a small touring company touring the UK and Hong Kong. It was there that I heard proper, fully formed and magnificent operatic voices up close for the first time and they blew me away! I would sit in the rehearsal room in awe, astonished that I was being paid to be there. Il Trovatore was performed and recorded in memory of the late Freddie Mercury and the premiere was attended by Montserrat Caballe in 1993 who, to be perfectly honest looked bored to tears but it was exciting for us to meet her!  The opera was also one of the first operas I appeared in for West Australian Opera back in 2002 and Act 4 is one exceptional piece of music after another but I have chosen the Miserere; monks, prison, death…this has it all. Leonora remains on my list of dream roles and here is being sung by the wonderful Joan Sutherland with Pavarotti chiming in from the tower.

Un di Felice, Estera – La Traviata

My next lucky break came in the form of an audition for Travelling Opera, who were looking for a chorus girl who would also understudy the lead, Violetta. Having already played the part in a community theatre production I had the edge over the other sopranos, it is a fiendish role and understudies rarely get any stage time so the experience is essential. Nevertheless the first time the lead soprano became sick and told the company she would not be going on they must have called every Violetta in England before putting me on stage…but no-one else was available and on I went! I was 23, very photogenic and a great story for the media and went on to sing the role throughout the UK and France and it has always been my absolute favourite. Hard to know which bit to pick but I have gone for this duet where Alfredo, Placido Domingo, is earnestly declaring his love for Violetta, Ileana Cotrubas, who is pretending she is not interested!

L’altra Notte in Fondo al Mare – Mefistofele

In the mid-90s I had a friend who had a friend who wanted someone to sing some opera on a dance music track, before the days of ‘classical crossover’ this was unthinkable! Someone put my name forward and off I went to the studio armed with my favourite arias, the end result of which was the song ‘Drifting Away’ on the platinum-selling album Reverence, by UK band Faithless. I am not going to choose the track itself for the playlist, (how tacky that would be?), but I am going to choose the original aria, from Boito’s rarely performed opera Mefistofele; a brilliant portrait of madness and despair, perfect for the 90s club scene and beautifully sung here by Anna Netrebko.

Chants d’Auvergne – Bailero

Moving to Australia and having a baby was not really on my ‘to do’ list for 1999 but, after finishing a year’s contract in The Phantom of the Opera, that is exactly where I found myself; in Fremantle to be exact. Having a baby is quite a stressful business and my musical tastes shifted away from the death and destruction I had always loved and to some of the more soothing repertoires. New Mothers are supposed to get the ‘baby blues’ on day 3 after having a baby, I have a vivid memory of listening to Renee Fleming’s album The Beautiful Voice on repeat on my CD walkman, looking at my beautiful baby and literally crying all day. But good, cathartic, grateful crying! I have chosen the last track on the album but the whole thing is heavenly and I highly recommend it.  Particularly after giving birth.

The Firebird Suite Finale – The Firebird

I have so many fabulous memories of singing with the West Australian Opera, working with wonderful artists and participating in countless amazing productions over the last 20 years. I have been lucky enough to have brought up my 4 children in this fantastic city and have had many opportunities to write and perform my own shows, notably, DivaLicious appearing on Australia’s Got Talent and taking 3 of our shows to the Sydney Opera House and, pre-COVID, on cruise ships. Our industry, along with many others, has been decimated by this pandemic so I have chosen Stravinsky’s The Firebird, reminding us that when this is over we shall rise from the ashes once again! Turn up the volume.

Housing Estates – Finn Pearson

If I can sneak in one last track, the baby who was subjected to so much Renee Fleming is now at WAAPA and writing his own songs. A lifetime of listening to opera, and indeed appearing in Tosca age 10 with West Australian Opera, has rubbed off on him I think so I’ll finish with one of his compositions. Spot the subtle opera reference and enjoy the drama!