A voice to die with

 

THE sleepy sidestreets of the quiet south London suburb of Putney seem about as far removed as you can get from the tempests and tantrums of international operatic life. Which is perhaps why the Australian soprano Cheryl "Barker chose to buy a house and settle down there - only to find that, sleepy or not, her particular Putney sidestreet is also home to a pianist, a musicologist, a playwright, a teacher from the Royal College of Music, Queen Elizabeth's press secretary and the well known arts writer and man about town, David Mellor. Enough domestic dramas among that little lot, surely, to make EastEnders pale into insignificance.

In her sunny kitchen on the morning after her final performance in an acclaimed production of Sir Michael Tippett's opera The Midsummer Marriage at the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, however, Cheryl Barker is the very model of relaxation and calm. True, she is mildly concerned about the whereabouts of a rabbit which she is minding for a friend and which is, as we speak, wandering about upstairs chewing its way through any computer cables which come its way. But only mildly. After the dizzying athleticism expected of her in The Midsummer Marriage, coping with a marauding rabbit is kids' stuff.

"Quite a swashbuckling role, isn't it?" she chuckles, her speaking voice vivid with bright Antipodean vowels. Swashbuckling is an understatement. Within minutes of her appearance on stage, Tippett's New Age heroine ascends to the heavens on a revolving spiral staircase; shortly afterwards, she is required to plunge fearlessly into what appears, from the vantage point of the orchestra stalls, to be a bottomless pit.

"I felt like Don Giovanni jumping into hell," says Cheryl Barker, with another delighted chuckle. "But there's a platform underneath, on a hydraulic lift, so it's actually quite easy."

With a huge globe dominating the stage and required to open in various different permutations, Graham Vick's Midsummer Marriage was the sort of show which has no shortage of potential technical disasters. But despite the obligatory behind the scenes drama at Covent Garden which has become so familiar to viewers of BBC 2's television series The House, the impressive effects, including the spiral staircase, all behaved with smooth efficiency. Was it even a tiny bit scary when the staircase moved majestically upwards?

"No," she says, sounding a tad disappointed. "The first day at rehearsal they pulled it up really fast, and it was great; I love all those funfair rides and things, and it was just like going up a roller coaster - you know the bit just before you `whoosh' down again? But then they slowed it down. It was a bit tame after that, to be honest."

HERE, clearly, is a singer for whom the acting element of opera holds no terror. In fact, Cheryl Barker set out to be a professional actress and only began to study singing in a structured way when her husband, the baritone Peter Coleman Wright, encouraged her to do so. "We met at, school in Australia, played opposite each other in a school production of The Boyfriend," she says. "He got me interested in classical singing and I ended up studying with Dame Joan Hammond at the Victoria College of the Arts in Melbourne." Which was, in itself an education for a minister's daughter whose childhood was filled with popular and sacred rather than classical music - to study with someone who had herself reached the heights of operatic fame.

"That gave me great confidence. And she also taught you to believe in your destiny - in fate - and now that has become my way of handling rejection. Because there's a lot of hurt in this career. You read a bad review about yourself, or you go for an audition for a job that you want and you don't get it. She always talked about things happening at the right time and how the slow way is the best way; that you have to be, ready to pounce on the opportunities that are there, but if you wait they'll come to you eventually.

At the moment Cheryl Barker doesn't have to worry unduly about bad reviews. On the contrary, her name is consistently mentioned in a "likely bunch" of brilliant young sopranos currently poised on the brink, and which also includes Angela Gheorghiu, Galina Gorchakova and Amanda Roocroft. Barker has worked hard to get where she is, beginning with the lighter Mozart and Rossini roles and gradually working towards the Verdi and Puccini heroines with whom, she says, she feels the greatest affinity.

"In general I try and find a bit of my character in each of the roles I play rather than try to create a person who is alien to me. Nedda in Pagliacci, I feel very close to. And Butterfly." Butterfly? Isn't she Cio Cio San, that is a little on the passive side eternally waiting for a husband who is obviously never going to return? "No, funnily enough, she's strong, and stubborn beyond belief, because everybody tells her to give up on Pinkerton and marry Yamadori instead, but no, no, she's fixed on the fact that he's coming back for her. She's quite deluded, but very strong. It's wonderful.

"And stabbing yourself at the end," she adds suddenly. "I like that bit, too." Should one ask why? "Ah, because there's so much emotion that you have to suppress the whole way through the opera - there are so many disappointments for the character you can't let it overtake you or you'll just burst into tears. And then at the very, very end, just before you kill yourself, you just let it all flood out. I'm always a blubbering wreck at the end of it."

DYING on stage is, of course, almost de rigueur for Verdi and Puccini heroines, and Cheryl Barker will be doing it in Dublin tonight when she sings Violetta in Lyric Opera Productions' semi staged La traviata at the National Concert Hall. She confesses so special fondness for this role, partly because of its perfect vocal fit - "it's like putting on a lovely soft pair of shoes that are really comfortable, you know that feeling" - and partly because of her fascination with the subject matter. "I love when you can do a bit of research into the real person. I went to see the grave of Marie Duplessis in Paris last month, it's amazing, people put camellias on it - and in the book, there's a bit at the beginning that tells you how much she spent on her carriages and on her clothes, the equivalent of something like £750,000 a year, can you imagine? And she died at 23."

Opera being opera, of course, dying "live" is not always as straightforward as it seems. Later this year Cheryl Barker returns to Australia to do a third run in Baz Strictly Ballroom Luhrmann's hugely popular staging of La Boheme, shown on British television last Christmas. It began life as a touring show at the Victoria State Opera, was taken over by the Australian Opera - on a shoestring budget - to give Luhrmann an operatic outing, and grew, thanks to Luhrmann's realist, kitsch free direction and the palpable rapport between the four principals - "we're all buddies, we used to go out and kick a football up and down the street during rehearsal breaks" - into a phenomenon.

Among the show's most celebrated moments is the scene in which the tenor, Rodolfo, places in the hands of the dying Mimi the little embroidered bonnets which reminds them both of happier times. Except that on one memorable evening, it didn't quite work out that way.

"So there was," recalls Cheryl Barker, "dying in the chair, and Rodolfo went off to find the bonnet. There was a bathtub on stage with a plank across it and it should have been sitting on the plank, but it had fallen down underneath somewhere. At that point everything sort of stops in the opera until he comes back with the bonnet, when I sing `la mia confietta, la mia confietta'".

"Anyway I'm in the chair facing the audience and he's rummaging's around in the bathtub and all you" can hear are bottles falling over and all these panicky noises - I look at the conductor and he's just hysterical, laughing his head off, and the audience has started to do that uneasy titter, you know. So finally Rodolfo arrives back to my chair, and what does he hand me? A hubcap. A hubcap." If you can die with a straight face after that, you deserve to live happily ever after.