Australian Opera leading lady, Jacqui Dark talks about the challenges of performing Verdi in conditions so bad, even Noah would refuse to take the ark out.
I love storms. LOVE them. Love the rain. Lightning. Thunder. The whole kit and caboodle. As a kid, I used to stand outside in the deluge until mum dragged me inside to ‘save me from being struck by lightning’ (a tad unlikely at around 4 foot tall). Never stopped me – I’d sneak back outside as soon as her back was turned.
I am, therefore, EXACTLY the right sort of person to cast in the role of Princess Amneris in Opera Australia’s AIDA for Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (or HOSH, as we affectionately call it). We perform on a massive, custom-built stage floating on the Harbour, with a glorious view of Sydney Opera House and the city behind us, costumes glitzier than mardi gras, fireworks and spectacle for days! An extraordinary view and experience for the audience. All done outside on an open stage, with no protection from the elements whatsoever.
We’ve had a couple of shows now where the weather has been, shall we say, less than ideal, and I’ve had a gazillion people ask me what it’s like to perform under those conditions, so I thought I’d throw together a quick sneak peek into backstage life for me under the giant Nefertiti head!
Firstly, EVERYONE involved with HOSH, from the boss Lyndon Terracini down, has at least three weather apps on their phone, and checks them hourly. More often on dodgy days. If it’s looking grim, an email pings into our inbox from OA Company Office saying that
we’re implementing the ‘wet weather plan’ (we all have the option of wearing clear ponchos and carrying umbrellas) or the ‘windy weather plan’ (less of the massive flags make it onto stage, to minimize the likelihood of folk taking to the air, flying nun style or being conked on the noggin by a heavy, flying object).
Rocking up to my dressing room, which is a kind of custom-built, small trailer that I share with Aida (Daria Masiero) and the High Priestess (Eva Kong), there are towels all over the floor and the head of stage management pops her head round our door to say “There will be rain tonight. 100%. I’m not gonna lie; it’s not going to be pretty out there.” Woo hoo! There’s a sense of trepidation in the air, but also a sense of camaraderie and excitement, as the weather always presents unique challenges that we face together and (hopefully) conquer. Long afternoon rehearsals in the heat of summer, with sunburn, sunstroke and sole-burn from feet on a sizzling hot stage have toughened us up and we’re feeling like the last folk left on the island in an opera edition of Survivor. We are strong. We are one. We are opera, hear us roar!
But back to the rain. Some performers grab ponchos and don them early, as they have to wear the same costumes all night and if they get wet early on, it’s a verrrrry long night for them! I’m being brave/foolish and deciding to forego the poncho and also the full-body thermals that I’m offered. My costumes are so divine (bless you, Mark Thompson) that I feel the audience should have the chance to appreciate them fully, and I only wear a costume for an act at a time before changing into another one, so they can be hung up to dry as soon as I finish the scenes. (A hint of pride and yes, perhaps vanity, may also be involved in this decision.) SO, I don my first costume – a red, sleeveless chiffon number with absolutely no warmth or protection – and trudge out the back of the set to the outdoor steps leading up the The Head and my entrance position. As soon as I hit the outside air, I start rethinking my decision. The temperature is around 9 degrees, according to the last 5-minute check of everyone’s weather apps (which, as a Ballarat girl, I scoff at – a veritable heatwave), but the wind chill factor is unexpectedly high, and I feel it immediately. I scurry up the steps and take refuge inside The Head, rubbing my arms as I await my entrance. As soon as I’m on stage, I forget about the cold and the rain and just wallow in the glory that is Verdi and his extraordinary score and this extraordinary role that I get to sing 3 times a week … until, that is, I have to run up a steep, wet flight of stairs and stand exposed at the top, the wind whipping my wet frock around my wet stockings on my wet legs. Whipping one layer of chiffon smack bang across my FACE, so for two minutes I’m singing through a red sheen of wet fabric. Ah, the glamour of the opera stage! Next hurdle – hoisting aloft a heavy gold flag and waving it regally as I slowly circle the stage. As it flaps viciously in the rising wind. As it flaps mercilessly across my face, which seems to be a magnet for stray bits of wind-whipped fabric tonight! The horror! My only consolation is that it must have looked bloody hilarious for the audience, so they’ll at least have got a giggle as they shiver under their blankets and snazzy blue poncho provided by the opera company for just this eventuality. OH, how I covet those ponchos right at this moment!
The audience! This is the other extraordinary thing about a performance in inclement weather. For some reason, it seems to create a bond between audience and performers. It’s as if they’re saying “Good on you for continuing in this crappy weather, which must be utterly miserable in your skimpy costumes” and we’re saying right back “Good on YOU for staying in your seats and respecting and enjoying what we do so much that you’ll tough it out with your thermos of hot tea and stack of warm blankets”. Good on US! Yay team! We’re in this together and you can FEEL it!
Back on stage, I finish the scene and race off to my dressing room, peeling off the now saturated red chiffon number and donning my full-body gold sequined dress. It is heaven! Not only is it gorgeous, but it has ARMS! Woo HOO! Feeling positively Bahamanian (thanks, Corky), I slink onstage and bask in the warmth that is a fully sequined sheath dress with a gold armoured breastplate. Yes, you heard me – try penetrating THAT, bitch wind! Running off stage for my quick (70 second) costume stage, even MORE elements are added on top of my dress. Fans, bodices, a massive gold and blue cloak which trails for metres behind me. THIS is the life. I’m as warm as a warm thing and glowing with the healthy joy of someone who is wearing an awesome costume for which she wants to kiss the costume designer. I complete the huge finale to the first half of the show, sing the famous Triumphal March, enjoy the fireworks, and then spin around to exit up the red-carpeted steps. And come to a complete halt. It feels as though I’m being held back by the hordes of armoured men who fill the stage … but no, the reality is that my cloak is wet. Wet and somewhere around 6 million metres of fabric. It’s like dragging a dead body up the stairs, and I suspect my effortful departure was cause for more glee for the audience. I don’t mind – they’ve earnt it, with their freezing feet and gorgeous, gorgeous camaraderie. I exit, pursued by a cloak.
Dressing room. Costume change. Blue chiffon. Sleeveless. Light. FREEZING.
I’m in this one for the rest of the show, but once I make my entrance I’m singing for basically the whole time, so know that I’ll lose myself to adrenaline and the character and not be too concerned. I suck it up. I enter and sing … and remember that this is the act in which I throw myself down on the ground. Multiple times. On a wet stage. In a thin, sleeveless dress. Suck. It. Up. Down I go, and it is immediately absolutely freezing. The dress is saturated in seconds and clinging to me like a wet banshee devil. It grabs my body and veritably sucks the warmth right out of me. I finish the scene. I exit, shivering. The wonderful chorus girls, who have huge blue cloaks in this act, have been surrounding me and enveloping me in group hugs to try to keep me warm. It is a delicious respite from the cold.
Final scene. I sing this one from inside the eye of the huge, ruined Nefertiti head that is our backdrop. We climb and climb and climb. The higher we get, the colder it seems. I make my entrance into the eye on cue … and it feels as though I’ve been dropped in a barrel of ice. The wind pierces my skin and the wet chiffon snakes around my legs. My arms break out in goosebumps on top of goosebumps and my whole being starts to shiver, teeth chattering. I sing my final lines, steam streaming out with my breath, and then race back down the stairs for curtain calls. Beyond cold. Wondering what the hell I was thinking turning down the full-body thermal, which would have looked kinda hideous but possibly saved me from hypothermic shock.
And then I walk out for our bows. The crowd are all still there and go wild for everyone, clapping and stamping their appreciation for this endurance test that we’ve all just survived. We are wet. We are freezing. We are in this together. We have shared something special here tonight, you and I, and we have come out the other end with memories that will stay with us for a lifetime and become more and more glowing as we sit at home in the warm, defrosting with a cup of hot, sweet tea or a brandy. This night will stand out in our experiences as something visceral and extraordinary, and I want to hug everyone who has shared it with me. And then steal their blue poncho.
Jacqui is performing with fellow OA star Kanen Breen in their utterly filthy cabaret – Strange Bedfellows and The Vanguard on the 29th April and 3rd May BOOK HERE
They will also be performing at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival 5-7 June and Queensland Cabaret Festival at Powerhouse 14th June.