‘Songs to Die For’ was breathtaking.
A solemn song began to play as three crystal clear voices rang out through the room. Mourners dressed all in black proceeded to take to the stage, each with a large bouquet of flowers. The dark chant slowly evolved until it became the classic ‘AC/DC’ song ‘Highway to Hell’. ‘Songs to Die For’, the latest touring production of Opera Queensland, was a wonderful, if unexpected, production. The audience experienced dark, operatic songs and stories through the prism of cheesy, old-school TV show, with plenty of comedy to soften the experience.
The production incorporated songs from the last 400 years and focused on those involving or being somehow related to death. The skilled artists, who also helped devise the piece, jumped from traditional opera arias to modern rock ballads. The curious through-line being either that the piece was about death, as was the case with most of the arias, or the artist of the piece was dead before their time, as was the case with most of the contemporary songs.
To see the performers switch between pieces such as Carmen’s death aria to Amy Winehouse’s ‘Back to Black’, both sung by Jessica Low, was marvellous. In between these numbers, there was, ‘The Wheel of Destiny’, a bit where a wheel with various opera characters who have tragic or ridiculous deaths was spun and the audience was told the story of the poor soul it landed on. This wheel was accompanied by the ensemble singing, ‘Dumb Ways to Die’ in a fashion true to corny old school TV shows.
Though the contemporary songs were sung beautifully, the highlight of the show was when Opera Queensland’s singers cut loose and just did what they do best. The operatic numbers allowed the performers to showcase their training to its fullest extent, and they took every chance to blow the audience away. While some of the contemporary songs, particularly numbers like AC/DC’s ‘Highway to Hell’ felt a little too classical and lacked some of Angus Young’s traditional grit, the elegant backdrop they were displayed against detracted nothing from the production.
Extensive knowledge of opera wasn’t necessary to understand what was happening in the songs, for the ensemble would explain each of their characters before beginning the pieces. Some of the more classic songs were in other languages, but the artists carried the meaning of the songs through their whole body to tell the stories. That, coupled with the story explanations, allowed the audience to truly appreciate the pieces for their stunning musicality.
A standout piece from Act One had to be the operatic cover of Lithium by Nirvana. Completely translated it sounded like something straight out of classical opera. It was only after the piece was finished and the singers revealed the title that most of the audience recognised the song. This was an unbelievably clever way to take a contemporary piece and adapt it to suit the style of the performers.
The performers themselves were of course completely divine. There were five in total: a soprano, a mezzo-soprano, a baritone, and two pianists/singers, one of which also played percussion. Each performer had their shining moments throughout the piece.
Rebecca Cassidy was the brilliant soprano of the evening, her skills as a singer were completely unfathomable. Cassidy had such incredible control over her voice and a truly natural understanding of opera. She could hit piercing high notes with strength and force, yet could soften them down so they were barely a whisper.
The mezzo-soprano of the production was the lovely Jessica Low. Her beautiful rendition of Good morning Heartache captured the era and style perfectly. Not only that but her sudden switch during the third ‘Wheel of Destiny’ from cheesy host to confused woman was fantastic.
Both Low and Cassidy had a strong rapport and cleverly wove in a segment that explored issues of female safety and gender equality. They archly commented on how the ‘wheel’ had predominantly female names, and how not much has changed for women since the times the operas were being written. Low’s mellow tone complimented the clarity of Cassidy’s voice during their powerful duet Be Careful by Patty Griffin.
Jason Barry-Smith was the commanding baritone of the production, and he kept himself strong between the two female performers. His dynamic shifts from an authoritative leading man in an opera, to cheesy TV presenter, to rock and roll singer was wonderful to behold. He truly kept the production together, leading it through its many twists and turns.
The keyboard player Trevor Jones and percussion/keyboard player Scott Saunders also had their moments to shine vocally. Saunders opened Act Two with a wonderful original song, poking fun at opera and all the crazy deaths within. His skill in singing was matched only by his skill as a musician. Trevor Jones shone during the second song of Act Two, a mash-up that included him as the main “riffer” of Amazing Grace. Jones approached the song with skill and confidence, never missing a note he traversed the score with ease.
Closing out the production was a haunting rendition of a song from Dido sung in five-part a capella harmony. The vocalists proved themselves in this piece not just to be incredible soloists, but to also be skilled harmony singers, creating a lilting song that entranced the audience. Rapturous applause followed, and rightly so, for the performers truly are masters of their craft.
As the audience’s minds drank in the last notes of the awe-inspiring finale, there were calls for an encore. How else would one close out such a piece than with the classic, ‘Always Look on the Bright Side of Life’. The whole audience was on board, singing and whistling along with the performers, and it rounded out a truly beautiful night with laughter and smiles. Opera Queensland should be commended on such a wonderful and interesting production.
‘Songs to Die For’ concluded its regional tour at the Home of the Arts. For more of Opera Queensland’s upcoming shows, visit Opera Queensland’s Website.