Fun with Opera – Jason Barry-Smith reveals some secrets

Barry-Smith as Banjo Patterson in Waltzing Matilda - Photo:  Rob Maccoll
Barry-Smith as Banjo Patterson in Waltzing Matilda – Photo: Rob Maccoll

Gillian Wills talks to Opera Queensland’s baritone Jason Barry-Smith about Rossini, Oklahoma, six pack abs, bullock trains, stage disasters and next week’s “Operatic Night of Fun” presented by 4MBS Festival of Classics.

“I tend to make a program a surprise. If people know what they are going to hear they make decisions. They know how they want to hear a piece. If you catch them by surprise they can go on a journey with you and not be distracted by set ideas or a map. They are free to enjoy the beautiful vista they are walking by”.

Barry-Smith says a firm “no” to whether Wagner and Verdi are scheduled for an Operatic Night of Fun. As it is two hundred years since these whopping rivals were born the question had to be asked. Instead, he says the musical trail follows Puccini, Rossini, Mozart and Kurt Weill. It slips out accidentally that Cole Porter’s “The Tail Of The Oyster” could be an encore.

About the program, the Baritone says, “I’ve chosen important things from my career and songs of importance to me. I’m singing a Figaro aria as this is a role that fits me like a glove and a Rogers and Hammerstein duet People Will Say We’re In Love with the glorious soprano Emily Burke. Oklahoma was one of the first records I raided from my father’s collection. I was in love with Gordon McCrae’s voice.

The mercurial Barry-Smith laughs infectiously, cracks jokes and leaps wildly from one topic to another in the discussion. It’s risky. I don’t want to spoil the generous mood by asking, but doesn’t a teenager hero worshipping Gordon McCrae smack of nerdiness?

“Yes I’m a nerd. Totally. I was mad about Star Wars from the age of 7-15 and collected all the figurines Garth Vader, Queen Jamillia and the rest. I was also fascinated by classical music and fixated on Gilbert and Sullivan. I listened to Pinafore and Iolanthe, sang the songs, learned the words and then started to speak like a Victorian gentleman. When I was 24 this served me well. I was employed as a chorus member for several of Simon Gallaher’s productions”.

Barry-Smith will sing two surprises from Mikado in next week’s concert.

Dr Malatesta in ‘Don Pasquale’
Dr Malatesta in ‘Don Pasquale’

This performer is not one of those who finds the recital dauntingly exposed. Communicating with a smaller crowd is important.

“I want to get intimate with the audience. I love it. Intimacy for me is a really important thing. It’s pleasurable when you have an audience close. I adore singing opera but on the downside there’s twenty feet between you and the first person you can reach in the front row”.

I like to announce the songs and be amusing. I make people feel at home, the music accessible. It’s about celebrating the gift someone like me has been given. It’s a two way street. I have a community of followers in Brisbane as supportive to me as I want to be to them”.

Is it true from your experience that you can’t be a guru in your own village?

“OK … I made a choice that Brisbane was the place I wanted to have a life as well as sing but not as a globe trotting star. You can’t have both if you don’t travel. It’s a choice. A long time ago I asked myself how do I make this work if I’m based in one place. I like to think I have a big skill base and can contribute more”.

The “big skill base” is something of an understatement. Versatility is Barry-Smith’s middle name. He’s not only a soloist but composes, arranges, conducts, is a creditable actor and, as a strong communicator, he is commandeered to entertain at important functions such as the launch of the Festival of Classics at Government House last week. And, he is Opera Queensland’s Creative Director of Open Stage, a demanding and popular community enrichment program.

Will there be a special look for the evening?

“Always there has to be glamour, it’s important. Costuming is a glamour thing, a uniform. I tend to dress up in clothes that make me feel fabulous. I need the help. I don’t have the muscled shoulders or six pack abs”.

Can you tell me something awkward that has happened to you on stage?

“Years ago I was giving a joint recital and had to cover my associate’s costume change. I learned an unknown piece. I memorise songs by knowing the story. When the pianist gave me the cue to come in I couldn’t remember the first line, so I went into that part of the brain that had spirited away the story and retold it in my own words in rhyme. Amazing what adrenalin can do.

Apparently, uncomfortable moments are not expected because Barry-Smith, soprano Emily Burke and pianist Narelle French are so in sync as performers that if something happens all three instinctively fall in line and make it right.

“The other piece programmed because it has the greatest connection for me is “The Dying Stockman” an Australian folk song based on a Banjo Patterson poem. I arranged this for Waltzing Matilda the music theatre piece Opera Queensland tours into regional areas. I wrote this with my wife. My Dad’s family was from Barcaldine. My grandfather was called George Smith. Born on a bullock train George became an itinerant shearer”.

Mum and Dad were good singers. Dad was the church organist. The family is musical, Betty Beath is my cousin. In a different time, Dad could easily have been a professional musician. And perhaps that’s why he approved of my career path. He would tell me, you get one life so please choose something that you bloody well like doing, something you have a passion for”.

I think music is something that goes far beyond what I realised as a younger person. It’s a chance to share what it is to feel. Performance is therapy. A lot of people don’t feel happy expressing their emotions. Music lets us enjoy them by channelling them into something else. I want people to be enlightened when I sing. No way could I imagine my life without music”.

The Baritone is close lipped about it but an aria from Rossini’s Cinderella could well be included in next week’s concert. Barry-Smith is playing the Prince’s valet Dandini, a streetwise, playful lad who assumes different accents and cockney slang in Lindy Hume’s eccentric new production of Cinderella in July.

Jason Barry-Smith, Emily Burke and Narelle French in an Operatic Night of Fun, 4MBS Festival of Classics, 17 May at 7pm. 

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