In my quest to investigate all the independent theatre companies and theatre makers in Perth, I noticed that one of the directors I had previously interviewed, Sarah McKellar of North Sea Boat Terminals, was directing an opera for an independent opera company called OperaBox. I immediately wanted to know how on earth Perth could sustain an independent opera company, so I set about getting in touch with OperaBox and was told that Jenna Robertson was the woman to speak to.
Jenna Robertson is one of the six founding members of OperaBox and has performed in each of the four operas they have produced since 2011. For their latest work, Hansel & Gretel, she is also stepping into the role of producer. Jenna, a Scottish expat and chemical engineer by training, is currently on leave from that career to pursue her artistic ambitions. She originally trained in Scotland, but considers herself an Australian singer now, as her vocal style has flourished under the guidance of Australian opera singer Jolanta Nagajek.
When she first began singing classically, she was mainly a concert performer, but after having seen Lucia di Lammermoor at The Met in New York, she caught the acting bug and was inspired to pursue a career in opera. When she came to Perth she began attending acting workshops with local instructors such as Noel O’Neill, gaining the self-confidence go ahead with her goal of becoming an opera performer. She is now part of the WA Opera Chorus and was recently part of the massive chorus of WA Opera’s production of Verdi’s Otello.
In order to secure more opportunities to perform the roles they’d always dreamed of performing and producing, she and five other like-minded artists, including producer Suzanne Barton and actor Ethan Thomas, decided to come together to form OperaBox. OperaBox operates like a community theatre, where the profits from ticket sales go back into the company and all the musicians, production team and performers participate for the experience and the love of what they do. Robertson says OperaBox provides a space for professionally trained, developing artists, to beef up their performance resumes while they continue to train and seek out professional work where they can.
OperaBox’s debut production in 2011 was Mozart’s Cosi Fan Tutte, which saw sell-out performances in Darlington (in the Perth Hills), Perth College Chapel and Moore and Moore art gallery in Fremantle. They’ve continued with this formula of one-off performances in different locations around the Perth metro area and produced Puccini’s La Boheme in 2012 and Verdi’s Rigoletto in 2013. This year they’ve chosen Englebert Humperdinck’s Hansel & Gretel. Jenna says she hopes to stage two operas next year, but can’t confirm just yet which ones.
Jenna has actively sought out collaboration with theatre directors. Earlier this year she took on a side project with her newly formed production company, Love Opera! She produced and performed in Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief, staged at the Perth Town Hall for Fringe World 2014. For this production, she enlisted the talents of independent theatre director Kathryn Osborne, who is well-known for her award-winning work with the now defunct company The Duck House, and currently a member of the newly-formed company The Last Great Hunt.
After realising that working with a theatre director could offer new insights and a different collaborative perspective in staging an opera, Jenna decided to bring another well-respected independent theatre director on board for her next OperaBox production, and asked Sarah McKellar to direct Hansel & Gretel. This is Sarah’s first time directing an opera and, according to Jenna, she has risen to the challenge with aplomb. Jenna says that, much to Sarah’s surprise, the performers all arrive to staging rehearsals without scripts in hand, already off book and knowing their music, which is very different from what most of us have experienced in our theatre work..
Christopher Dragon, Assistant Conductor of the West Australian Symphony Orchestra, is on board again as musical director and conductor of the 28-piece orchestra; he was in the same role for OperaBox’s production of Rigoletto. First-time choreographer Claire Thomas is also joining the team, and incidentally this will also be her first time working on an opera. Jolanta Nagajek is acting as an adviser to the artists, musical director and director, lending her insights to the production.
This is a modern adaptation of the Brothers Grimm fairy-tale inspired opera that will be sure to entertain young and old. Jenna assures us that with a children’s chorus, plenty of action, dancing and spectacle, Hansel & Gretel is suitable for children. However she does remind us that the opera is sung in German with surtitles. There will need to be some help from parents for those children who aren’t old enough to read the surtitles for themselves. Once again, there will be three one-off performances in three different locations, Perth Town Hall, Victoria Hall in Fremantle (former home of Deckchair Theatre) and Darlington Hall.
Performance dates, times and venues:
Tuesday 27th May, Perth Town Hall, 7.30pm
Thursday 29th May, Victoria Hall, Fremantle, 7.30pm
Monday 2nd June, Darlington Hall 6.30pm (Public Holiday)