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Go behind the scenes for insights on our recordings, our artists and our future plans. Follow our artists' schedules and share the excitement of their journeys.

Barker now wants to call Australia home

Friday, 12 December 2003 - 12:00am

It's an ill wind that blows no one some good. Or in this case, an ill blizzard. An early snow storm in New York and an airport shuttle mix-up meant that Cheryl Barker got to tackle The Weekend Australian Financial Review's questions before her marathon flight to Melbourne, from husband Peter Coleman-Wright's temporary digs on West 70th.

Not that Barker is especially susceptible to jet-lag, mind. She's the kind who jumps in the shower as soon as she gets home - in this case her parents' home in Geelong, where she's headed - puts on her track suit and tackles her mail before giving herself permission to pass out. "I can't relax," she says, "until everything is done." And, well, you don't get to become an international operatic phenomenon without discipline.

Though Barker and Coleman-Wright have been living in Putney, in Greater London, for 19 years, and their careers - and voices - overlap more than most husband and wife teams, the best breaks tend to break them up. Coleman-Wright is in New York, this month, performing in an obscure opera by Berlioz at the Metropolitan Opera ... so obscure that the Met took 165 years to get around to it. The role of Fieramosca is, nevertheless, too great an opportunity for the baritone to pass up.

Meanwhile, Barker has been tackling the title role in Janacek's Katya Kabanova for L'Opera de Geneve. The miserable and neglected Katya, oddly enough, begs her husband Tichon not to leave on a business trip.

Katya is a new role for Barker, and sung in Czech. "Although very difficult to learn musically, and in a new language for me, I loved it. And it was a great production by Katie Mitchell, a British theatre director." Barker reprises the role for the Welsh National Opera, in a touring production, in the northern summer.

One also senses that Katya represents the kind of challenge that Barker is increasingly keen to take on. "I don't care if I never sing Mimi again," she says, of the role which brought her international attention. Careful not to sound ungrateful, she explains: "I think I took her as far as I was able within the confines of her illness."

Katya is far better suited to Barker's dramatic sophistication and finesse, and exploits the increasing weight of her voice which is so apparent in a new solo recording of Puccini songs and arias recorded and released by Melba Records.

An aria from Le Villi and the magnificent Sola, perduta, abbandonata from Manon Lescaut are especially magnificent.

Intriguingly, Manon Lescaut is a role Barker has never performed. "I was offered it a couple of years ago but didn't think I was ready. I feel I am probably ready to sing it now."

Barker is also game to take on even more taxing roles, such as Strauss's uberheroine Salome.

The new CD, Puccini:Passion, Barker's first solo recording, was made at the South Melbourne Town Hall with Orchestra Victoria and Richard Bonynge .

Producer Maria Vandamme approached Barker's agent, Jenifer Eddy, to ask if the soprano might be interested in recording.

"Peter suggested a Puccini disc and Maria liked the idea. I discussed some of the repertoire with my friend Moffatt Oxenbould and he suggested the Puccini songs of which I had never heard. He had an out-of-print book which included several of Puccini songs and Maria organised for Brian Castles-Onion to orchestrate them.

"It was great to work with Richard Bonynge, too. I had always been in awe of him and was very excited to finally get the chance to work with him. I found him wonderful to work with and very supportive. He is a real singer's conductor."

By not using multi-track recording, costs were minimised and atmosphere maximised. But each blunder meant the abandoning of a take. "We would rehearse an aria with the orchestra, then record, sometimes up to seven times. Maria is a perfectionist. I remember one day Richard said, 'My dear, you have stamina like an ox' - I took it as a compliment."

That same stamina has kept Barker on the road since July with no prospect of getting to her own bed in London until March.

After catching up with family in Geelong she will visit the town where she was born, Sydney, for a month or so, and where she is also planning to return to live so that their son Gabriel can go to International Grammar School.

Barker and Coleman-Wright are lined up for Opera Australia's production of Verdi's La Traviata, which opens at the Opera House in January. Coleman-Wright will play Germont to Barker's Violetta. Yep, that's right, Barker gets to play her real-life husband's would-be daughter-in-law. And Anson Austin plays Alfredo, Germont's son.

Utterly unphased, Barker explains that Austin "still looks about 25" and sings wonderfully. More to the point, "Peter is a great Germont," she says, "and I love singing on stage with him."

Coleman-Wright's most extraordinary performance in Australia in recent years was in the title role in Gale Edwards' production of Sweeney Todd - Sondheim's operatic musical about "the demon barber of Fleet Street" - also for Opera Australia. In it, Coleman-Wright sang a passionate love song to his beloved razors.

Though missing the production's Sydney premiere, Barker caught up with Sweeney later that year.

"I was amazed by [Peter's] performance. I would hear about the difficult rehearsals, and the hard journey he had to take, on the telephone each night and didn't get to see it until Melbourne, but Gale Edwards did an incredible job and Peter says he would travel anywhere to work with her again."

The chemistry between this particular soprano and her baritone has been exploited with grim and sublime results, as when Barker sang Tosca to Coleman-Wright's Scarpia in David McVicar's production for the English National Opera, earlier this year.

One critic described Barker as "one of the most exciting interpreters of the role in years ... beautiful, vivacious, sexy ... Because her voice is so secure - and her acting so compelling - you almost stop noticing her voice: it's Tosca you hear, not Cheryl Barker."

With a poker face, Barker says: "It was a joy to stab Peter each night. Seriously, just having him on stage with me during that scene was incredible. He supports me just by being there and I know he sings every note with me. He is very charismatic on stage - and focussed - which helps with the tension."

Also recommended for tension, according to the soprano, are "television, Twisties and large-size Cherry Ripes".

Puccini Passion: The Richard Bonynge Edition, featuring Cheryl Barker and Orchestra Victoria, is available on Melba Recordings.

Chris Boyd
Weekend Australian Financial Review

Cheryl Barker