After three years and only two performed shows before being shut down from the COVID-19 pandemic, Opera Australia’s Attila finally premieres in Sydney. Soprano Natalie Aroyan talks about her heroine character, Odabella, as well as working with live horses on stage!
The King of the Huns meets his match.
No one can stand before Attila and his hordes, until a warrior woman turns his head. As he opens his heart to his prisoner Odabella, the barbarian king reveals his weakness. The scene is set for one of the great revenge operas of the 19th century: an early Verdi in the vein of Aida. In the prelude, a mournful cello draws you down into the gravity and turmoil of war. Verdi’s score is full of darkness, rhythm and life, displaying the composer’s gift for creating emotion.
This co-production with La Scala was a tremendous success at its Milan premiere. It’s a “blockbuster spectacle” (Financial Times), with four vivid characters, two live horses and plenty of crowd scenes. Director Davide Livermore fuses video projections with colossal set pieces to create an awe-inspiring world for Attila. Taras Berezhansky to perform as Attila. Natalie Aroyan is Odabella with Diego Torre as Odabella’s lover Foresto. Mario Cassi performs as the Roman General, Ezio.
Tickets for Attila can be booked at: https://opera.org.au/productions/attila-sydney/
Attila is finally premiering after it was meant to be performed, about three years ago now, isn’t it?
This is the third year now. Third time is a charm and all. Nothing’s going to stop us now, that’s for sure.
The original production only ran for two performances. Is that right?
Yeah, that’s right. So, we got to opening night and the second performance, and then we heard this thing about COVID shutting everything down. We had no idea what was happening. And then the entire season just started shutting down and shutting down production after production. And then the following year we started up again. And the hard thing about being in this COVID situation is the not knowing when this sense of normalcy is going to come back or if this is going to be the new normal. Now anything can happen at any minute. You can be shut down at any moment. So, the second time we were doing the production, we didn’t even get to the general production, and we were shut down again because of COVID.
How did you persevere throughout that?
Well, to be honest, it was quite difficult. It was quite difficult to stay motivated and to stay positive, even though the world around you is crumbling down. I had a lot of great support from my family and my friends who are checking in and making sure I was okay and doing all the right things. And I still tried to maintain normalcy, still practising, keeping my vocal fitness going. Because if you stop doing that, it’s just like an athlete if an athlete stops training those muscles, they can get tired, they can get unused to what’s coming ahead. So, I had to keep doing that. Keep doing that. I still think positively that, yes, it’s going to come back. Yes, we’re going to get back to normal. Yes, we’re going to be in front of a live audience once again. But it’s, you know, that sense of uncertainty of what’s going to happen at any minute, that was quite scary.
You’re playing the character Odabella, who is the heroine of the piece, it’s quite rare to have heroines in Opera.
It is. Well, what I love most about this opera is that unlike many operas of the past, this opera makes the woman the heroine of the story. Odabella is a warrior princess in her own right, and she doesn’t need the man to save her. She doesn’t need a man to come in and save the day and protect her. It’s up to her to save her people and deliver them to freedom. She’s full of courage and determination to avenge her father, who has just been killed by this Attila and these evil Huns. And, you know, it’s up to her to save her people. So that’s what I kind of love about this role, is that it’s a lot of girl power, and I love that in a production.
It’s very similar to superheroes I suppose?
Yes! Those that we see like Wonder Woman. It’s probably one of the closest roles I’ll ever get to doing Wonder Woman which makes me a very happy superhero fan.
How have you approached playing Odabella throughout the piece?
Well, yeah, Wonder Woman is a big inspiration for me for this character. Being Armenian as well, my background, my heritage, it kind of prepared me for this kind of mentality war mentality. The war going on now as well, in Armenia. So, kind of like, all these life experiences and past experiences have all kind of adapted into one being. And I’m able to portray this woman, this strong, courageous woman, and I just kind of imagined myself how I would have reacted in those times and today, and just trying to bring that character to life because, you know, these kinds of themes are still running in the world today, as you can see in Armenia, Ukraine. It’s just all over the world now.
The production itself is quite a spectacle, you have two live horses on stage. How have you found working around them? Do they often steal the show?
To be honest, they always steal the show. So don’t ever expect to get the biggest applause at the end of the show if there’s a horse in your production. No, it’s so much fun because I love horses. So having a production with not only one, but two beautiful horses, and they’re so well trained. And their trainers are with them on stage, in costumes the entire time, so it’s all very professional and they’re very good, they don’t get spooked. They’re very well trained, these horses. So, it’s amazing because there’s a lot of gunshots and things and loud opera singers. We’re not that quiet to be singing right in the face of a horse. So, it’s just amazing how professional these horses are.
You’ve had an illustrious career. You’ve worked your way up to becoming a principal singer with Opera Australia. What’s been one of your most rewarding experiences on your path to becoming the performer that you are today?
I think one of the most rewarding things is all the support that I’ve been getting from this company, from every single member of the faculty, from the chorus, especially as well. They’re so supportive on stage. I remember my very first opera, La Bohème, and the stage management were holding my hand just before I got on stage, Ben and Miranda, and I remember telling them to give me give me all your strength so I can go on. And they said, “No, no, you can do this”. I went on and enjoyed the most amazing first performance of my life and I had the chorus there cheering me on and it was just kind of the support and the comradery in the company is just amazing. That’s one of the strongest things that have made me the person I’m today. That constant guiding, especially from my mentors of the Opera Australia world, Lyndon Terrancini, Artistic Director, took a chance on me. He gave me my first role and he’s kind of mentoring my career, giving me all the right roles at the right time. So, it’s been just an amazing kind of journey from beginning to where I am now. Nothing was ever rushed; nothing was ever forced. Everything happened at the time it was supposed to happen, and I just had an amazing support system around me.
In the opposite of that, what would be one of your most challenging experiences?
Every performance has its own challenges. A lot of the time we may not be 100% well. So, singing while you’re not 100%, if you’ve got an allergy or a cold or something and you’ve got to sing, you’ve got to pull through, you’ve got to lead the opera. You’ve got the title role and so you have the responsibility, the pressure, and you just got to make it happen. You just got to trust in your technique and just carry on with the show because the show must go on.
My Mum has always left the opera fascinated to know what happens after the curtain closes. What do you do? What is one of the things you do as soon as that curtain closes?
Well, it depends. I think in the beginning of my career, I would have just gone home and not spoken and just gone straight to bed. But nowadays, because I’m a lot more confident, I’m a lot more at ease on stage, so it’s a lot less stress. And so, yeah, I might go for a drink afterwards with some of my friends or family or fans that have come up to the show. Or I may just as well stay up a bit later anyway because the adrenaline is still pumping through my body, so it always takes a while to kind of wind down anyway.
Regarding Attila, what do you think audiences are going to get out of this production?
I think they’re going to see a huge, beautiful spectacle with amazing, beautiful Verdi music. They’re going to see some great sets, some amazing costumes, there is some unbelievable singing from a bunch of great ensembles of Opera Australia. And of course, they’re going to get two live horses as well. The storyline of course is all about girl power and revenge, and the women being the hero of the story; it’s one of the main highlights, I think.
Lastly, if you could summarise Attila into one word for audiences what would that be?
In one word? Revenge, or Justice. I would say Justice because [Attila] gets what he deserves in the end.
Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan holds a Postgraduate Diploma of Opera from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and a double-degree in Business and I.T. from the Australian Catholic University. She is a winner of the Opera Foundation New York Competition, Herald Sun Aria, and the Italian Opera Foundation Award which enabled further studies at Mannes College, New York and the Accademia di Bel Canto, Italy with Mirella Freni. Natalie’s roles with Opera Australia include the title role in Aida, Rachel (La Juive), Elena (Mefistofele), Odabella (Attila), Mimì (La bohème), Elvira (Ernani), Amelia Grimaldi (Simon Boccanegra), Desdemona (Otello), Micaëla (Carmen), Eva (Die Meistersinger, Helpmann Award nomination) and has featured at Opera in The Domain, Sydney Myer Music Bowl, Uluru and Great Opera Hits. Natalie has also performed Mimì and Marguerite (Faust) for West Australian Opera; Micaela for Sugi Opera, Korea; Amelia Grimaldi in Bari, and Aida in Busseto; Verdi Requiem in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne; QSO’s Opera Galas and with Melbourne Symphony Orchestra. Natalie Aroyan is supported by Roy and Gay Woodward.
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