Phantom of the Opera: Murray Dahm talks with Naomi Johns

March 25, 2022 by Murray Dahm
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Naomi Johns was very excited to be involved in her first-ever Opera Australia publicity when I spoke with her ahead of the opening night of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Phantom of the Opera production which opens tonight.

Naomi Johns as Carlotta
Photo: Prudence Upton

This production represents a whole series of firsts. It is the first outdoor production of the Sir Andrew Lloyd Weber show which opened on London’s West End in 1986 (and Broadway in 1988).

I spoke with Johns on the morning of the dress rehearsal and excitement for the production was reaching its peak. This was following some unprecedented challenges (which had nothing to do with this new production, design or direction of the classic show). The unprecedented rain in Sydney in late February and early March meant the site for the Opera on the Harbour was a mudbath and this delayed work on the set – work which was already on a tight and rigorous schedule. Sixteen tonnes of mud had to be trucked away from the site in order for work to proceed. All cast and crew pulled together to overcome this theatrical ‘curve ball’ (somehow the baseball term remains more appropriate than a cricket term – I can’t imagine saying something was like ‘unexpected reverse swing’). Johns was full of praise for all involved “everyone on the crew are magic!”. Johns actually flew into Sydney the day the rain started (a big change from hot (48 degrees) and sunny Perth – a shocking change of scene!).

Added to all this, a certain Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber is in town and arrived at rehearsals unannounced (three days before the opening night!), just to add to the pressure and excitement of the production which runs until April 24th; his appearing unexpectedly might be like that of the phantom in his own Phantom. Johns is performing the role of the diva Carlotta Guidicelli and when I asked if there were any opera personalities she was using in her portrayal, she was upfront and told me that she was channelling her grandmother! Playing Carlotta is a bit of a departure to Johns whose diet for Opera Australia (understudying Madam Cortese in Il Viaggio a Reims in 2019) and West Australia Opera (playing Berta in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 2021) has been Rossini. Well, not that much of a departure since, before studying at the Sydney Conservatorium, Johns studied at the Western Australia Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA), doing a year of musical theatre and studying classical voice with Molly McGurk. She then got a job on the Opera Australia tour of Stuart Maunder’s production of My Fair Lady for 18 months. Carlotta is, however, Johns’ principal debut with the company – “I’m very much loving it” and she is “so incredibly grateful” to be doing a show of this magnitude.

In between those recent Rossini productions, of course, has been the international disruption to all things Arts by the covid pandemic (daily Rapid Antigen Testing for all cast and crew has been another necessary aspect of preparing for this production). Johns is enjoying throwing herself into Carlotta (actually a big sing) and these upcoming shows of Phantom. After all the disruptions to performing and the busy schedule of rehearsals and performances will be an intense nine weeks away from family in West Australia (although she is keeping them up to date with regular zoom calls!).

Johns has an appreciation of those who have gone before her – so understands who has sung Carlotta before her and where she fits into that history. At this point we digressed into the subdivisions of operatic coloratura singing – and a discussion of what kinds of Carlotta there can be (Johns counts herself as a ‘corposa’ coloratura – the Italian for ‘full-bodied’ – a fabulous (and perhaps new) vocal designation). Adapting her classical technique to the needs of singing with a microphone (and performing eight shows a week) has been a “negotiation within myself.” Johns is an “old-school Bel Canto singer” so singing without tension and trying to sing everything “free and easy” is what she comes back to (so her warming up for Carlotta involves ‘Porgi, amor’ (from The Marriage of Figaro) or ‘Ah! non credea’ (from La Sonnambula)). She is conscious to not overweight the singing of Carlotta even though the character is over the top.

I cheekily asked if aspects of this outdoor Phantom, for which it is famous inside the theatre, had been replicated. Avoiding any spoilers, Johns’ told me that the producers have “done some magic”, and made it exciting with integrity to the Phantom everyone knows – “it looks like Phantom and it feels like Phantom”. So, along with an evening of entertainment under the stars which has never been seen (no exaggeration there!), and fireworks, technical wizardry will also be on display to make this a night to remember.

The Phantom of the Opera will run from 25 March–24 April 2022

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