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Glamorous opera star turns teenage boy for Theatre Royal debut

Australian mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman talks about her operatic mischief-making in The Marriage of Figaro

Left: ©www.benjaminharte.co.uk; Right: © Clive Barda 2015 Helen Sherman
Helen Sherman

Looking through mezzo-soprano Helen Sherman’s long and glowing CV, you can’t help thinking: all that just to end up standing on stage with a chamber pot on your head!

But the Australian is thrilled, as a patently glamorous 30-year-old, to be playing a daft teenage boy in the Mozart opera.

Of Opera North’s production – coming to Newcastle next week – she says: “It has been really, really well received and I’m not surprised, to be honest, because the process that we went through to create the show was so enjoyable and the team was so fantastic.

“I really hope it gets the recognition it deserves. It has been lovely to be in a show that everyone believes in so much.”

Mozart’s comic opera is one of the most frequently performed around the world and its music – probably rattled off between breakfast and lunch – is about as immortal as music can be.

A sequel to The Barber of Seville, it chronicles the madcap exploits of a single 24-hour period – the intended wedding day of Figaro and Susanna.

Figaro’s master, the Count, appears to have a lascivious eye on Susanna. The Countess is heartbroken but is herself causing the sap to rise in Cherubino, a page boy – which is where Helen Sherman comes in.

As you might expect of someone whose job is to portray him, she regards Cherubino sympathetically.

“He’s always in the wrong place at the wrong time,” she says. “He’s a teenage boy who suddenly gets all these feelings and doesn’t quite know what to do with himself.

“He lusts after every woman he sees and it doesn’t really matter who they are. He’s very funny because he goes wholeheartedly into situations. He doesn’t hold back. He writes poems as well, and sings, because he’s quite an artistic fellow.”

© Clive Barda 2015 The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart; Opera North
The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart; Opera North

Driven by his energy and emotions – and hormones, clearly – he gets into what Helen calls “ridiculous situations”. He is, nevertheless, “a great character to play”.

History is full of female roles played by males but this was the reverse. It leads at one point in a madcap plot to Cherubino being disguised as a girl, which means a woman playing a boy pretending to be a girl – which would be hard to pull off without raising a laugh.

Helen, as reviews testify, does justice to both music and comedy. She pays tribute to the “fantastic translation” by Jeremy Sams and,of course, the “brilliant” score for providing the perfect platform for a soprano in a male role.

If that was what Mozart wanted, well, who are any of us to argue?

Explaining how she got into opera in the first place, Helen says there was music in the house when she was growing up.

“My father is a farmer but he also a piano accordionist and has done some tours. When I was very young we used to play piano accordion and piano and we also got involved in choral things. My aunt was a choreographer in a local music society.”

Helen studied at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and in 2007 got to the finals of the prestigious Australian Singing Competition.

She won a scholarship to study at the Royal Northern College of Music in Manchester.

“I grasped the opportunity with both hands and it was fantastic. I intended to come here for a year and then go back to Australia but then the ‘Royal Northern’ gave me an international artist’s diploma in opera, I moved to London, married an English guy and I’m still here.

“I’m definitely settled here now but you could say my life got taken off in an unexpected direction.”

Helen has had some involvement with Opera North before, covering (or understudying) the role of Madam Butterfly in 2012, but this will be her first time at the Theatre Royal.

© Clive Barda 2015 Left: The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart; Opera North; Right: Helen Sherman as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro
Left: The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart; Opera North; Right: Helen Sherman as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro

She is no stranger to the North East, however.

In 2012 she was one of the Samling Scholars who spent a week in the region undergoing the Hexham-based music charity’s intensive masterclass sessions which were followed – as usual – by a concert at Sage Gateshead.

Of Samling, she says: “It’s exceptional. It’s just one of those things that can really enhance your life as a young and emerging singer.

“It opens a lot of doors because you work with some fantastic people from the industry and you also make some good friends. It gave me an awful lot.”

The latest Samling week concluded on Saturday In Hall Two at the Sage.

One of those teaching was Helen’s compatriot, the distinguished soprano Yvonne Kenny. Who knows? One day it could be Helen Sherman standing in her place?

First, though, there’s her turn at the Theatre Royal.

Opera North are in residence all week from March 3 with The Marriage of Figaro on Thursday, March 5 and Saturday, March 7.

There’s a double bill on March 3 – La Vida Breve (Manuel de Falla) and Gianni Schicchi (Puccini) – and La Traviata, which was here in the autumn, returns on March 4 and 6.

Box office: 0844 8112121 or www.theatreroyal.co.uk

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