November 2006

Maybe it's time to break the mould


By JILL SYKES


At any time, David Hobson might well wake up wondering who he is that day - opera singer, TV star, recording artist, composer, performer of one-man shows...

But, as it turns out, his top priority is none of the above. Maddy, aged eight, and Sam, five, make sure he knows he is Daddy first, and husband of Amber. Then comes the singing career.

Yet the question remains: how does he see that kaleidoscope of a career? "I am a singer. A singer of all sorts. A bit of a composer. Every day is different. I have a regimen of vocal maintenance, which keeps you disciplined. But after that...I don't have that ‘vaulting ambition’ quality. I want to be working and sing well, and work with people I like. And I love my life here in Australia - in Melbourne."

Not that he has had too much time in his home city this busy 2006, in which he has not only had a long Sydney run as Frederic in The Pirates of Penzance, two CDs released but also an astonishing climb to TV fame in the knockout singing competition It Takes Two. Like the celebrities dancing and skating on TV, this show combined the talents of a seasoned singer and an inexperienced performer. As the weeks went by, Hobson and his partner were still there - and they won!

"It was fun," he says. "And it also got a bit of an audience. I know we've had a lot of people come to Pirates performances on the strength of seeing the TV show. And they've bought CDs of classical music. That's been positive. Maybe not quite the Three Tenors - but if you break down the barrier a little bit, it helps."

The Opera Australia production of The Pirates of Penzance: Anthony Warlow as the Pirate King, David Hobson as Frederic. [Photo: Branco Giaca]

The Pirates of Penzance is a strongly cast production by Stuart Maunder with Hobson playing the romantic lead opposite Emma Matthews initially, and then Taryn Fiebig for the Sydney season. This ends on November 4 and is followed by performances in Canberra and Brisbane before Christmas, Adelaide in January and Melbourne in May.

Does Hobson enjoy the role he is playing so often? "You have to love your character, whether he is a monster or a lover." But isn't that easy to say when his natural charm and good looks, along with his lyric tenor, usually gets him the lover role? "But I am wondering if it's time - I think it may be time to break the mould. Soon. I don't know what it's going to be, but I have a few thoughts.

"I tend to have been a kind of romantic, quintessential lead guy - which means I have been able to sing a lot of beautiful music. I cannot ignore that. And I have been fortunate to have some exquisite leading ladies. Emma and Taryn in Pirates. Cheryl Barker, Yvonne Kenny, Amanda Thane, Miriam Gormley, Frederica von Stade, Rachelle Durkin in Candide in Perth - I can't complain."

But not many angry scenes? "I have been cross a few times - but not cross enough. But, look, I am a lyric tenor. I don't have a dramatic voice. In terms of performance, though, I would like to explore some different roles."

Later, talking about his "inordinate amount of self doubt - I am never happy with what I do" - he focused on the process of preparing a role. "You do it because you love the preparation and the research and the soaking in of the music. But ultimately we are children getting up on stage, getting attention. On a very basic level. Yet you are doing something you love, and that must be so rare. The relationship with colleagues is part of the joy of doing it. I love being part of the band - that was what I enjoyed about my pop days. The idea of an ongoing relationship in an ensemble is something I really cherish."

Hobson as Orphée in the 1995 Australian Opera production of Orphée et Eurydice. [Photo: Lynn McColl]

Interestingly, when asked his most memorable operatic role, it was Orphée in Orphée et Eurydice - and partly, it seems, for the was a beautiful production. I felt very privileged to have done it. I had a very special relationship with the director, Stefanos Lazarides, and with the choreographer Meryl Tankard." As Hobson describes it, with only three principal characters, chorus and dancers, there was a very close rapport between the performers and the creative team to "get rid of the clutter" and allow the opera to "become about primary expression."

But what about Rodolfo in Baz Luhrmann's production of La Bohème, his most celebrated role? "I remember that being a very special time. I remember thinking that opera wasn't for me, just before being asked to do it. Although I loved opera, at the time I didn't feel part of the scene. Then I had a meeting with Baz, and he told me what he wanted to do, and I thought, that is how I would like to do it as well. So I will do it. But I had a get-out clause in my contract because I was doing something people said I should not be doing - and we finished up with a great hit!" Yet he doesn't feel as strongly about Rodolfo as Orphée in terms of personal satisfaction. "The thing about La Bohème is that it is all there for you. It is so brilliantly orchestrated that you don't have to do anything more than what is on the page. I see Bohème like a road map. You just have to believe it."

He would like to sing some more Rossini, but Mozart is at the top of his list. "Così fan Tutte is one of the greatest operas to be in. You come offstage after the first great quintet and think: ‘It's not going to get any better than that.’ Then you stand on the side of the stage and they sing the trio and you think, mouth agape: ‘This is just ridiculously beautiful’."

In a conversation that turned, passionately, for a while to the state of the world, political and corporate power, climate change and the lack of water in Australia, we came back to a problem for opera in today's world in that it is not the wallpaper music that a young generation is accustomed to. "It actually requires more input from the listener than, say, music coming at you at 400 decibels. It's like going to an art gallery. The picture is not going to jump out from the frame at you and tell you what it is and how to enjoy it. You have to make the effort to go there and look at it."

In the variety of music that he has included on CDs - one this year a mix of opera and film music -- has he been driven by a sense of evangelism? "Not really. But I guess because I can be a slight conduit, that I have a little bit of that responsibility. The CD Presenting David Hobson was brought out by the ABC because of my exposure on commercial television, and the tracks were chosen to appeal to a new audience. And people have enjoyed it for the mixture of material: basically classical but also film music and a few things I wrote."

Amongst a range of CDs, The Exquisite Hour is all French art songs and Cinema Paradiso is all movie music - songs written specifically for films. "Having written some film scores, that's an area I am interested in." Yet, pressed on the topic, he is not so sure about writing more. Having entered the arena with David Hirschfelder, best known for his musical contribution to Shine, he had high hopes. But practical experience showed that "it was more like being a craftsman than a groundbreaking composer" so his enthusiasm has waned.

He has also written a one-act opera, performed by Oz Opera in Melbourne, and has thought of fleshing it out. But he has doubts about operatic language being suitable for writing about today. Yet even as we pursue this, going through the list of contemporary operas that he has been in - The Eighth Wonder and Lindy, amongst others - he admits how much he loves modern opera. "But it's almost anathema: telling stories about today in such an old language. It's very hard to make it relevant."

Hobson has found a meeting of performance challenge and audience contact in solo show. "I do little one-man shows where I go around, mainly with piano but next year there might be an orchestra...The first half is mostly opera and art song, then I do lighter stuff in the second. I find it very confronting but I really enjoy it. You don't have other performers or an orchestra to rely on, just the pianist - and I take my guitar as well.

"I go out to places in country Victoria - Benalla, Shepparton, Geelong, Hamilton - where they often have fantastic art centres. The people who come would rarely go to the opera in the city, though with Oz Opera touring, they do see some. It's very demanding but very rewarding. You have to touch people in a very real way. And the feedback is genuine. It's more exposing to sing to a small group of people than to millions on telly or on the stage with an orchestra: I find it much more terrifying."

Nonetheless, he has plans he can't reveal at this stage - but watch out for a David Hobson one-man show coming to a theatre near you in 2007. It just might happen.


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