Man behaving beardly
Michael Magnusson chats with Victorian Opera’s Roxane Hislop about her role as the bearded Turk in The Rake’s Progress.
Victorian Opera is presenting The Rake’s Progress, one the few modern operas to achieve lasting success. With music by one of the century’s greatest composers, Igor Stravinsky, and a libretto by one of its greatest poets, W. H. Auden, it’s hardly surprising that one of the strangest characters in opera, a bearded woman, has helped keep it popular.
The Rake’s Progress restarted Auden’s opera career after a false start in 1940, when he wrote the words to an opera by composer Benjamin Britten, Paul Bunyan – which was as big a failure as Auden’s attempts at a relationship with Britten.
Converted into an opera addict by his new partner, Chester Kallman, Auden jumped at the chance to work with Stravinsky in 1948 and even enlisted Kallman into the project.
Based on the eighteenth century paintings by William Hogarth, The Rake’s Progress is written in the style of a Mozart opera and charts the downfall of young Tom Rakewell, who inherits a fortune, deserts his sweetheart Anne Trulove, and wastes his inheritance on whores and high living and dies, penniless in a lunatic asylum.
On the way, Auden decided Tom should marry an ‘ugly duchess’, who developed into Baba the Turk, who sports a moustache and full beard, the campiest creation in all opera and a role that mezzo soprano Roxane Hislop relishes.
“I love her, she’s a true Diva,” Hislop says. “Singing her I can do all the things one really can’t do as an opera singer if you don’t want to be called a diva.”
Hislop also thinks Baba is very glamorous: “There will be a lot of glamour in the eyes,” she says, “and with practice I’ll makes Baba’s moustache and beard just as glamorous.”
Baba’s costume is under wraps until the show opens – Hislop says it looks like something straight of the catwalk at the latest fashion show – but she agreed to model the beard for MCV.
“It has a character of its own,” she says. “It’s even a little bit feminine … but quite unsettling, too.”
Directed by John Bell, director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, Victorian Opera’s production is updated to modern times and the public adores Baba’s famous facial hair – the paparazzi go into a frenzy when she first appears.
Hislop says a good comparison for Baba’s celebrity is someone like Lady Gaga, crossing gender boundaries and being outrageous.
“[Baba’s] completely comfortable with her – not deformity, her point of difference, if you like.
“She is a super star. Everything is over the top and posed. But when she’s with Tom in private she tries to be normal, with her hair rollers on and trying to be a housewife.
“In her dealings with Anne Trulove after her marriage dissolves, she shows a gorgeous, soft, compassionate side. She’s is not jealous of Anne woman to woman.”
Hislop says Baba, like any true Diva, is a survivor. After losing everything when Tom goes broke she goes back to what she does best: show business.
“The next time you see Baba,” she sings in her grand exit, “you shall pay!”
Although Auden had won the 1948 Pulitzer Prize for poetry, he understood that, “the librettist’s job was to satisfy the composer, not the other way round”. He also wrote later that no good opera plot could be reasonable: “for when people are reasonable, they do not sing”.
Hislop says Auden manages to marry non-rational parts of the opera, like Baba, with reality. “It does make a difference, when you are dealing with a libretto by a great poet like Auden, to have as a director who is a great interceptor of classic literature such as John Bell,” Hislop says.
“I feel as though it has been directed like a piece of drama, but we happen to be singing it.”
The Rake’s Progress, Victorian Opera, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, March 17 - 27, 2012. victorianopera.com.au