Harriet O’Shannessy is calm, unflappable,and the owner of a deliciously creamy soprano voice which you will hear in WA Opera’s The Merry Widow this weekend. These days she has an irrepressible sparkle in her eyes and bubbling energy; her company Freeze Frame Opera is succeeding beyond her wildest dreams.

What music gets your heart racing?

Cavalleria Rusticana – the fight scene between Santuzza and Turridu: “No, no Turridu”  either watching it or singing it! It was the first opera I was in at WA Opera and it has a special place in my heart. I watched from the wings every night to see Dennis O’Neill and Nicole Youl singing this.

What music calms you down?

I listen to 101.7FM Capital Community Radio. Best station for golden oldies. I love it. I keep saying to anyone that’ll listen that it is not just a station for “the senior citizens of Perth”!

What do you sing along to?

I love singing along to Romeo and Juliet, (Dire Straits of course!)

Singing in the WA Opera chorus for Carmen

How are you preparing for your role as Sylviane in WA Opera’s The Merry Widow which opens on July 15th?

We have had a wonderful rehearsal process with Graeme Murphy creating this show before our eyes. It is great to be involved in this original production. Sylviane is a little bit quirky and also quite naughty, so it is a lot of fun. I am a privileged Pontevedrian. I get to wear three amazing and glamorous costumes that have been designed by Jennifer Irwin. So much detail and thought has gone into every aspect of this show. This opera is going to look and sound amazing.

Mark Applebaum says music should above all else be interesting. What do you think is the most important role of music?  

I absolutely agree. Interesting, and it must affect my emotions. I like watching a show when I’m so involved emotionally that I want the inevitable sad to ending to change, or when I get goosebumps and the hairs on the back of my neck stand up, or when something makes me cry. Music should move emotions.

You have a soft spot for opera. What is the appeal of the art form for you?   

Opera has such power and passion.  It has the ability to speak straight to the soul, through the power of the human voice.  It is also just so impressive hearing a singer in full flight. It’s something primal and electric, and electrifying. I believe that the power to capture human emotion is the reason that opera can appeal to anyone. And, when you put that with a full orchestra…! Sensational.

How did Freeze Frame Opera come about?

I was inspired to start FFO to provide more opportunities for top quality Perth based singers to perform, and to increase opera audiences by making operas in a shortened format (like 20/20 is to test cricket, we are to grand opera), in a more intimate venue and in a more relaxed atmosphere. Camelot Theatre, where we performed La Boheme in May 2017, is perfect for that. The quality of the acting is as important as the singing.  Audiences have responded to that. Also, they can take their wine into the show, and come in their ugg boots if they like.  Always a good selling point.

Many would say you are mad starting FFO when opera companies around the world are going bankrupt. It is often an expensive and elite art form. What gives you hope?  

It is true – you have to be a bit mad! It consumes my waking (and sleeping) thoughts! Where there’s a will there’s a way I guess. I get lots of nice, encouraging feedback. And I get kids stopping me on the hockey field to ask “How I kept my eyes open?” when Mimi died  … so there’s hope there that the youngsters are getting interested!

O’Shannessy singing Mimi in La Boheme with Paul O’Neill as Rodolfo

Your debut opera La Boheme in May generated overwhelmingly enthusiastic responses from the Perth public. What is it that creates such a resonance with your audience, many of whom are opera virgins?  

I think they liked our 90’s grunge Boheme because the cast were so immersed in their roles, and so well suited to their roles, it wasn’t too long – (90 mins including interval), and it is such a good opera! I love it that people new to opera are coming and willing to give opera a go. I think they connected to Boheme with Rachel McDonald’s modern setting and surtitles. We hope we’ll get them hooked.

Where did you learn the skills to manage an opera company?

Definitely learning on the job! I’ve had great sounding boards in Bourby Webster (PSO), Rachel McDonald (director La Boheme) and my husband, Greg. I have collaborated with the some of the best in the business (Robbie Harrold, designer and Geoff Glencross, lighting). All have worked so hard. The singers are very much a part of the collaborative process at FFO. They even change the sets! Having produced Boheme, I feel more equipped to know what will or might come up next time.
What is the most important quality required for running a business in the arts sector?

The passion has to be there. Nothing would happen without that.

How do you go about putting together an opera such as Pagliacci from scratch? It is scheduled for mid next year and I know you have already started working toward it.   

I’ve locked down the dates at Camelot Theatre, the availability of the cast, and the director, musical director, designer and lighting designer. I will focus on obtaining funding, selling tickets and learning my role.  Boheme was pretty successful, and we all want to make sure our next show is even better!

Creative Partnerships Australia, through MATCH LAB 2017, will match up to $10,000 in donations that we receive between now and the end of September 2017.  Donations to FFO are tax deductible and details about how to donate can be found on our website: www.freezeframeopera.com. All donations are used towards furthering our aims of spreading the love of opera, and giving opportunities to talented singers

Rachel (director) and Robbie (designer) are already busy working on their vision for the show. FFO is very much a collaborative effort. And, being, FFO, there will be some unexpected things happening in this show…. All will soon be revealed!  

Children’s opera isn’t something we see a lot of in Perth but I know you have plans to change that. Is  opera an art form for kids?   

Yes! Thinking about this question made me think about my first experience of opera. I was in Year 7 and our wonderful, unforgettable music teacher, Miss Stevens, adapted Mozart’s The Magic Flute for us. I played Papagena. I would like to introduce more kids to the magic of opera. This December, we are planning to launch an opera designed to tour to primary schools. The opera we are working on is a shortened version of Dvorak’s Rusalka (based on the Hans Christian Andersen) fairy tale. The launch will be at Camelot Theatre in Mosman Park and we’d love people to bring along their kids and grandkids, in the Christmas pantomime tradition. From 2018, we would love to offer the show as an incursion for primary school children in metropolitan and regional schools in WA.

At the opening night of La Boheme I met your greatest fan; your husband Greg is a very proud groupie! Is running Freeze Frame a whole family affair? How do you manage work/life balance with young children?  

Husband groupie. That’s cool. I like it when he’s in the audience cos he cheers as though he’s at the rugby! It is certainly a family affair. Not just my husband, but the kids get involved, dropping off flyers etc. They also come to the shows. They are the motivation, and part of the team. Robbie (our designer’s) kids were helping making props for Boheme. Maybe we can even use them on stage in the near future. Mine would like that…  if it meant pocket money!

What is your favourite place in Perth?  

The beach. Good for the soul.

Do you have a soft spot for anything else or is life all about the music?  

At the moment, outside of opera, it is all about the kids and their interests, and then there’s wine and coffee of course! I’m also a bit of a Dockers tragic.

Thank you Harriet O’Shannessy for sharing with us. You can get tickets to hear Harriet sing in The Merry Widow here, and go here to support Freeze Frame Opera and find out about future operas.