“Flora is fabulous! She sashays across the stage in a beautiful costume. She is a courtesan; she has exciting parties and has to move through this harsh half-world where there are aristocrats and wealthy patrons.” So says mezzo-soprano Celeste Haworth, soon to sing the role of Flora Bervoix in Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata in October and November this year.
Speaking to SoundsLikeSydney, Haworth continues, “Violetta and Flora have to be able to speak intelligently, be educated and be entertaining but there is a little bit of a rivalry between them which I love bringing out because it’s such fun to colour the relationship in that way. They’re friends but also rivals and if Violetta wasn’t there, Flora would take her place.”
Haworth is familiar with strong female leads in opera. She has played a number of them like Rosina in Rossini’s Barber of Seville, Suzuki in Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and Marcellina in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Her Master’s thesis was based on the women in Rossini’s female characters. Titled Rossini’s Heroines: A discussion of their representation as atypical heroines in early 19th century opera, it is available on Amazon. From Rossini, Mozart and Puccini to Verdi and Wagner in 2023, as she covers the role of Erda in Opera Australia’s Brisbane Ring Cycle while singing the role of the First Norn, these roles encompass a spectrum of styles. Says Haworth, “The world of opera provides many different colours and one of the privileges of my career has been to be able to explore these styles and composers, but I am heading more towards the dramatic repertoire. I am working hard on this and am very much looking forward to the challenge of my first Wagner role next year although I absolutely love Flora and her sassiness. It’s a wonderful role to play because she is a brilliant character with so much life and fun to her and I really enjoy that as well.”
I asked Haworth how newer roles in Verdi and Wagner compare with the classical and bel canto styles she has sung thus far. “There are definitely more notes in a bar in bel canto” she quips. “It requires much more lightness and deftness. Rossini’s music is filled with joy and delight but the reason I wrote my thesis on his heroines was because I found it so interesting that he altered characters and plot lines to make his female characters strong, much stronger than the actual story lines of the time. Rossini very much wrote for very strong women and exploring that aspect in my thesis, I find him to be a very interesting writer.”
Vocally, Haworth is discovering that this progression of styles is a natural one for her. “You would never approach a Wagner role early on in a career. I certainly wouldn’t have done, so this is a logical progression as I have a more dramatic voice. Not everybody does, so I am very grateful to be able explore the new challenges and the colours of the heavier dramatic repertoire. Each era of my voice and development has been so exciting – you’re always constantly striving to be better and looking to the next new challenge as an opera singer.”
Haworth graduated from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music with a Post Graduate Diploma of Music (Opera) after which she obtained her Masters of Opera from the Vienna Conservatorium (Musik und Kunst Privatuniversität der Stadt Wien), choosing the offer from Vienna over offers from Flanders and Switzerland. She returned to Sydney to compete for the German-Australia Opera Grant, which she won, earning amongst other awards, a one-year contract with the Hessisches Staatstheater in Wiesbaden.
“I went to Wiesbaden in 2015. They told me very firmly at the start that the award was for just one year, but after that year they very kindly invited me to stay on for another year, which was wonderful. I learnt 8 or 9 roles during that time. I loved every second of it but am thrilled to be back home working for the national company. It’s a dream come true to be singing under the white sails of the opera house and in Melbourne and in Brisbane.”
Completing her time in Wiesbaden, Haworth returned home to Sydney and considers herself fortunate to have begun establishing herself prior to the suspensions cause by COVID-19. In 2019, she sang in Opera Australia’s Great Opera Hits Concert Series. In 2020, some of her engagements including the role of Mercedes in Opera Australia’s national tour of Bizet’s Carmen, were deferred. “There was a mass exodus of singers wanting to come home from Europe. COVID obviously changed a lot for everybody in the industry, but I spent that time working hard on my voice – because I’m not a person who can sit around and do nothing. I worked very hard on my voice in that transition to the dramatic repertoire and also taught online and looked at my lines on a daily basis to keep my sanity.” Professional activity resumed in 2021 with the role of Flora in Opera Australia’s La Traviata on Sydney harbour and the continuation of the Great Opera Hits series in she which will continue to perform through 2023.
“When live performances first returned,” observes Haworth, “there was a lot of trepidation because COVID was still prevalent, the case numbers were high and we were not sure if audiences would want to come back. But people were longing for live theatre and music and there is something so special about opera because we are not separated by microphones so there is an immediate auditory connection with the audience. It was a very moving atmosphere with audiences being so joyful and happy and grateful for this shared live experience.”
Whilst Haworth has studied various interpretations of the role of Flora both live and online, her ultimate inspiration comes from her own experience. “What informed me most about the role” she explains “is the fact that I performed it on the harbour for the first time. It was set in the 1950s and my character had sparkly whip which was such fun. Being able to have been a part of that production and then come to this elegant, refined world of corsets and bustles and yet still have that same essence of the character was a joy to explore.”
“I have lots of favourites mezzo-sopranos, but my favourite would have to be Christa Ludwig. She sang so many roles and listening to her, especially as I head into the more dramatic fach I believe she really sang everything with her true voice and incredible technique. I always will drift towards her recordings.”
Shamistha de Soysa for SoundsLikeSydney©
Opera Australia’s production of La Traviata will be performed in the Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House on selected dates from 22 October to 4 November 2022.