The centrepiece of the Western Australian Symphony Orchestra’s 90th anniversary celebrations is a concert presentation of Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde – a four-hour philosophical devotion to love, sex and death.

Many Wagnerites regard Tristan und Isolde the ‘ultimate opera’ taking the audience on a dramatic journey of life, passion, death, rebirth only to die in the arms of love. It also requires extraordinary stamina by everyone taking part – singers, chorus, orchestra, conductor, and, not least of all, the audience.

WASO has been building up to this moment for the past 18 months with principal conductor Asher Fisch, one of the world’s great Wagner exponents, last year delivering a well-received introduction to the maestro’s music in Wagner and Beyond – a tasting plate of sorts.

Now Perth can experience the full immersive experience with this ancient story set to Wagner’s radical musical ideas.

Wagner is a divisive character in music circles – those who love his music walk over hot coals and fly thousands of kilometres to see one of the gems. For others, fear, holds people back. A full opera is rarely seen in Perth because of the massive resources required – the orchestra has been supersized, as has the WASO chorus with the help of St Georges Cathedral Consort for this two-performance season.

Paul O’Neill

And not every singer has the vocal capacity and stamina to belt out four hours of the most challenging singing. One of the world’s most acclaimed Wagnerian tenors, Australian Stuart Skelton, is returning to Perth to sing the role of Tristan and Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek, who similarly has a fine Wagnerian pedigree, will sing Isolde.

Perth tenor Paul O’Neill is also in the concert cast and reacquaints himself with Fisch, Skelton and Westbroek from his days at the Staatsoper Berlin where he was a member of the ensemble of that esteemed opera company.

Paul, who initially trained at WAAPA before winning a scholarship to study with the National Opera in Covent Garden, told Medical Forum he was thrilled to be lining up with such a stellar cast.

“Perth hasn’t seen anything quite like this – it will be a thrilling experience.”

Paul said his voice was not quite ready to take on the role of Tristan, “but it’s nice to be part of it”.

Everything about Tristan is big and Paul gave some insight into what that means for a singer.

“The music produced by people such as Asher, Stuart and Eva-Marie is at such a professional level. They fly around the world doing this. And they’re singing sometimes for six hours. That’s a lot of singing!”

“I sang in a production of the Die Meistersinger von Nūrnberg at Staastoper and I had one line where I was front and centre and I was belting it out over the force of 90 musicians in the pit. I have never felt such power my entire life. I realised then how I would need to sing to perform those big Wagner roles and it wasn’t going to happen overnight; my voice would need developing.”

So how does that happen?

“Practice and wait for the voice to get bigger. It is a body building experience and not something you can rush into. It’s like making a fine wine. You start with the right grapes, put it in the bottle and then wait – there’s no speeding it up. It is also about experience because as you keep singing, you learn more and more about your own voice.”

There are just two performances of Tristan und Isolde at the Perth Concert Hall – on the evening of Thursday, August 16, from 6pm to 11pm, and the afternoon of Sunday August 19, from 2pm until 7pm. The interval is long enough for the entire auditorium to refuel!

For the Wagner uninitiated, this is a performance not to be missed; for Wagnerites, the cream of the crop is coming to town. Time for everyone to get into training!

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