A convoluted plot with betrayal and cross-dressing, great tunes and a twist to turn it all around?
That could be any of 1000 operas, but this one – Diary of a Couch Diva – is rooted in the harsh reality of the global pandemic.
Perth soprano Magda Lisek has brought her YouTube channel, Couch Opera Live, to the Camelot Theatre stage after three successive lockdowns; one in 2020 and two this year.
Indeed the release of frustration is palpable as first she, then fellow soprano Yann Kee, explode on to the scene. Not for nothing are they known as divas.
Their rendition of the Flower Duet from Lakme collapses into a collective howl at fate: their repartee a mimic of recitative, narrative duet redolent of musical theatre; all couched, of course, in COVID idiom. “What if it lasts more than five days?” Lisek asks with sad irony.
In a parody of last year’s reality, the quiet work and steep learning curve that Lisek embraced to get her show online – compiled from video vignettes by fellow jobless singers across the globe – seems destined for failure as the acts withdraw.
So the girls have to sing all the parts.
Some are wonderfully true to the originals. Kee’s Si. Mi chiamano Mimi, from Puccini’s La Boheme, introduced as a phone conversation, is lush, full-voiced and soaring, a straightener to the chaotic scene-setting slapstick before.
Harry Secombe once said of the original, live Goon Show that if the humour was strained he could always win an audience over with song.
Happily all the artists in this show can do the same, and it becomes a rich pastiche of opera and musical theatre favourites, accompanied by drinks and lashings of pizza; a combo to diet for (sic).
Lisek fronts the show-within-a-show singing Marie’s aria from Donizetti’s Daughter of the Regiment, a number she sang online last year.
Though the voice is the same, the humour is broader and the comedy more physical, now free of the constraints of broadcasting to the planet, with more risks taken and applause won.
Absent the “other artists”, Kee presents as a drunken Toreador from Bizet’s Carmen, a fair take on the Pommie tourists who for decades have made free with Spanish beaches and bars.
Glitter and be Gay (Berstein’s Candide) and Vilia (Lehar’s Merry Widow) give each singer the freedom to develop their distinct vocal charms, even to break the fourth wall and escape the confines of the plot.
Then Lisek takes the cross-dressing experiment one stage further as Pavarotti, essaying Nessun Dorma, from Puccini’s Turandot; her triumphant “Vincero” (I will win) a fair approximation, albeit in a different register.
After those gendered vocal gymnastics, Libiamo, from Verdi’s La Traviata, gives the duo pause to embrace their inner party animal, with some distinctly non-MeToo touches.
To settle the mood, Kee intones Summertime, from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, with deep resonance and reverence, swooning and crooning through a classic.
And then the twist. Jun Zhang and Matt Dixon come to the party after all; a balanced combination of Zhang’s light tenor and Dixon’s crystal-clear baritone ideally suited to The Pearl Fishers duet (Bizet), when more vibrato would mean much less. A genuine eye-opener.
Dixon dials back to comedy for Ben Moore’s I’m Glad I’m Not a Tenor, showing off his musical theatre chops with solid operatic roots.
Then he’s teamed with Lisek for The Sweetest Sounds, (Richard Rodgers’ No Strings), finding warmth and empathy through music and youth.
Zhang and Kee follow suit with I’ve Never Been in Love Before (Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls), with interesting chemistry, tender and dramatic by turns.
Zhang, solo, evokes romantic distemper for Core ’ngrato (Salvatore Cardillo for The Ungrateful Heart), asking more from his voice and getting more than before.
Lisek has a similar moment in Physician (Cole Porter’s Nymph Errant); more torch song than bel canto, turning up the coquette she essayed in the Donizetti – but all in the best of taste.
Dixon steals the scene in a finale of highlights from My Fair Lady (Lerner and Loewe), the mood and lyrics perhaps a reminder that many of the uplifting tunes on the program were written in difficult times; so never waste a crisis.
And Lisek and Kee confirm that in their encore, For Good, from the Stephen Schwartz Broadway and movie favourite Wicked: “Because I knew you/I’ve been changed for good”.
Diary of a Couch Diva, written and directed by Gregory Yurisich, with music directed and accompanied by Michael Schouten, is on again this Friday and Saturday, May 7 and 8, at 7.30pm.
Tickets from couchoperalive.com.