The star of New Zealand Opera’s Madame Butterfly dishes on her plum role, and more.
“I don’t remember hearing a better soprano in this country than Antoinette Halloran in the title role,” Metro said. Madame Butterfly’s entertaining star drinks elderflower juice with Alexander Bisley at Finc Dining Room in Wellington. The chic, earthy Melbournian talks about La Bohème, Arj Barker, opera in Woody Allen movies, and Mozart/Puccini being root-rats. Photography by Daniel Rose.
* * *
ALEXANDER BISLEY: You previously made an impression on New Zealand as Mimi in La Bohème. That was a memorable role?
ANTOINETTE HALLORAN: I’ve been really lucky here. I think some of my best works have been here. Thank god Aidan Lang likes me and hires me. I don’t think there’s a New Zealand girl who can sing these roles, but if there is then I won’t come back.
AB: The idea of La Bohème is exciting to a writer.
AH: The thing I love about La Bohème, is that the women in the opera are the bohemians and the men are trespassers in that world—little rich boys who thought, “I’m going to be a writer for a year,” and they’ve gone and lived in bohemia and enjoyed their experience but they’re not the real bohemians. Puccini writes great roles for women and he really robs the men of good stuff, I reckon.
AB: You’ve been described as bringing sexy back to opera?
AH: [Laughs] Oh god, poor opera. Look, I just play the role how I think it is and I think the act one love duet in this particular opera, Madame Butterfly—the lyrics are just so sexy the things she says to him, you can’t not play sexy. If it comes across sexy that’s good, when it stops being sexy then I’ll hang up my hat.
AB: The book you wish you’d never read is Fifty Shades of Yawn, but it did encourage your show Fifty Shades of Opera. “Opera has been doing all that ‘shady’ stuff for 300 years and better,” you put it. Tell me more about Fifty Shades of Opera?
The Spiegel team offered me a solo show, so I thought I’d write a show, Fifty Shades of Opera. I was like “why is everyone going crazy about this stuff, this stuff has been in the operatic canon for 300 years?” So we found the sexiest, most alluring parts of different operas and pieced them together into a pastiche of a show, in which we used the words of Mozart and Puccini, and it all came together. It was very funny; it travelled from medieval music through to now.
AB: Did you include any Don Giovanni?
AH: We did. We had Zerlina’s aria, which she sings to Masetto when Don Giovanni has bashed him up and basically she says, “I have a potion in my body and it can cure you but you have to work out where it is.” So there’s some really sexy stuff in operas. It’s not realised because people think opera’s not sexy, but it is. Mozart and Puccini were root-rats. They loved women, so of course the music’s going to reflect that. And of course if you write a scenario about a 16-year-old girl and her boyfriend it’s going to be about that.
AB: Were Mozart and Puccini at a similar level of womanising?
AH: I’ve looked at some of the letters Mozart wrote about his wife and they were completely beautiful, so I don’t think he was as much of a root-rat as Puccini, who was married but had many affairs. They inspired a lot of Puccini’s music so thank god he did. He had a passion for sopranos and lyric sopranos so he wrote all the good roles for them.
AB: Inspired like George Simeon.
AH: While he was writing Madame Butterfly, Puccini was having this torrid affair with a girl and he was passionately in love with her. But he was obsessed with her so much that he hired a private investigator to follow her, and he found out that she was having affairs with other men, and there was a possibility that money was exchanging hands. So he was devastated; but I think that passion and anger and angst are in the opera. It’s great to know he was alive in that way.
AB: How did that wind up?
AH: He wrote a letter to her saying “you’re a filthy shit and I leave you to your life.” In Fifty Shades of Opera, we used that whole story. We used it to inspire the character Rosetta who is this crazy girl, who wherever she lays her hat is her home.
AB: Backpacking around Europe and being in Puccini’s Tuscany was inspirational for you, earlier on?
AH: I had an epiphany in a house in Lucca, which is where Puccini grew up. I was working for the Puccini Festival, they asked me to sing this concert there and so I went to this little stone cottage in the middle of nowhere. I said, “where should I get changed?” and they said go into this room, and I thought, “it’s a bit shabby.” Then I realised I was in the room Puccini was born in. I thought, “oh my god this is the bed Puccini was born in!” and then I crawled around the house, up the stairs and I found an attic. Under the attic window was a little cot. I opened the windows and I saw the rolling hills of Tuscany. I realised that was what greeted Puccini every morning he woke up. It was the most amazing experience and all the hairs on my arms stood up, I could hear the music and I had this incredible epiphany.
AB: I found visiting Robert Louis Stevenson’s house in Samoa— looking at his sickbed— powerful.
AH: Seriously, I heard the music it was like I just went to some happy place. It was also at a time in my life where I was really feeling the need to make a decision as to what direction to take. As an artist it’s not nine to five—it’s not secure. I’d already had a child and here I was in Italy on my own. It made me realise I was actually there for a good reason.
AB: What would you ask Puccini if you met him?
AH: Probably something really rude. I would ask him on a date and see what happens. But musically I would ask him why he doesn’t let Butterfly breathe in the second act.
AB: It’s a great job being an opera singer, but it doesn’t stop being tough does it?
AH: It never stops being tough. But then the flipside is that there are moments of sheer joy that you hang out for—it’s like heroin.
AB: Puccini’s 1904 Madame Butterfly opening night was famously a fiasco. Tell me about one operatic fiasco you’ve been involved in?
AH: There’s two. The one where I was a fiasco was Gilbert and Sullivan at the Opera House and I was singing Josephine in H. M. S. Pinafore. My tenor (who was divine) was singing his aria early in the evening, before I entered the stage and did the worst crack you ever heard. I promised myself that I would pretend I didn’t hear it. I walked out on stage for my scene with him and our eyes locked and his eyes looked at me as if to say “did you hear that?” and I just lost it and I didn’t sing or say a note for about five minutes, I just walked the stage doubled up laughing. That was pretty horrendous.
You know the New Zealand film Heavenly Creatures? Someone wrote an opera on that story called Matricide the Musical; it was a very contemporary piece where we all had to be naked. The show was a complete success, there were queues around the block trying to get in, but the actual show was pretty ‘how’s your father’. It was a bit of a fiasco, but people came because there were six women in the nude.
AB: Samuel Johnson famously labelled opera as “an exotic and irrational entertainment.”
AH: Of course it’s irrational. To sing over a 65-piece orchestra with no microphone to a two thousand seat theatre is irrational. For three and a half hours, completely irrational. I always say whenever I come home after playing that role “what was Puccini thinking?” It’s an extreme sport when it gets to that level, it’s exhausting, you really have to be fit to do it. Fat or fit they say, but I choose fit. At the moment.
AB: What’s your creative philosophy?
AH: That’s a big question. I’ve never been asked it before. Honesty, no bullshit. If I see the certain singers that are doing all this intellectualising of the music, trying to make themselves look like they’re smart, it infuriates me. Music should be an emotional response and you can’t manipulate a good emotionally honest response. So when I see cerebral manipulation going on in music I think “just sing it, do what the composer wanted. Don’t screw around with it.”
AB: So that would be the worst diss you could get from a reviewer, being accused of cerebral manipulation?
AH: Absolutely. Singing out of tune is not good either.
AB: I doubt that’s going to happen. The book that changed you was Anna Karenina.
AH: The thing is, actually it’s a very similar story to Madame Butterfly. She falls in love with a younger man—her marriage is dead in a way (in a way it’s a normal marriage), but she gets that lusty feeling for a younger guy and she has to make a decision between her son and her new love. And it’s horrendous, she chooses her love but in the end that decision kills her because how can you leave your child? That’s exactly what happens in Butterfly, not that she’s given the decision of a new love but she’s told “give us your child” and she has to make the decision whether that’s the right thing for the child. How can you go on after that, if you lose a child? It’s a similar story in a way, and it’s a very sexy book, Anna Karenina. I didn’t love the recent film.
AB: Formative musical influences that still influence you?
AH: Dare I say Kiri Te Kanawa? There seems to be a bit of the tall poppy syndrome with her here. Because the people say she’s a bit controlling, but when you’re responsible for controlling a brand like that you have got to be surrounded by excellence and I completely understand that.
AH: I listened to her when I was a student. She was my go-to for anything I was singing—I would listen to her, how she sang a verse.
AB: Outside of opera, Nick Cave is someone you’re into?
AH: I suppose when I was really going out and seeing bands it was that late ’90s indie rock. Now I’m into Flight of the Conchords, watching it with my kids. Me and my little boy, we watched it like, five times over, we’re saying the words now.
AB: Do you have any particular favourite songs?
AH: ‘Too Many Dicks on the Dance Floor’.
AB: Actually, Dave aka Arj Barker—
AH: He’s in town isn’t he? If I see him I’m going to run up and get his autograph.
AB: I recommend him live Wednesday night.
AH: If I’m free I’m going to go because I love him. Some of his lines in the second series are classic. My son and I always do that thing where we have to double it.
I remember we were watching the first series last time I was here five years ago, and now we’re watching it all the time.
AB: What about Australia’s The Chaser? I miss that.
AH: We did a live performance of La Bohème on national TV in Australia, and Chas was the MC, so I had a chat to him. He seemed really nice.
AB: Chas and the guys showcase the humorous, feisty Australian spirit at its best!
AH: Absolutely. I really love though the Flight of the Conchords take on Australians—they’re really racist toward Australians. One of them was going out with an Australian and she was really trashy, and bogan—
AB: And that conflict between Murray and the Australian Embassy. I think that’s good-natured Australian/New Zealand competitiveness.
AH: Absolutely. Although I have to say this Butterfly in New Zealand is possibly my favourite cast of players of this opera ever, wherever I’ve done it. I’ve done it in Italy, but it’s just come together really well here. Italian tenor Piero Pretti is wonderful as Pinkerton.
AB: Where did you do Madame Butterfly in Italy?
AH: Torre del Lago, that Opera House on the lake, but I played Kate, but then the Puccini festival toured me into Norwegian areas where I sang Butterfly.
AB: Have you seen the Marx Brothers A Night At The Opera?
AH: I haven’t seen it, but I do know the reference to it in the Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters, where he’s going to kill himself and then he goes to the opera and realises it’s going to be okay. I love that.
AB: I’m really into Woody Allen.
AH: Me too, I’m really into Woody Allen. And he uses opera a lot in his films. Opera in the soundtrack. That last film where the opera singer could only sing in the shower.
AB: To Rome With Love.
AH: It’s actually true, you sound great in the shower, it’s the acoustics. And there’s more oxygen from the steam so it’s a really good place for singing. So that’s why it was so funny.
AB: So you do sing in the shower.
AH: I sing in the shower. I warm up in the shower. But often I’ll go to an audition and I’ll warm up in the shower and just like that film, I sound like shit and I think “what happened I was so good in the shower,” so this guy just moves the shower around wherever he goes, it’s a great concept.
AB: That’s interesting.
AH: There’s truth that being fat helps you be a better singer because the fat deposits on your soft palette, and you get a very mellifluous tone so that’s why all those big, fat singers—
AH: [Like] Pavarotti, do have a more beautiful, honey tone. So there’s truth in a lot of those old myths.
© Daniel Rose 2013. All Rights Reserved. More images at danielrose.co.nz.
New Zealand Opera’s ‘Madame Butterfly’ season is at the St James Theatre, Wellington from May 11-18. Performance dates and ticketing info at nzopera.com.
Thanks to Alice May Connolly for transcription assistance on this article.
 “She gave a gutsy performance—beautiful, sexy, innocent and motherly—everything she needed to be as the opera’s tragic story unfolds.” Waikato Times. “Antoinette Halloran holds the audience in her hand as her character waits seemingly endlessly for her long lost love and ‘husband’ Mr Pinkerton to return from his world to hers. It is performed so sensitively, so raw, you could feel the moment approaching when Butterfly’s love sank beneath hope. You witnessed when her hope faded to loss, and how worthlessness took hold as the Japanese lanterns dimmed behind her.” Selwyn Manning.