Expat New Zealand singer Patrice Tipoki on Melbourne’s re-energised, rousing production of Les Misérables, waiata, and whanau.
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ALEXANDER BISLEY: What’s special about this version of Les Misérables?
PATRICE TIPOKI: Well, the story is about the human condition and the challenges we all go through; the struggle for love, the struggle for freedom. We’re always fighting for something. And whatever you’re going through in your life, you can relate to it in that way; losing a loved one, or whatever it is. Let alone the beautiful music that we get to sing, and be surrounded by with the orchestra. So this new production really brings it into the now with the projections and the use of Victor Hugo’s paintings to set the scene, but also to bring some life and colour to some of the scenes where we may not have the full, naturalised sets like they do in the movie. You show one of his paintings and you immediately you know where they are; you know what’s going on. So it’s beautiful in that way to see as well.
AB: I really enjoyed it. Much more than the recent movie. The live experience, you’re there collectively and everyone’s excited, and you’ve got more of a sense of the performance and an involvement with it.
PT: It is. Live theatre, there’s nothing like it, and being able to see the actors and what they’re feeling in that moment is something you can’t get on screen, no matter how close you get. So I really love that about what we do.
AB: You were first taken with Les Misérables, like myself, when you were about six?
PT: I actually got to meet the original Australian Madame Thénardier last night, who performed at a charity concert. Robyn Arthur was there, and she was in the original production that I saw and I fell in love with. I think it was one of the first musicals that I saw. So it really has been a part of my education, my musical theatre education, and now getting to be a part of the show is just a dream, let alone playing a role like Fantine.
AB: You were particularly keen on Marius?
PT: Oh, yes [laughs]. He was my favourite. You know, how young girls do. It’s funny, my daughter, who is about to turn five, came to see the show and then the next day she got to meet Ewan, who plays Marius and who’s from New Zealand as well, and she was smitten. I guess history repeats itself.
AB: The whole production is very well done, all the different elements, technically, and your ‘Lovely Ladies’ scene, there is a real blast of energy there. Are there any particular favourite moments for you?
PT: Gosh. It’s a hard one because as much as I love being a part of the show, the journey that my character goes on is very traumatic and very brutal [laughs].
AB: Your cascading hair gets cut.
PT: Yes, my hair gets chopped off, I get beaten around, and then I die. And so, yeah, I guess I wouldn’t consider it fun, but in terms of favourite I love singing ‘I Dreamed a Dream’. I love getting to sing the beautiful music that we do. At the end, I love being able to come back and smile and be happy.
AB: Fantine’s story is tragic, but there is humour and romance elsewhere.
PT: There is, and thank god for it. We love the Thénardier couple, Madame and Monsieur Thénardier, because without them everyone would just be ending their lives or something. It’s so dramatic. And, of course, the lovers as well, Cosette and Marius. I find Emily, who plays my daughter Cosette, is just such a life and light on stage. It’s really lovely to have that light amongst all the darkness.
AB: The whole life-imitating-art thing. It was interesting to see recently in Melbourne we had the students protesting Tony Abbott’s budget.
PT: Yeah, there are a lot of protests here in Melbourne. It’s great that people have the courage to speak up for what they believe in. We really can draw from that and with whatever challenges people are facing around the world; the wars and the deaths and the revolutions. It’s all what we do everyday on the stage. We can draw from life and hopefully what I learn from life as well, and what we’re doing, so it doesn’t happen again. We can fight for just causes.
AB: Do you see yourself as political, at least insofar as it comes organically out of a musical?
PT: I think the latter. I wouldn’t consider myself political at all, but I think it’s good to have values and to believe what you believe and live that, and be a testament of that, and if someone wants to know about it then talk about it, and work to make the world a better place.
AB: Performing in Japan with We Will Rock You, the language is really similar to Te Reo isn’t it?
PT: Yeah, I found that being there. My dad also picked up on that too, before I went there, because he’s fluent in Maori. It’s really interesting, isn’t it? We’re connected somehow. I’d love to go back one day.
AB: Both your parents were and still are performers?
PT: And my grandparents. Still are. Yes, so we grew up performing Polynesian shows and singing in different languages and doing the cultural dances. I did that before I went to ballet classes, before I went to piano classes, or any of that. It’s always been in my blood, in my core, so it’s nice to be able to draw from, when I need it.
AB: Your grandparents are still performing?
PT: They are. They did a gig a couple of weeks ago. I saw my mum post a photo of them on Facebook, and they still look like they did 40 years ago. So it’s pretty cool.
AB: You teach your kids Te Reo through waiata?
PT: Yes. I learnt lots of songs, and I have two little ones now so we’ve tried to do a little bit at home, mostly through songs, because that’s how it sticks.
AB: That’s the best way.
PT: That’s right. My dad has just started over the last year getting into our whakapapa, and trying to hand on all the stories that aren’t written down yet, so we can make sure they stay alive, which is pretty cool.
AB: He might be interested in turning that into a public performance?
PT: I think he would love to. My dad, David Tipoki, is very creative. He’s a songwriter and musician, and has done a few albums, which I think do get radio play in New Zealand. I wouldn’t put it past him to use all of that knowledge towards something like that. I think there is talk of a book about our whanau, which would be awesome because then we’d have something further than all the oratorical stuff.
AB: I’ve also enjoyed you singing national anthems before rugby tests, especially the Maori version. That must be exciting?
PT: Oh, I love it. I love being able to do stuff like that. It’s so patriotic. Everyone joins in and sings along. It’s an awesome experience.
AB: And also you’ve sung ‘La Marseillaise’, haven’t you?
PT: I got the opportunity to sing for the French and for the Aussies. That was nice—being in a French show and working with our show’s composer, Claude-Michel Schönberg. It’s lovely to do something a bit different.
AB: Those are my two favourite anthems of the rugby countries, ours in Te Reo and the French one. There’s real passion, beauty to them.
PT: Yeah, they’re awesome to sing.
AB: You tweeted the other day, “To play the wrong note is insignificant, to play without passion is inexcusable.”
PT: Especially in a show like this with so many notes, the whole show is notes, and when we were rehearsing it, the focus was not on notes at all. We learnt them, but the focus is always on the storytelling. If we weren’t telling the story with enough passion, or with enough high stakes, or whatever it may be, then it didn’t matter what notes we were singing. So I thought that was really true.
AB: The exhibition at the beautiful State Library is good too. They have a Rodin sculpture of Victor Hugo and then there are the last, touching lines he wrote, “To love is to act.”
PT: “To love is to act,” yes: words to aspire to.
AB: Those statistics are noted in the exhibition: 60 million viewers, 43 countries, 22 languages. Les Misérables’s ideas are still resonating?
PT: That’s what’s great about working with the team that we had, is that although they take this show all around the world, they make sure that it means something to the people doing it. Rather than telling us, “okay, walk there and raise your hand,” or whatever, it’s about that passion and meaning something, and it’s got to be truthful to us and that way the audiences will care about it? If it’s not real to us then no one will bother [laughs]. No one would come back, but they keep coming back.
AB: Working with your sister must be rewarding?
PT: Yes. She’s our associate music director, and she was over in New Zealand with Wicked just recently. The older we get, the more we appreciate it. Growing up it was just what happened, whereas now, because we’ve had our careers by ourselves, we really appreciate any opportunity to come together and work together. We did a show together last year—my brother, my sister, and I. It was maybe three weeks all up, that our schedules aligned and then straight afterwards everyone was off and on different contracts again, so hopefully we’ll be able to do something together again soon.
AB: Tell me about an influence on you as a performer.
PT: Of late, I really look to my cast mates for inspiration. Our leads Simon Gleeson and Hayden Tee, who’s from New Zealand as well, do such a magnificent job of keeping things real every night, and really using their skills and expertise, so they’re my inspiration at the moment.
AB: You think formal technique training is important?
PT: I feel like it gives you the confidence, more than anything, to trust in yourself, and sometimes when you go for an audition or you perform at a concert, knowing that you’ve had an intensive training period or rehearsal period can just make you feel more confident in yourself, and not doubt or get nervous or whatever. Some people have a natural confidence or natural ability in that way, but especially when you’re doing something like this which is eight shows a week—plus everything else—it’s great to be able to have a technique to fall back on when you’re tired or unwell, and you know that what you’ve learnt will be able to get you through until you’re 100%. Which, in this world, you’re hardly ever 100%.
AB: What’s your creative philosophy?
PT: In my life? I guess it’s only when I see the gap for it that I feel that creativity come through. Often, when I’m a mum and a wife and all these different things, there’s a lot to be done and so you find times for the creative bits when you can. So for me lately, I’ve had a few gaps when I’ve been able to go, hang on, I want to do this. I’m an all-rounder [laughs], with a bit of creativity in there.
AB: Do you think your girls might be interested in this line of work?
PT: Possibly. The other night my eldest told me, “Mummy, I want to sing like you” and I said, “Really? Do you really?” I guess I did try and avoid it for the first few years and she had the interest so we started piano lessons and now dance lessons and we’ll just see. There’s no pressure, as with us there was no pressure to do it for a career or anything, it was just what we did as part of our family, if we wanted to continue then that was completely up to us. The ball’s in her court, whatever she wants.
AB: Any things you enjoy doing in Melbourne in your down time?
PT: You’ve got to give your best every night. The downtime, well, usually we just go to the park with my kids and get to run around. When we’re back up in Queensland we always go to the beach, but, no, we’re pretty much home-bods, we like to stay in and watch a movie, just hang out together.
AB: Anything that might surprise people about you?
PT: I’m pretty shy. I know that as performers you must think, “Oh, they must be very confident,” but that’s where the training and experience helps you be confident in what you’re doing at that time. Generally I keep to myself and I’m not a show off as some performers are [laughs].