Opera star Marilyn Richardson has made her debut in a play at the Sydney Theatre Company aged 87. The former superstar soprano plays an opera-loving Serbian migrant, now in aged care who wants desperately to go home, in Do Not Go Gentle, by Patricia Cornelius. It is her debut in a play.
Richardson studied piano and singing at Sydney Conservatorium of Music in the late 1960s, before heading to Europe to further her studies. She returned to join Opera Australia where she was known for her striking acting skills, beautiful voice and flair for languages. She was best known for playing Salome, Aida and Laura in the world premiere of Richard Meale’s Voss, an adaptation of Patrick White’s novel.
"Marilyn Richardson is not just a renowned opera star; she is a true legend in the world of music,” said Professor Anna Reid, Dean of Sydney Conservatorium of Music. “I had the privilege of witnessing her brilliance firsthand in Voss, which was one of the first Australian operas and was particularly hard-hitting.
“In this remarkable production, she showcased her versatility as an artist, seamlessly merging her opera prowess with the dramatic intensity required for the stage. Marilyn's performance was a revelation, an embodiment of the complexities and nuances that make the arts truly transformative.”
After gaining a Diploma in Singing at Sydney Conservatorium of Music, Richardson won several singing competitions in Australia and sang with Victoria State Opera. A Churchill Fellowship allowed her to study in Europe in 1972. She made her international debut in Basel singing Lulu and Salome to rave reviews.
Richardson’s repertoire was diverse and extensive, she performed several hundred works from the medieval to modern periods, in many languages, her favourite roles were in French and Spanish. She also recorded extensively with many of the world’s leading companies.
She played the four soprano roles in The Tales of Hoffmann, Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, Eva in Die Meistersinger, Lisa in Pique Dame, Leonora in Fidelio, Sieglinde in Die Walkuere, Elsa in Lohengrin, Katya Kabanova, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni, the Countess in Figaro, Tosca, Desdemona, Poppea, Mimi, Butterfly, Isolde and the soprano leads in Janacek’s The Excursions of Mr Broucek.
For Richardson, preparing for her first theatre role in Do Not Go Gentle, where she sings a number of arias has been a challenge. “You’ve got no music to guide you,” Richardson told the Sydney Morning Herald. “In an opera you’ve got the story, the lyrics and you’ve got the conductor to look at. [With a play] you’ve got black words on a white page … You read the story and get some hint as to what it’s all about.”
Do Not Go Gentle takes its title from Dylan Thomas’ poem and transports the audience to Antarctica where Robert Scott led a doomed expedition to the South Pole. But all is not what it seems as the playwright explores ageing, memory loss, confusion and living in aged care.
Theatre critics are raving about Do Not Go Gentle. The Guardian said Richardson took the play to a “higher plane”: “Richardson sings short bursts of arias penned by Verdi and Greig, a reminder that music has a critical role to play for people with dementia in triggering memories, while providing a soothing balm for the audience.”
Do Not Go Gentle by Sydney Theatre Company is playing at the Roslyn Packer Theatre until 17 June, 2023. Top Photo: Marilyn Richardson in Do Not Go Gentle. Photo: Prudence Upton/Sydney Theatre Company