Robin Usher August 16, 2012
Theresa Borg (left) Caity Fowler (centre) and Helen Noonan. Photo: Simon Schluter
ONE of Melbourne's favourite singers, soprano Helen Noonan, is returning to the stage with her sellout show from five years ago, Voicing Emily, exploring the life and poetry of American poet Emily Dickinson.
''It is beautiful music and many people felt it needed more exposure,'' she says.
But Noonan had to stop working for two years while she recovered from breast cancer in Hobart (where she enjoys dealing with wallabies in her vegetable patch with Mount Wellington in the distance).
Fit and healthy now, she is looking forward to the two performances of the work at the Melbourne Recital Centre on the weekend.
Noonan describes the work as a lieder opera, with the two singers from the original season, Theresa Borg and Caity Fowler, joining her to play the poet at different stages of her life.
The singer discovered Dickinson's poetry when she was performing musical settings by Aaron Copland and found the poetry helped her make sense of her own life.
''She makes sense of mortality and intensifies my enjoyment of living,'' Noonan says. ''I'm trying to give an idea of how deeply she affected me in so many dimensions.''
She commissioned three composers to set more than a dozen of the poems to music, including cabaret performer and satirist Eddie Perfect, who had previously written cabaret songs for her.
Using extracts from letters as well as the verse, the show is broken into six sections demonstrating different aspects of the poet's writing. Dickinson, long acclaimed as one of America's most original poets, lived as a recluse in her family's house in Amherst, Massachusetts, for much of her life and wrote nearly 1800 poems, although only a handful were published during her lifetime.
The show explores the impact of the American Civil War on the writer, who began writing only 10 days after the 1862 battle of Shiloh, which resulted in 26,000 casualties.
It also includes her two loves - her sister-in-law, Susan, and a newspaper editor, Samuel Bowles. Both relationships were unconsummated and Noonan speculates that consummation might have brought closure to the infinite possibilities that Dickinson saw.
''She uses the same language as Shakespeare and Mozart,'' Noonan says. ''If you choose words carefully they resonate forever. That is why the arts are so potentially valuable because they can connect a society to infinity.''
As evidence, she points to a short poem, Spoken: ''A word is dead/ When it is said,/ Some say./ I say it just/ Begins to live/ That day.''
Noonan is working on a new project and says the much revived chamber opera, Recital, which she stars in and helped create in 1989, could also make a return.
''The interest is there and I am fit enough, so who knows?''
But her main interest is a new work she is writing based on the life of Franca Rame, the wife of Italian Nobel prize-winning writer and activist, Dario Fo, that she calls Fe Fi Fo Franca Rame.
''Franca is a feminist, a political agitator, a rape victim and a supporter of Dario,'' she says.
She met the couple during an Italian residency last year and interviewed them at their Milan apartment as the results came in after the general election in which Silvio Berlusconi lost the prime ministership. ''It was a very exciting time,'' she says. ''I was with Dario as people began celebrating the result.''
She describes the new work as ''contemporary baroque'' with music by Calvin Bowman. ''It will be a melodrama using extracts of her monologues surrounded by music if the funding comes through.''
Noonan has dedicated her life to creative pursuits and is keen to continue.
''There is not a lot of difference to me between singing and writing creatively,'' she says.
Voicing Emily, The Life and Times of Emily Dickinson is at the Melbourne Recital Centre at 3pm and 7pm on Saturday.