Review: Death by Soprano, Riverside Theatres

Lynne Lancaster

Isabel Hertaeg is terrific in a production perfect for opera fans and those new to the artform alike.
Review: Death by Soprano, Riverside Theatres

Sopranos must die: it is one of the unstated but accepted rules of opera as an art form. This show, devised and performed by Isabel Hertaeg, is a witty, alphabetical romp through various ways sopranos can die (A is for avalanche, P is for poison, S is for suicide, etc). Musically it ranges from Puccini, Wagner and Janacek to Poulenc and Rimsky Korsakov – to name just some of the composers – and it is performed in several different languages.

Hertaeg has soprano envy – ever since childhood she has aspired to be an operatic soprano – but this passion is tempered by the worrying fact that, as we learn, the average lifespan of a soprano is roughly two and a half hours (on stage at least). Hertaeg has a theory – if she can work out what keeps killing sopranos she might be able to survive a role!

The show begins with Hertaeg coming onstage as the tragic Ophelia. After her ‘death’ Hertaeg describes her approach to the show: she will explain the A-Z of soprano deaths. Hertaeg is in most impressive voice and gives a wonderful, exuberant performance which is at times strong and powerful, chilling and very moving.

The show has a screen at the back which acts as a guide: C is for Consumption (cue Violetta from La Traviatta), H is for Hair etc. It also provides the space for surtitles and witty comments. Hertaeg provides anecdotal banter describing the operas (some of which was rather hard to hear) and displays great comic timing. There are also some wonderful sight gags and inventive use of props, costumes, fake blood and accessories as we skitter through some of the best soprano solos. You do not usually see a soprano in a crash helmet and protective knee pads! The audience is also involved at one point.

Hertaeg is delightfully accompanied by Jo Abbott on piano, who interacts with Hertaeg slyly and wittily at times (to the great enjoyment of the audience).  

Highlights include the exquisite melting Snow Maiden and Antonia (from The Tales of Hoffman) with a very wicked huge white teddy bear. Cio Cio San (Madama Butterfly) is electric, very powerful and heartbreaking – with Hertaeg wearing a wonderful kimono patterned with a design of cranes. And Manon with all things French – croissants and an Eiffel Tower jaunty hat! And I mustn’t forget stalwart Liu from Turandot.

‘Salve Regina’ from Poulenc’s Dialogue of the Carmelites with Hertaeg as Blanche is a petrifying showstopper which will give you goosebumps, especially when we realise that this opera is based on a true story – in 1794, while Robespierre reigned during the French Revolution, 14 nuns and two servants were guillotined.  

There is much fun at the end with the dramatic final scenes of la Giconda, Dido and Aeneas, Suor Angelica, a very strong and imposing Brunhilde, and Tosca.

There is a fine balance between the humour and darkness and tragedy throughout and it is made even more relevant with comments about domestic violence and the treatment of women today.

A wonderful, refreshing, operatic cabaret.

4 stars: ★★★★

Death by Soprano
An Isabel Hertaeg & Critical Stages Production
Written by: Isabel Hertaeg
Directed by: Don Bridges
Designer: Derek Ives
Production Manager/Tech: Ryan Shuker
Cast: Isabel Hertaeg and Jo Abbott

Riverside Theatres Parramata
7 October 2018

Additional dates:

11 October Ararat Performing Arts Centre 
19 October Burnie Entertainment Centre


About the author

Lynne Lancaster is a Sydney based arts writer who has previously worked for Ticketek, Tickemaster and the Sydney Theatre Company. She has an MA in Theatre from UNSW, and when living in the UK completed the dance criticism course at Sadlers Wells, linked in with Chichester University.