Opera Australia’s Robert Mitchell is saying farewell to the operatic stage after 41 years in the spotlight. As the tributes roll in, the singer shares some memories with fellow artist Deborah Humble of a career that has included playing slaves to royalty, priests to devils, courtesans, tragics, comics, lyrics, ridicules, drunks, dukes and yes, even one duchess. The 66- year-old baritone has literally seen and done it all in operatic terms. He retires after the curtain comes down on the final performance of Carmen at Melbourne’s State Theatre this month having participated in over an estimated 3000 performances in more than 120 different opera productions. Mitchell has not only appeared as a valued member of Opera Australia’s highly regarded full time chorus, but also as a soloist and understudy.
He remembers joining the company at 25 years of age as a tenor in the extra chorus for Prokofiev’s War and Peace which opened the newly constructed Sydney Opera House on September 28, 1973. “There was an atmosphere of great excitement,” reflects Mitchell. “During breaks from music calls we would go and explore the building. I will never forget the first time I walked onto the stage. There was the red-seated auditorium in all it’s glory!”
Participating in that epic opera which represented a defining moment in Australia’s cultural history was only the beginning. Mitchell received a “great present” when he was asked to join the full-time chorus just before his 29th birthday, and is now the only remaining company member who appeared in that inaugural performance.
His many career highlights have included performing on stage alongside some of the industry’s greatest singers and under the music direction of some of the world’s best conductors. Indeed Mitchell is able to drop into the conversation some of the biggest vocal names of the 20th century. He considers himself very lucky to have sung with the likes of Sutherland, Pavarotti, Te Kanawa and Milnes, to name just a few.
“For a young baritone to have sat at Sherill Milnes’ feet as he sang the drinking song from Hamlet was like being in heaven,” reflects Mitchell. He remembers that it was “after I went on as the cover of the Messenger in a performance of La Traviata with Joan Sutherland in the early 80s that music director Richard Bonynge said I was definitely a baritone, and I moved into that section of the chorus in the next season … where I have stayed ever since.“
It goes without saying that here have been a few operatic hiccups as well as highlights along the way. Mitchell recounts how in Fiddler on the Roof at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Sydney there was a huge clap of thunder just as the chorus sang the line in Act 2 “Surely God will send us a sign.” “The timing was perfect,” he recalls, “but it caused much laughter on stage that had to be suppressed.”
He also recalls the 1978 David Pountney production of The Mastersingers which was sung in English. Mitchell played one of the 12 apprentices and tells that Hans Sachs was played by the well-known Wagnerian and bass baritone Norman Bailey. “Bailey only arrived in time for the final dress rehearsal,” says Mitchell “and when he got to his monologue in the final scene of Act 3 in performance, he suddenly lapsed into German. He couldn’t make the switch into English and completed the long section in German with the whole cast’s rapt attention. After the chorus entered in English he was back on track.”
And one final story. “On the night that the tenor singing the title role in Idomeneo was ill and his cover also called in sick, the decision was made to replace the Mozart with La Traviata. This was extraordinary but the production had been mounted for Dame Joan and there was no way the company was going to cancel.
“Dame Joan agreed to sing Violetta at short notice because most of the cast who had appeared with her 18 months earlier were around and the chorus knew the score. When the announcement was made before the curtain, the audience were given the option of getting their money back, but there was much cheering except for a couple of Mozart lovers who made their way to the box office. Perhaps Verdi was not to their taste.
“But those patrons made a terrible mistake. Having not sung Violetta for 18 months, Joan was on her mettle and it was perhaps the best performance I heard her sing of that role. Her Lucia was miraculous but her Norma, Lucrezia Borgia and Suor Angelica were also especially outstanding in my memory. Perhaps it was that our wonderful Joan was more at home as a mother than a consumptive courtesan or mad maiden!”
So what are the qualities required for such a long career on stage? Robert always knew he loved opera and theatre in general but remembers being realistic about the size and quality of his voice compared with those of major principals. “I asked myself if I really wanted to sing or perhaps do something else. I decided I did want to sing and I have always been happy to be part of an ensemble. I was always of the opinion that, even as part of a crowd there is always bound to be one pair of eyes on you at all times, and that one must be engaging and concentrated; listening to and participating in the action.”
Opera Australia’s ex-Chorus Master Michael Black confirms Mitchell’s dedication to the chorus from his new position at Chicago Lyric Opera. “Quite simply Robbie has been one of the pillars of the OA Chorus over the past 41 years. In that time no one has been more committed to the job, whether it be learning so many operas accurately, being a mentor to those less experienced choristers around him, giving his all onstage every single performance and simply loving the art form.
“To work with a chorus member who, after 41 years in the job, is still as passionate about opera and his part in it now as he was when he first began is unique, and I am honoured to have been his employer, colleague and friend for some of those years.”
Mitchell goes on to say that “sharing the experience of performing with a group of like-minded artists” has always given him great pleasure and adds that he knows he has “been lucky to work in the business full-time without the need to look for other work.” Indeed his life’s work has given him very little to complain about although he admits that “working six nights a week for most of the year has very often cut into family and social life.”
So it is that the sprightly singer now looks forward to life after the final curtain with great pleasure and with many plans. He anticipates a slightly more “normal” life, “entertaining at home, volunteering at his niece and nephew’s school and travelling at times not dictated by his chorus schedule. And of course he wants to remain involved in theatrical life. “I will go to the theatre and to concerts,” says Mitchell, “and organise some charity events at home to encourage younger singers to give recitals.”
Opera Australia will farewell Robert Mitchell at a function in Sydney on June 5th.
Robert Mitchell (right) in The Mikado. Picture: Jeff Busby