Conal Coad and Rachelle Durkin on truth in comedy.
Conal Coad and Rachelle Durkin are an unlikely pair – a glamorous New York-based Australian soprano and a veteran of the international opera world, renowned for playing “old fat rascals” (in his own words) over his 40-year career as a bass. But thrown together on the Australian opera stage, they’re at their best – a comic duo with fantastic timing, an easy rapport and surefire vocal acrobatics at opposite ends of the scale.
In Melbourne in 2014, the pair reunite their comic talents to perform in Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, after winning rave reviews at its Sydney première last year. The Sydney Morning Herald described Conal Coad as “delightfully ridiculous and painfully vulnerable” and Rachelle Durkin as “sparkling and mercurial” in their respective roles.
It’s their fourth time treading the boards together, with the young soprano providing a ravishing Tatiana to Coad’s famous Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream a few years ago. (Both singers were also in Don Giovanni, however their roles were less intertwined.)
“It just seems to work,” said the distinguished bass. “Rachelle does something and sort of urges me into taking it a step further …”
Rachelle interrupts, “And then Conal says, let’s do it like this …”
“And then I fall into a trap and do so,” Conal says, “And I swing around and she’s on another level yet again…”
“Until the director goes, ‘no, no, that’s enough!’” Rachelle finishes with a laugh. “It definitely works.”
Both performers love doing comedy. “And I’d say we have a natural affinity towards it,” Conal says. “It’s one of those things, it either fits in and suits your personality, or it doesn’t. And you can see that on stage.”
Rachelle attributes her comic talent to an awkward adolescence. “I grew up with such long limbs, I spent my whole childhood trying to hide it. I hid myself by creating comedy and making people laugh!”
Conal has enjoyed a long career in Australia and abroad playing chiefly comic roles, but the experience has taught him that comedy is no laughing matter. “You have to do all of your fool work with great truth,” the New Zealand-born bass says. “You must never believe that you are playing the fool. If you don’t think about what you’re doing as funny (even if it is innately funny, like a fall), if you get the right timing, then you get the right laugh.”
It’s about respecting the audience, Rachelle agrees. “They’re not stupid. Even when you are doing something funny, like when I’m pretending to be Sophronia from the convent, I still have to believe that I’m trying to be her. You can’t go ‘nudge nudge, wink wink,’ to the audience, I don’t like that.”
The audience don’t either, Conal says. “Even if they laugh, it doesn’t really work. They laugh because they know they’re expected to, but that’s not the laughter of true humour. You have to take comedy very seriously.”
Rachelle’s debut as the feisty Norina was in dramatic circumstances: stepping in at the last minute to cover the ill Anna Netrebko at the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2011. “I had to jump on the Met stage in front of 4,500 people, there you go, thank you very much! For a radio broadcast, as well!”
It’s a fun role, Rachelle says. “We don’t know what happened to Norina’s first husband, but it’s clear a lot of people would be talking about her when she walks down the street. She’s a tough nut, she’s got a thick skin, but what’s really charming is that she really does love Ernesto. She’s quick-witted, wise beyond her years, she’s feisty and bitchy in that Italian way.”
In other words, the perfect foil for Conal Coad’s character: a self-important elderly bachelor who decides to diddle his nephew out of his inheritance by finding himself a wife.
“Here is this old codger who is pretty happy with his life of stamp-collecting and servants,” Conal explains. “He gets irritated that his nephew won’t settle down with the woman he has picked out for him, and so he gets sold on the idea that he could do it himself. Without realising the true and horrible implications of a 70-yr-old settling down with someone who is less than half his age!”
As the plot unfolds, the horror is revealed: Norina runs riot and much hilarity ensues.
“It’s a very funny piece,” Conal says. “Donizetti’s music just sparkles – it’s like a stream, bouncing and sparkling along. The comedy is unforced.”
Director Roger Hodgman has created a production to match, Rachelle says. “It’s eye candy, a very bright production, beautiful costumes…”
“…Filled with beautiful people,” Conal quips.
“The Chorus is phenomenal,” Rachelle counters,
“And it’s got everything!” Conal interrupts.
“You’ve got Mafioso, a priest, bicycles,” Rachelle continues, “and bring the kids because there’s a Vespa! The show just zips along at a lovely pace. There are no moments where you’re going, ‘Oh, when will this be over?’ Well, except for when the tenor sings…” she laughs.
(She’s joking. While the rest of the cast spend a lot of time spitting our rapid-fire recitative, the tenor gets the beautiful tunes.)
This story was written for the première of Don Pasquale at the Sydney Opera House in 2013. It has been updated with minor changes as Conal Coad and Rachelle Durkin prepare to reunite for the Melbourne premiere.