Opera Australia’s Michael Honeyman on depicting King Roger’s inner conflicts and learning opera in Polish

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Opera Australia will present their latest production of the Szymanowski’s 20th-century masterpiece King Roger from the 20th January at the Sydney Opera House. The production is co-produced with the Royal Opera House and was first performed in Covent Garden.

Playing the demanding role of the conflicted King Roger is Michael Honeyman. We caught up ahead of the production to discuss the intricacies of this rarely performed opera, depicting inner struggles and the challenges of learning opera in a new language.

King Roger is a rarely performed opera. Can you tell us a little bit about what makes this 20th-century masterpiece special?

It’s a highly original work into which Szymanowski invested his personal feelings circumstances. He labored over this creation for several years. The score is lush, complex and beautiful. It has a richness that though striking on first listen is even more rewarding on subsequent hearings.

KROL ROGER, _ROH, Director; Kasper Holten, Designs; Steffen Aarfing, Choreography; Cathy Marston, Conductor; Antonio Pappano, Król Roger II; Mariusz Kwiecień, Shepherd; Saimir Pirgu, Roxana; Georgia Jarman, Edrisi; Kim Begley, Archbishop; Alan Ewing, Deaconess; Agnes Zwierko,

The role of King Roger is said to be a highly demanding role, specifically as it’s the first Polish opera staged by Opera Australia. How did you find the process of learning a new language and pronunciation?

Of course, learning a new language is always daunting: singing in a new language is an extra hurdle. I worked with a language coach for several weeks just speaking the text before even attempting to sing. The other challenge is remembering the meaning of each word and sentence in an exotic language. The blessing is that language gives so much colour to the singing and phrasing.

How do you go about depicting the inner conflict that troubles King Roger on stage?

During the rehearsal process, we looked very closely as the text and music to identify the fears and desires of King Roger. Often we found moments where a fear and a desire could be felt at the same time. I tried to be physical with the conflicts early in the rehearsal process and later mould these for clarity. In this production there are eight dancers who brilliantly portray some of King Roger’s inner workings in a visual and primal way.

It’s very likely that the audience would probably not have ever heard this opera before. Does that make it exciting as a performer to present them with something new?

It’s very exciting to be the first to bring a new piece to an audience and somewhat of a responsibility. It’s a great work and I want out audience to have a great appreciation of this masterpiece. I love the music, I’m in awe of Kasper Holten’s dramatic realisation and have been enthralled by the process of discovering the character of King Roger with my colleagues and the artistic directors. So there’s also the responsibility of bringing the fruit of everyone’s labour to a fresh audience.

KROL ROGER, _ROH, Director; Kasper Holten, Designs; Steffen Aarfing, Choreography; Cathy Marston, Conductor; Antonio Pappano, Król Roger II; Mariusz Kwiecień, Shepherd; Saimir Pirgu, Roxana; Georgia Jarman, Edrisi; Kim Begley, Archbishop; Alan Ewing, Deaconess; Agnes Zwierko,

And finally, do you have a favourite part of the opera that we can all look out for?

I’m often overwhelmed by the opening moments, which are sublime and a great sing for the magnificent Opera Australia Chorus. My other favourite moment is the Shepherd’s song in the first act. It is intoxicating and exotic.

King Roger will be performed at the Sydney Opera House from 20th January – 15th February. For more information and to book visit opera.org.au

Production photo credit (c) Bill Cooper