Performance review: Forty Years on Forty Stages from Coolangatta to Convent Garden, Opera Queensland Studio

Acclaimed operatic bass, Conal Coad presented a highly enjoyable program of musical delights.

Conal Coad is recognised as a leading Australian buffo bass with an operatic career that has spanned more than 50 years. Born and brought up in New Zealand, he trained at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music followed by studies in Europe and New York before joining Opera Australia’s Young Artist Program. His career then took off across the world appearing in many of the leading opera houses with a repertoire that has included more than 50 roles, ranging from Benjamin Britten through to the buffo roles of Rossini, Donizetti and Mozart, of which he is a renowned specialist.

Part of Opera Queensland’s (OQ) annual studio program, his Brisbane recital, entitled Forty Years on Forty Stages from Coolangatta to Covent Garden, neatly summed up what Coad has achieved in a remarkable and still active singing career. He presented a smorgasbord of operatic arias, alongside a diverse sprinkling of art songs that illustrated his interests and vocal range. The whole was peppered with light-hearted introductions to the pieces themselves and memories of past performances. As to be expected from this eminently engaging artist, there were some hilarious anecdotes offering an insight into his down-to-earth and self-deprecating sense of humour.

He commenced with a little-known aria from Mozart’s earliest opera, the comedy Bastien und
. ‘Diggi, Daggi’ is a nonsense song sung by a magician character called Colas and the piece is suitably silly but also quite fun. Coad demonstrated the powerful timbre of his voice from the outset with some terrific top notes. He remarked that this was a special choice for him, being the first opera role he ever sang at the age of 16, but added soberly that Mozart was a mere 12 years of age when he composed it.

He followed this with Prince Gremin’s glorious aria from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a role Coad sang to much acclaim at OQ in 1994. The aria famously expresses Gremin’s love for his wife, demanding some intense and beautiful singing. Very well-paced and phrased, Coad gave vocal power to the nobility of his character with some sweeping legato, floating his voice in the softer passages to give a marvellous rendition of the piece. It was the best aria of the concert.

In a complete change of pace, Bartolo’s revenge aria, ‘La Vendetta’, from Le Nozze di Figaro was strongly controlled, offering some wonderful fast Italian patter managed with aplomb. Similarly, Osmin’s aria from Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio gave him a chance to refine and show off his comedic and buffo talents with some masterful singing courtesy of this nasty and venomous character.

French Baroque composer, Jean-Baptiste Lully’s opera Amadis was included in the mix. The main character sings a sweet, charming aria of yearning for lost love, ‘Bois épais, redouble ton ombre’. Coad demonstrated his ability to sing equally as well sotto voce as at the top of his commanding voice with delicate pianissimo.

A section on art songs and lieder included two contrasting pieces by Schumann, the softly gentle, ‘Die Lotosblume’, and the bluff, light-hearted ‘Ich grolle nicht’ (I don’t blame you), both well interpreted and delivered. Similarly, two Richard Strauss songs offered contrasting and engaging themes to showcase his skills.

Tchaikovsky’s two love songs, ‘To the Forest’ and ‘None but the Lonely Heart’, are yearning and heartfelt pieces that well demonstrated the breadth of Coad’s artistry and attention to detail. With impeccable diction, his delicious phrasing delivered some lovely musical colours.

Poulenc’s arrangement of some of Apollinaire’s poems about various animals and sea creatures, ‘Le Bestiaire’, was joyously sung by Coad. Depicted by various musical characteristics, the six creatures included a cricket, dolphin, crayfish and carp, alongside the camel and goat. It was a fun if quirky musical choice that lightened some of the more serious works.

As an encore, Coad offered two contemporary songs in English. ‘Some Enchanted Evening’ from
Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific was up first, one of the great musical songs. Coad’s rendition was spot on, carefully controlled and bringing tears to the eyes. It was followed by
the ever-popular tear-jerker, ‘Danny Boy’, a requested audience favourite.

Special mention should be made of accompanist, Sarka Budinska, who played extremely well
throughout, accompanying Coad sensitively and with expert technical skill. She was particularly
strong in the lyrical passages and in accompanying the Tchaikovsky aria and songs.

Read: Music review: Garrick Ohlsson, Queensland Conservatorium Theatre

This was an immensely enjoyable and well thought-through concert, with its variety of repertoire
that showed off Coad’s impressive talents in both the opera bass repertoire as well as in the various art songs and more contemporary work. His huge bass voice was in great form while his diction was excellent, singing as he did in four languages. Interspersed with amusing background information and witty anecdotes, this recital gave us a fine artist at his best.

Opera Queensland Studio Series presented
Forty Years on Forty Stages from Coolangatta to Covent Garden
on 2-3 June 2023
Bass: Conal Coad

Accompanist: Sarka Budinska
Opera Queensland Studio, Brisbane

Suzannah Conway is ArtsHub's Brisbane-based Arts Feature Writer. Suzannah is an experienced arts administrator, having been CEO of Opera Queensland, the Brisbane Riverfestival and the Centenary of Federation celebrations for Queensland. She has been writing reviews and music articles for over 15 years and regularly reviews classical music, opera and musical theatre in particular for The Australian and Limelight magazine as well as other journals.