More than just the singing

There’s much more preparation for singing opera than just warming up your voice. Homegrown soprano Naomi Johns talks about how she’s readying to perform in WA Opera’s Otello.  

By Ara Jansen

When Naomi Johns found out she was going to be playing Desdemona in the opera Otello, she dug into all the source material she could find. 

Naomi Johns in The Phantom of the Opera

She collected together Shakespeare’s original play Othello, live performances of the Italian opera, Otello’s libretto, musical score and phonetic translation, to name a few and started studying. 

“I think it’s essential to have all these sources,” says the soprano about her breakthrough principal role. “Especially with a Shakesperean role where you are translating it to a different language and a new medium. It’s important to understand the context in order to see what parts Verdi chose to keep.”

In this West Australian Opera production, Naomi stars as Desdemona, the wife of lead character Otello (played by Paul O’Neill). Otello’s soldier Iago (Jose Carbo) holds a grudge after being overlooked for promotion. He decides to manipulate Otello into believing his wife is unfaithful and drives the general to a tragic end.

“I love the story, the characters and the drama. It’s written so well that it’s a pleasure to sing but it also gives you some licence and freedom to move within the character’s story.”   

By the time rehearsals commence about a month ahead of opening night, performers are expected to have memorised all their parts and have done all of the in-depth background work need to deliver the character authentically. 

The born and bred WA soprano says Otello is an exciting challenge and technically a difficult part to perform. 

“The music shows you a lot about the character’s temperament. It’s also written in the expression and the dynamic marks Verdi put on his score, like if a line needs to sound like a sob, he’ll write the drama into the music. As a singer you have to decide how to deliver that in a way that has integrity within the whole piece,” she says.

“How I learn and prepare for this role determines and grounds me for how I sing this role for the rest of my life. That’s our job as an artist, to keep that artistic integrity and your personal strength and give the best of what you are capable of. While it will be informed by similar things, how I sing this role this year, won’t be the same as in 10 years.”   

An emerging Australian soprano, Naomi attended the Sydney Conservatorium of Music after completing her certificate of Music Theatre at the West Australian Academy of Performing Arts (WAAPA).

She has been a frequent finalist of many national singing competitions, including being the first female winner of the Bel Canto Award from the Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge Opera Foundation in 2013 which enabled her to continue coaching in New York, Cardiff and London.

While now based in Perth, one of her most recent performances was Carlotta in The Phantom of the Opera, outdoors for Opera Australia. She made her WA Opera debut in The Barber of Seville. 

This is the first time Naomi has performed Desdemona, while it has been almost a decade since WAO staged it. 

“I feel fortunate to have come to this point in my life. I feel like I am the right age and vocal skill and temperament to play this part. It doesn’t happen often in your career. 

“I have never enjoyed learning a role so much in my life and I’ll also be working with very seasoned singers in Paul O’Neill and Jose Carbo. To be able to make a role debut in their company is special as is being able to do it in my hometown.” 

Otello is at His Majesty’s Theatre from July 20.