Elizabeth Connell stares out from behind wide circular glasses with the warm yet regal smile that can only mean soprano.

There is reason enough to smile. Connell will star in the title role of a new production of Norma this week, a gloriously passionate role for a soprano noted not just for her vocal expertise but her acting skills. Norma is a Druid princess in love with Pollione, a Roman who is oppressing her people. Will her children become slaves? Will Norma throw herself into a volcano?

Even seated in the Opera House cafeteria armed only with a half-finished cryptic crossword, Connell has a presence that suggests she’s up to the challenge. She has already overcome a bout of tracheitis to face the Melbourne premiere this month and come out smiling. Rehearsals this morning with director George Ogilvie were decidedly relaxed.

George keeps on making me laugh and I said -“ you’re sabotaging the soprano, Connell says.

Connell’s illness developed in neatly dramatic circumstances. The South African-born diva made her operatic debut in her home country in March in a production of Fidelio staged on Robben Island, a prison that once held Nelson Mandela. The production marked the republic’s 10th anniversary, although the presence of lime dust was nearly disastrous.

It was a very special experience, Connell says. And the whole idea and concept were fantastic. But there were lime quarries there. So the prisoners had to chop this lime stuff and quite a lot of them went blind or had lung complaints from the lime dust.

Still, the Cape Town Opera production was a huge success, with a multi-national and multi-racial cast including a Zulu husband and wife team as Jacquino and Marzelline. Connell, who describes herself as an ex-South African, Irish citizen, citizen of the world, has taken this long to perform in her homeland because of political reasons.

Old political reasons in the old days and new political reasons these days. It’s very complicated, she says.

Connell’s Australian Norma also held a particular aesthetic significance. Norma is a new production of an opera in the bel canto tradition, a style closely associated with Dame Joan Sutherland and not heard in this country as often since her retirement. Bel canto means beautiful singing, and requires coloratura of an acrobatic standard. The title role of Norma is one associated not just with Sutherland but the queen of them all, Maria Callas.

The production was also a much-needed morale booster in a year that saw the Melbourne season cut to four shows and pleas by chief executive Adrian Collette for more funding.

Connell’s cold was noted by Age reviewer John Slavin, but failed to hamper what he called a subtle and intelligently judged interpretation and her dazzling coloratura.

The diva Connell sees Norma, and the bel canto tradition, a little differently.

It oils the voice, Connell says. It’s like having a good mechanical oil change and going along for a service. It keeps you going. The next thing I do is an Electra and I’m sure the Electra will be easy.

I hope it [bel canto in Australia] will continue. I don’t know as yet, Connell smiles. I’ll have a chat to management and maybe they will do some more.

Norma by Bellini is playing at the Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House, from 26 June to 31 July. Phone 9318 8228.

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