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Henry Shaw headshot

English Eccentrics cast talk opera and the 1987 season of Neighbours

English Eccentrics, the latest production from the VO Emerges program, introduces you to an amalgamation of misfits, each more bizarre than the last. A few of the show’s talented performers discuss what draws them to opera, its challenges, and watching Neighbours in the shower.

Michaela Cadwgan

“Opera has really caught me… the stories, the orchestra, and sometimes absurdity of it.”

Michaela Cadwgan left Aotearoa (New Zealand) a couple of months ago to work in Australia after winning the Victorian Opera Prize. Just 12 hours after stepping off the plane in Melbourne, she entered our studio and began to sing.

“I was a bit overwhelmed at the beginning, especially walking through Melbourne Central. Melbourne basically has the whole population of New Zealand,” she says.

Michaela has been singing classically since she was seven years old, following in her big sister’s path, and was performing her first German or Italian son by age 10. Her goal for the next five years is to play the lead in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, a tragic opera that tells the story of a woman who has a child out of wedlock and is sent to a convent.

“I think I love a tragic character. I love doing fun characters as well, but something about tragic stories draws audiences into them,” she says. “You get the chance to make people feel something. It’s a way to show the power of what opera can do, to really move people.”

Michaela Cadwgan will be swapping tragedy for comedy in English Eccentrics, playing Lady Lewson, Sarah Whitehead, and Mrs Worrall.

Henry Shaw

“There’s no way you can watch all of Neighbours.”

Henry Shaw headshot

Henry Shaw is part opera singer, part comedian and part writer. If you haven’t heard his baritone in an opera, you may have heard about his plight to watch every episode of iconic Australian show Neighbours for a podcast We’ll Get There Together. For a live recording at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Henry and his co-host watched all 240 episodes of Neighbours from 1987.

“We watched 25 episodes per day, which would take eight hours. Then we went into the city, recorded a podcast, then went home to sleep, then woke up to watch more Neighbours,” he says. “At one point I was like, ‘I’m disgusting, I need to take a shower’. I took my phone into the shower with me, I just needed to keep watching.”

So, does he love watching the show? “No, it’s so bad, It’s awful. And as you’re watching, you’re finding out how awful it is in new surprising ways. It’s a true nightmare of my own doing,” he says.

Henry trained in opera during school singing bass. He moved to Sydney to study writing at NIDA in 2020, where he delved further into opera studies, its history and its role in society. When he moved back to Melbourne he entered the opera community once again and has been performing for the past two years.

In English Eccentrics, Henry plays Thomas Parr, A Governor of the Bank of England, Captain Philip Thicknesse and Parish Constable.

Rachael Joyce

“I wish more people knew that there is something for everyone in opera.”

Rachael Joyce headshot

It seems music runs in Rachael Joyce’s blood. The soprano says she is inspired by her two impressive grandmothers, each of whom have continued to play music well into their 80s.

“My nanna is in a recorder group, she plays the organ at church, and has recently purchased a violin and a clarinet from Aldi. She also has a double bass and a didgeridoo,” she says. “My other grandma has taken up the piano again and plays the guitar. They’re also great opera lovers.”

Rachael has been drawn to opera for its storytelling, and says there is so much more to each production beyond its beautiful music. Performing authentically, she explains, means having not only a good understanding of the character, but also how the character is personified through the composer’s music.

“I think there’s a misconception that only a certain type of person would like opera. But all opera plots boil down to interpersonal relationships, which is basically our whole life. In every opera there’s something that someone can relate to.”

“That’s what I find endearing about English Eccentrics,” she says. “For every kind of quirk of each character, there’s something else that makes you feel for them or like them in some way.”

In English Eccentrics, Rachael will be playing Mrs Dards, the Duchess of Devonshire, Princess Caraboo, and the First Nun.

Alastair Cooper-Golec

“I get onto the stage and I just feel like a pool noodle, limbs flailing everywhere.”

Alastair Cooper-Golec headshot

Alastair Cooper-Golec has been singing since age nine, mostly in choral music, when he started in the Youth Voices of Melbourne program. Still, he didn’t always expect to end up a career singer.

“I was thinking of getting into IT, I was interested in programming and software development. But then Year 12 came around and I thought I wanted to give singing a go, and I had a really great experience and a fantastic class,” he says.

Today, he’s a Victorian Opera veteran. Alastair has been involved with the company since 2006, performing in our very first show, a children’s production of Noye’s Fludde, which is based on the story of Noah’s Ark. He played a bird.

Like many other creatives, he says he finds the biggest challenge in opera is the feeling of “always taking two steps forward and one back, whether in terms of technique or career, or stage skills”.

“It always feels like just when you’re getting the hang of things, you suddenly realise how much bigger the mountain is. And then you look back at the past three years and realise you’ve actually come a really long way, but it definitely doesn’t feel like that in the moment,” he explains.

Alastair plays The Rev Mr Jones, Robert ‘Romeo’ Coates, Dr Graham and Dr Wilkinson in English Eccentrics.

English Eccentrics: 4-6 July