Green Room Award winner Tobias Cole is one of Australia’s most successful countertenors and is driven by a passion for live performance. For over twenty years he has been singing professionally in opera and concerts around Australia, New Zealand, USA and Europe. As artistic director of Handel in the Theatre, Canberra Choral Society and vocal ensemble Clarion, he has programmed well over 50 performances and in recent years has directed a number of music theatre works.
Recent highlights include performing the role of Willy Wonka in a family show he adapted from Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory for the Canberra International Music Festival; with actor William Zappa, performing The Sonnets Out Loud at The Street Theatre; and in the Canberra Playhouse directing and performing in The Vow, his adaptation of Handel’s Jephtha.
THE STREET TALKED TO TOBIAS COLE BEFORE THE WORLD PREMIERE OPENING SEASON OF COLD LIGHT.
YOU ARE RENOWNED AS A COUNTERTENOR AND WORK IN OPERA. WHAT HAS CAPTURED YOUR INTEREST IN SO-CALLED ‘STRAIGHT’ THEATRE?
An opera composer will create a very deliberate path for the text. The challenge for the opera performer is not only to follow this path exactly but appear as if they are creating it. In a play the performers have the freedom to create the path. So in a way an actor must also be a composer, using elements of rhythm, melody, articulation and dynamics to best express the text. I look at a play and wonder which words might deserve special treatment, asking ‘which phrase would Handel have turned into a five minute aria?’
WHY DID YOU TAKE ON THE ROLE OF AMBROSE IN COLD LIGHT?
When I read the play I fell in love with the colour, charm and energy of Ambrose. He is outrageous, sensual, provocative, unconventional, buoyant and so supportive of Edith. What a wonderful character to discover and play. I also relish the opportunity to tell a great story set in Canberra, in buildings and types of buildings that I’m very familiar with. For many years I’ve wanted to work with director Caroline Stacey, having been very impressed by what she and The Street Theatre does for Canberra and its artists. It is important for me to be engaged in professional performing work with other professionals in my hometown without having to go to interstate or overseas.
HOW, AS AN ACTOR, DO YOU NEGOTIATE THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN NOVEL AND PLAY WHEN TAKING ON AN ICONIC CHARACTER?
Before studying the play thoroughly I read Frank Moorhouse’s novel Cold Light, which left me with strong impressions of Ambrose’s character. A play script, however, is a completely different genre, which takes you into the room with the characters. Through the character’s choice of words you can almost taste them. My first priority is to serve the details presented in the play, his actions and reactions. The novel, though, gives me an abundance of information including historical background that I can call upon to provide nuance.
TALK US THROUGH YOUR PROCESS IN BRINGING AMBROSE TO LIFE?
For me, language is a key element in the process of bringing Ambrose to life. As a singer you spend countless hours finding the right ‘position’ for your voice. In other words, where your voice best resonates in your body. Once you find this you begin to tap into deep emotions that relate to the word or phrase you’re singing. I use this technique also with learning spoken text, searching for and resonating on the essential words/phrases that sum up a scene. Finding the right ‘position’ at home is very different from in the rehearsal room where your priority is to play with others. It obviously, therefore, takes a long, long time to achieve that wonderful concept of flow where you are able to resonate at the same time as being free to respond to the dynamics of other people, sounds, lights, costume, props and set. Oh, and I forgot to mention the dynamic of the audience!!
THERE ARE SIX ACTORS IN THE WORK. WHAT HAVE YOU DISCOVERED TOGETHER IN THE FIRST TWO WEEKS OF REHEARSAL?
Caroline’s style of directing is very inclusive and the first two weeks has brought the cast of six very close. The show is very much an ensemble piece with five actors playing several roles, as well as being a chorus and supernumeraries, around Edith Campbell-Berry on her journey to recognition. The rehearsal room has been a lovely space of trust where we can share ideas, skills and knowledge.
WHERE DOES TOBIAS COLE MEET MAJOR AMBROSE WESTWOOD?
Immediately before moving to Canberra I’d lived in London for seven years so I can relate to his feelings of isolation when he first arrives in Australia. When my wife and two children moved here we were surrounded by 9-5ers and didn’t have any local friends, let alone artistic colleagues, so for a short time I felt it was only in Sydney, where our oldest and truest friends lived and where my professional artistic work was, that I felt validated as a performer and ‘allowed to express’. After ten years in Canberra things are completely different, although I still often feel a great sense of excitement and release whenever I go to Sydney, Melbourne and London.
THE WORK DEALS WITH AMBITION, WOMEN, AND PEOPLE OF DIFFERENCE – IS COLD LIGHT A WORK FOR OUR TIMES?
Cold Light is very much a work for our time. Prejudice in all its forms is alive and malevolent. Habeas Corpus is threatened today as much as it was in 1950s Australia. Women still do everything and get paid less than their male counterparts.
WHAT IS IMPORTANT FOR YOU TO A SUCCESSFUL AND FRUITFUL RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN AN ACTOR AND DIRECTOR?
What I love about being directed is that I can become the ideal student, one who is receptive and positive to every suggestion and is prepared to try new ideas. Often it can be very scary, especially when you believe you’re not able to do what is asked of you. However, if you remember to ask for help you will survive.
WHAT DO YOU LOOK FOR FROM AN AUDIENCE?
It always amuses me that one of the most important elements of theatre arrives at the last moment: the audience. I don’t really understand a show until the audience is part of it. That’s why I think it’s invaluable before opening to seize any opportunity of running the show in front of people who aren’t familiar with it. This always seems to cut some of the fear factor from opening night.
WHAT’S INSPIRING YOU CREATIVELY AT THE MOMENT?
Ensemble singing is my balm, whether it is with my quartet Clarion, my teenage choir Vocal Fry or improvising in the kitchen with my family. Two months ago I began preparations for a Handel opera (to be announced shortly!) that I’ll be directing later in the year with my company Handel in the Theatre. For this production I will be creating a unique chorus that will develop their singing, movement and acting over several months with the support of Caroline Stacey. Observing Caroline work with the Cold Light ensemble these last two weeks, with this project in mind, has been hugely inspiring.