At 86, this celebrated opera singer is returning to the stage in a new role

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Call it a late career change. At 86, soprano Marilyn Richardson is about to appear in her first play.

She will debut not in a minor role with an independent theatre company, but as a pivotal character in a main stage production.

More than two decades since she stepped out of the spotlight as one of Australia’s leading opera singers, she is poised to appear in the Sydney Theatre Company’s production of Patricia Cornelius’ Do Not Go Gentle, directed by Paige Rattray.

Marilyn Richardson was one of Australia’s most celebrated opera singers for decades.Credit: Janie Barrett

Preparing for her first play is vastly different from getting ready for an opera.

“You’ve got no music to guide you,” says Richardson. “In an opera you’ve got the story, the lyrics and you’ve got the conductor to look at. [With a play] you’ve got black words on a white page … You read the story and get some hint as to what it’s all about.”

Do Not Go Gentle, which takes its title from Dylan Thomas’ poem about mortality and ageing, layers Robert Scott’s doomed journey to the South Pole with a tale of aged-care residents blazing their own trail to the end.

Richardson plays Maria, an opera-loving middle-European migrant, a woman with a once-beautiful singing voice. Maria is ill at ease in Australia – a land as foreign to her as the frozen continent was to Scott.

Her character reminds the Randwick-raised Richardson of the European migrants of her youth who battled language barriers and prejudice to make a new life in Australia.

But the world of the play is also familiar to her in how the characters struggle with frailty, shifting realities and the whiteouts of memory. Richardson’s late husband, baritone James Christiansen, who died in 2019, suffered for 20 years with Parkinson’s and later dementia.

She hasn’t forgotten the confused and confusing world she encountered when her husband first entered a nursing home for respite. “It was the strangest week of my life,” she says.

She recalls a former ballet dancer with a far-away expression leaning against a wall, and people gazing without comprehension at a blaring television. And she recalls how her husband offered his hand in friendship to a male resident.

“The man said, ‘I don’t know you’ and walked away,” she says. “James was left with his hand out.”

Over lunch during a rehearsal break, Richardson arrives, having just watched a scene in the play in which a wife no longer recognises her husband. “I found it so touching, I started crying,” she says.

And briefly, her tears flow again.

“The nearness of the experience is something you carry with you,” she says.

With its reflection on mortality, the play resonates with one of the last operas Richardson appeared in: Leos Janacek’s The Makropulos Secret in 1996, about a singer’s quest for eternal youth.

Over her career, Richardson had combined a magnificent voice with a riveting dramatic presence. She was never a “park and bark” diva, but inhabited the starring roles she took on, which ranged from Aida to Lulu.

Marilyn Richardson in the title role of the 1976 Australian Opera production of Salome.Credit: Peter Holderness, The Australian Opera

Richardson is enjoying working for the first time with some of Australia’s finest mature actors, among them Peter Carroll, John Gaden, Philip Quast and Vanessa Downing, in Do Not Go Gentle.

Richardson was not familiar with the playwright’s work before she joined the production – but she’s hardly alone in this.

Marilyn Richardson is one of a star-stacked cast for Do Not Go Gentle at STC.Credit: Janie Barrett

While Cornelius is one of Australia’s most awarded and uncompromising playwrights, her work has rarely been seen in Sydney, and never at STC, so it’s a debut of sorts too for the Melbourne-based playwright.

The play, which won the 2006 Patrick White Playwrights Award, is less overtly political than many of Cornelius’ works, which often focus on class and marginalised communities.

But creating a play for older actors in a culture besotted with youth is perhaps a political act.

“I was interested in having beautiful older actors and not just in roles where they’re wheeled on and comic relief is made from them and then they’re wheeled off. I wanted to create really sustainable and fantastic storylines,” says Cornelius. “It’s a great reminder of what older people can contribute.”

Do Not Go Gentle is at the Roslyn Packer Theatre from May 23-June 17.

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