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Get ready for Elecktra
Get ready for Elecktra

Every time I go backstage at His Majesty's Theatre I get lost. It's a labyrinth. Like Theseus in the ancient Greek myth, I need to unravel a ball of twine as I go so I can find my way back out.

Thankfully, on this occasion at least, it's not the Minotaur waiting for me in its lair but the delightful Danish soprano Eva Johansson in her dressing room.

But the Greek myth element is still there: Johansson is in town to sing the lead role in composer Richard Strauss' supercharged fin-de-siecle opera Elektra, which is being performed in Perth for the first time, a co-production between WA Opera, ThinIce, the Perth International Arts Festival and Opera Australia.

Sophocles' Greek verse tragedy of the same name tells the story of Elektra and her siblings' search for vengeance after their father King Agamemnon is murdered by his wife, Clytemnestra, who now rules Mycenae with Aegisthus.

When, in 1906, Richard Strauss teamed up with novelist, poet and playwright Hugo von Hofmannsthal to adapt the latter's own adaptation of Sophocles' Elektra for the operatic stage, it was an instant sensation.

Directed by that enfant terrible of the theatre world, Matthew Lutton, designed by Zoe Atkinson and conducted by outgoing WA Opera music director Richard Mills, this new production of Strauss' opera promises to be a real eye and ear-opener - especially with Johansson, universally hailed as one of the great Elektras of our time, on board.

"Elektra is one of my favourite roles because it goes so deeply into the desire for revenge," Johansson says as we sit in her dressing room. "The more I do it, the more interesting I find it."

Johansson studied at the Copenhagen Opera Academy and made her professional debut in 1982 as the Countess in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro.

She says it's great that WA Opera and Richard Mills are performing Elektra in Perth. "It's a wonderful opportunity for WA Opera and for Perth audiences. And Matthew (Lutton) is wonderful; he's so well-prepared and knows so much about the drama and the music."

Refreshingly, there's nothing of the diva about Johansson and she's very much the team player - important when you have young and impressionable emerging artists among more experienced performers such as Orla Boylan, Elizabeth Campbell and Richard Greager.

"I may have done this role so many times and in so many different productions, but we all want to make a fantastic Elektra and part of that is having a super conversation," Johansson says. "I get ideas from my colleagues and I give them ideas."

Speaking about work, Elektra is one of opera's big sings. "Yes sir, she's on stage pretty much all the time," Johansson says after an exaggerated sigh. "I do gymnastics and yoga, things like that, to keep strong. You need to be in super shape to sing this marathon. But I just love it."

Johansson, who this year celebrates 30 years as a professional singer, is also blessed with the kind of natural ability that allows you to bypass the usual apprenticeship of performing in smaller roles and working your way up.

"I was at opera school in Copenhagen, and after just one year, at the age of 24, I got a five-year contract as a soloist (with the Royal Danish Theatre). I never did the small roles. When I was 30 I went to the Deutsche Oper Berlin and almost immediately sang all the big roles there. So I've been very lucky."

At 54, Johansson says her voice still feels and sounds fresh. And she's still got energy to burn. "I have this big garden at home and I just love working in it," she says, making such powerful digging motions with her arms that if the Minotaur gatecrashed our interview I don't think it would stand a chance.