Catriona Barr Hits the Top Note

As an opera singer by night and winemaker by day, Catriona Barr gets to mix the glitz of opera with the unglamorous side of the wine industry: toiling in the vineyards.

Barr had no plans to run a wine label. The opportunity appeared out of the blue for the mezzo soprano who will star as Lola in the upcoming State Opera production Cavalleria Rusticana. Barr was based in London for more than a decade and had returned to Adelaide to perform as Suzuki in Madame Butterfly some 10 years ago. Back in Adelaide she met the person she would later marry, Nick Foskett.

“He was not a winemaker, either,” Barr says. “He chased me around the world for two years and we got married in 2010. I moved into his house in St Peters and we both had a long term hankering for a veggie garden and orchard. St Peters was lovely but we wanted some space. We wanted some privacy.”

The couple was hoping for a simple tree-change with a lifestyle property where Nick could make some wine on the side.

“I imagined half-an-acre of old vine Shiraz and stomping it ourselves in the garage. Nick fell in love with a seven-variety fully commercial Adelaide Hills vineyard,” she laughs. “I had a complete panic attack. ‘I’m not a farmer. I’m not a farmer’s wife. What are you thinking? This is mad!’”

Barr fell in love with the property after visiting it a second time.

“It’s a beautiful property and the vineyard was laid out superbly. Then I found out the Heysen Trail was just across the road as was Kuitpo Forest and the property was ready for horses. I always wanted to have a horse and just ride in the forest for miles. And it started to seem quite attractive.

“We both went to university to learn what the hell to do with it [the vineyards]. I studied viticulture and marketing and Nick has gone on to a master’s of wine making. It’s been immensely challenging. The first vintage, when I was standing at five in the morning picking caterpillars out of a grape bin, I was having a massive crisis. ‘I’m an opera singer. What am I doing here? This is all wrong.’ I hadn’t realised how glamorous my previous life was.”

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Now, Barr is able to mix the glitz of opera with the unglamorous farmer life as she performs with her home company State Opera and runs the wine label Top Note with her husband, as well as the winery’s cellar door that they opened just last year.

“The one thing the vineyard doesn’t give me is a chance to show off in a posh frock,” she laughs. “I’m an opera singer and we’re all great big show offs. I’m not getting the chance to show off in gum boots being covered in spider webs. And Nick knows that, too. I get to stay in town for the last two weeks of the opera, take my ravaged hands to get a manicure. By the time I come back, I’m completely ready to get back in my gum boots and not worry about make-up.”

Barr is in the upcoming state opera double-bill Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci, (commonly known as Cav Pag), an ever-popular double-header that was also staged by Opera Australia earlier this year. State Opera’s production won’t be as radical as the ‘80s setting of Opera Australia’s, but, according to Barr, both operas will be set after WWII in the same Sicilian town. Asked about Cav’s enduring popularity, Barr says the story is “phenomenal”.

“Mascagni’s music is so dramatic, approachable and exciting. I think you could pretty much perform this all around Australia and people would keep going. They [Cav Pag] are these little mini-stories; each is a one-act opera. There is no fluff, it starts and ends and there’s a clear story with fabulous music.”

Barr will only appear in Cav, in the small but substantial role of Lola, who Barr describes as an “absolute bitch”.

“It’s an absolute glorious role, you have an aria first, you have your own song … Normally in a small role as a mezzo, I’m used to being the maid. After years of playing maids, this is really refreshing.

“We’ve taken the angle that Lola’s husband is a bit of a Mafioso. He’s the guy in town who pulls all the strings, spends money and has a sense of power. He’s wealthy, which is attractive to Lola. I don’t think she can be redeemed [by looking at her character through modern eyes], she’s an absolute bitch. I have to say that that not being part of my personality that I’ve really explored, I am loving it. She really is just out for herself and what she can get for the thrill of the moment without thinking of the consequences until the very end.”

State Opera of South Australia
Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci
Festival Theatre
Thursday, April 18 to Saturday, April 22
saopera.sa.gov.au

Top Note
558 Peters Creek Road, Kuitpo
Open weekends and public holidays, 11am-4pm
topnote.com.au

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