The Sound of Music’s Janelle Visagie on her classical training, SOM magic & George Clooney

The Sound of Music opened to a full house last night at the HKAPA Lyric Theatre. MadbuzzHK's Michelle Li talked to Janelle Visagie, who plays the award winning Mother Abbess, about the musical's "cult" following, how the von Trapp children continually revitalise her love for performing, and the idea of George Clooney playing Captain von Trapp.
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It was Friday afternoon when I sat down with Janelle Visagie at the Lyric Theatre (Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts) to talk about her role as Mother Abbess in the latest hit musical to tour Hong Kong, the same theatre that would, in mere hours, be packed with Sound of Music devotees for opening night that evening. An air of vibrance and excitement buzzed amongst the cast, ricocheting across the theatre, in hushed anticipation of what was to transpire from the evening’s events.

Sat across from me in full costume, serene and poised, Visagie is a stark contrast to minutes before, when she commanded the stage with formidable presence during a staggeringly powerful rendition of Climb Ev’ry Mountain, intended to be a media preview of the production. I asked if she was nervous about opening night, ironic as it was I who still had goosebumps from her performance. To that, she replied “well I’m a little bit nervous, but we know what we’re doing and we’ve done it before quite a lot of times, so there’s also the assurance that everything should go fine. Should go fine.”

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Janelle Visagie as Mother Abbess

And it’s true when Visagie says she knows what she’s doing. A seasoned classically trained soprano in her home country of South Africa, Visagie has been active in the world of opera, previously cast as Sister Angelica in Puccini’s Suor Angelica, as well as other roles in productions of Mozart’s Don Giovannithe Magic Flute and more. She claims her decision to take part in the Sound of Music though, was not a deliberate change in musical direction for the more contemporary.

“In South Africa, the music work, especially in opera, is very limited. You take what you can. The Sound of Music is still quite classical, so it wasn’t that much of a difference for me. I’ve actually always wanted to do musicals and it has been a dream of mine to do the Sound of Music. It wasn’t a deliberate thing.”

She goes on to explain that in fact, she landed the role as Mother Abbess from a chance encounter.

“They did the auditions for the Sound of Music, and I didn’t know about it because I was in the opera world, and we don’t really know about auditions for musicals. I knew the the previous resident director though. I saw him one night at a show, he told me what he was up to, and I said ‘alright, I’d love to be a part of that!’ By chance, they were still looking for Mother Abbess. I auditioned for it 2 weeks later and got the part. It was really by chance, and such amazing things have happened to me because of this show.”

I’ve won awards, I’ve had great reviews, and it’s more than what I ever could have dreamed of. It’s really been a role of a lifetime for me.

Frequently singled out by critics for praise, Visagie’s role as Mother Abbess won her the Cape Town based Fleur du Cap Theatre Award this spring for Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical or Music Theatre Show. While she ambled into the world of musicals inadvertently, she most definitely belonged there. Did she intend to stay then?

“If a chance comes up then sure! You obviously have to see which roles there are, especially for my voice. I would definitely be interested to do whatever musical comes up though!”

Any fan of the Sound of Music will know that this year marks the 50th anniversary of the iconic film adaptation that starred Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer, who’s performances as Maria and Captain von Trapp, have been, and will be, cherished for generations to come. I asked Visagie what it was about the Sound of Music, that has allowed it to transcend the test of time.

Everyone has their own story. Maybe it was the first film they ever saw at the cinema, maybe they learned the songs at school. People have such a personal connection to this.

“It’s sweet and it touches people. It’s an emotional thing. I think that’s why it’s so unique and doing so well. It’s like a cult! People bring their children to shows, so they produce a generation of theatre-goers as well.”

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Carmen Pretorius (Maria), Mark Rayment (Captain) and the Hong Kong cast of the von Trapp family

Plot, music and choreography wise however, this theatre production of the Sound of Music does stand apart from the film and from previous productions. One of the tweaks makes it into Visagie’s personal favourite 3 moments from the show.

“Obviously Climb Ev’ry Mountain is quite high up there. I do like that I get to sing My Favorite Things in this version, so that’s very special to me. The last scene at the end of Act I, after Maria’s come back to the abbey after she’s realised she’s fallen in love with the Captain, is a very tender and personal moment between Mother Abbess and Maria. It’s a special moment for me.”

Perhaps what’s most unique about the production is it’s ambitious casting decisions. Originating from London’s West End, the production has been touring internationally, casting and training 6 of the 7 von Trapp children locally whenever the crew settles down in a new city. 20 of Hong Kong’s budding actors and actresses were chosen amongst the 600 that initially auditioned, to play the 6 roles alternately. To that end, they’ve been receiving an intense crash course over the past few months. One might add that it was also a highly effective crash course, judging from the tight harmonies, slick choreography and uniform accents demonstrated in their press performance of Do-Re-Mi. In spite of their talent, surely it must be no easy feat having to get to know all the children again in every new city?

“Very little of the time, I remember all of their names, because there are so many of them! Luckily I don’t have to act with them so much, so it’s not such a big issue for me. Maybe for Maria (Carmen Pretorius) and the Captain (Mark Rayment) it might sometimes be quite difficult. Every time you fall in love with them though, because they’re really cute, and so professional and talented! You saw what they do on stage! It involves a lot of discipline and hard work to do this. We’ve never had a group that was bad. The guys that do the preparation for them are incredible. I do not know how they get it out of them. They’re always very well prepared and they just jump in. It’s a difficult show for children. I’m always very impressed with all the places we’ve been.”

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Carmen Pretorius (Maria) and the Hong Kong cast of the von Trapp family

Visagie goes on to explain that the young actors are often also a source of inspiration for her.

They have such enthusiasm for it! Seeing it from their point of view, it’s probably all new and exciting. Maybe it’s their first time performing in front of such a huge audience. It sort of reminds you of what you felt when you first started, that excitement. It’s an invigorating experience to see them.

Anyone who has Twitter will have heard of Lady Gaga’s Oscar tribute to the Sound of Music. Naturally, I asked Visagie who she’d choose to act alongside her as Maria and Captain von Trapp, if she had her pick of Hollywood A-listers.

“I don’t know what George Clooney sounds like when he sings, but I would love for him to be the Captain. *cheeky smile*. Maria obviously has to be a good singer… They made a movie with Carrie Underwood as Maria and I was very disappointed. Maybe Idina Menzel? I don’t know. But George Clooney…”

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Mark Rayment as Captain von Trapp

While one may never get to chance to see this George Clooney, Idina Menzel film adaptation come to life, one can still catch Janelle Visagie and the rest of the talented cast live in Hong Kong. Limited tickets are available from www.hkticketing.com, with the show set to run until 21st of June, 2015.

All images provided by Michelle Li.

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