From Miley to Garland: New show explores what makes a diva

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Bernadette Robinson is a diva. More precisely, she’s 10 of them.

“What have I embarked on?” she says, with a laugh. She’s just completed the initial season of her new show Divas in Brisbane and is recovering before the next chapter high-kicks off in Sydney. “It’s so massive!”

Robinson chose to sing Flowers by Miley Cyrus after her daughter suggested the singer.Credit: Chris Pavlich

Robinson has experience bringing divas to the stage. In Joanna Murray-Smith’s Songs for Nobodies, she brought to life five musical icons, including Judy Garland and Edith Piaf, touring the show around Australia and to London’s West End. The transfer earned her an Olivier nomination.

With Divas, she is celebrating 10 of the best singers of all time. It’s a marathon effort by any stretch, and even more so when you look at the list of performers Robinson will be channelling: from Piaf and Garland, to Barbra Streisand, Maria Callas, Amy Winehouse and Miley Cyrus.

Working with director Simon Phillips and supported by a three-piece band, Robinson will deliver some of the artists’ most loved songs, while weaving in stories about them, in their own words.

“We’ve taken excerpts from their interviews,” she says. “I’m used to singing as different singers or trying to embody some of their qualities in my singing, but this time I’ve taken it further and I’m trying to create their speaking voices as well.”

Robinson’s performance in Songs for Nobodies earned her an Olivier nomination.

For audiences, it’s a bit like enrolling in Diva 101, a musical masterclass. But what qualities are shared between the incredible singers on the syllabus? When pushed for just three words to describe a diva, Robinson says: “Extraordinary. Exceptional. And moving.”

Robinson says Garland is the uber-diva. “She talks about how she had such a lonely, sad, broken life, but on stage that’s where the love was,” says Robinson.

She says divas do tend to suffer a certain amount of personal tragedy, but that’s not the diva’s defining trait. “There are survivors as well. Miley is one, Dolly [Parton] is extraordinary, and [Shirley] Bassey’s still going,” says Robinson. “Some have managed to come through.”

There is more. In fact, that’s just it – more. A diva has to be a little bit extra. “One of the reasons we love divas is their excess, that they can’t be contained,” says Hay.

Bernadette Robinson is taking on some of the greatest divas from the past to the present.Credit: Chris Pavlich

There may be rhinestone-heavy costumes (hello, Dolly), make-you-look vocals (bring it, Barbra), or a tempestuous life story (paging Ms Callas). The diva raises the bar with a flourish, bringing a mix of vulnerability and strength to the spotlight.

“They all talk about it being a mixture of being confident and insecure,” Robinson says. “And the two push each other on.”

Narrowing down which women to spotlight wasn’t easy, but ultimately it came down to offering a range of styles and eras. And Robinson happily admits she was thrilled when her daughter suggested Miley Cyrus as a diva who speaks to the current times.

“I [just] knew her as the little naked girl on the wrecking ball,” she says with a chuckle. “But wow, she’s fantastic! She just blew me away.”

Cyrus also appears to epitomise the diva in a way her peer Taylor Swift does not. With Cyrus, you see the work she’s done, and is doing, and that’s the point. For the mega-successful and undeniably talented Swift, it’s not quite the same.

“She’s almost perfect in a way, so there’s no access point to people,” Hay says. “Whereas someone like Miley has had these public struggles and remade herself in front of our eyes.”

Lyrics to songs like Cyrus’s Flowers (which is part of Robinson’s set list) also show why the diva has such a close connection to the gay community, explains Hay. “The empowerment of those lyrics is a sort of siren call into the closet. Kind of like, you can do this too. Maybe it’s not today, [but] you will send yourself flowers.”

The diva is a magnificent multi-hyphenate. She’s a bit unreachable, like Kate Bush (Robinson opens with the elusive singer’s Wow). She has been running up those hills, and down, and sometimes she hasn’t made it, but she’ll sing about it until she can’t. And we’ll look on with wonder.

“She’s inaccessible,” adds Hay. “She’s a distance from us. We can feel what she feels, but we can’t be her. We can’t reach her.”

That may be the case for those watching, but not Robinson who uses each Divas performance to access these women from her very unique perspective. “I’m really lucky to be doing it,” she says. “I just think they’re all wonderful.”

Divas is at the Opera House Playhouse from August 3 to 20, and at the Fairfax Studio, Arts Centre Melbourne, from August 24 to September 7.

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