Life as a nun always appealed to cabaret artist Libby O’Donovan – but not for reasons related to religious devotion. 

“Gathering with a bunch of other women; women living together and growing their own vegetables and singing songs and wearing sensible shoes and comfortable clothing all day sounded amazing,” says O’Donovan.

“When I was growing up, I had a couple nuns that I really loved, that I used to write letters to, and they would visit, or we would visit them,” she adds, referring to Sister Patience and Sister Felicity, whom she met while visiting family in Broken Hill. 

“Seeing them in the way that they operate in the world also inspired me to want to be that myself, which is just a sense of real kindness, true kindness. I was very fortunate to have that experience.”

While she never ended up joining the convent and, instead, became a performer, O’Donovan’s love of music can be traced back to the church and her upbringing as a daughter of two Anglican priests.

“I grew up singing, really, in the church,” says the 2022 Adelaide Cabaret Festival Icon award winner.

“It’s a beautiful, encouraging environment where everyone sings, and then as a kid, you just think that that’s just what happens. We all sing together, because there’s an instant community of people singing.

Nun’s the word: Libby O’Donovan prepares for her sister act. Photo: Claudio Raschella

“Our family sang a lot together as well. We didn’t have a television when I was growing up, so we actually used to sing every night. 

“I guess I just had it in my DNA, really, or just had it as part of the way that I operate. I’ve carried that.”

In her teens, O’Donovan joined bands and performed anywhere and everywhere – wineries and restaurants, cafes and hotel lobbies. She did this for 10 years, mainly performing jazz. 

“I was just really cutting my teeth and paying my dues, I guess you’d say. 

“Then I moved on to cabaret probably about 20 years ago and started to do the cabaret circuit and write cabaret shows, and since then, I’ve really enjoyed that. But I do love jazz and singing jazz, and I do really like sacred music as well.”

Now, jazz, cabaret and sacred hymns are coming together in her new show, Sister Elizabeth, which was originally going to be part of this year’s Adelaide Cabaret Festival but was rescheduled for September 30 at Her Majesty’s Theatre. 

Written and performed by O’Donovan, with support from the “Yankalilla Miracles” (her backing singers and band), the production centres on the representation of nuns in pop culture. 

“It [Sister Elizabeth] features nuns from films, television, books, and also, of course, there’s been a few break-out pop stars,” says O’Donovan. 

“There’s been nun Sister Janet Mead – South Australia’s own – and also the Singing Nun who sang ‘Dominica’ – a number one here as well.”

Sister Janet Mead is a particularly interesting character. Born and raised in South Australia, she was an unlikely but widely loved pop star, shooting to number three on the Australian charts and number four on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1974 with her fresh take on The Lord’s Prayer. 

“It was like a rock version of The Lord’s Prayer. All the schools learnt it, and everyone was just absolutely blown away by it,” O’Donovan says. 

Sister Janet Mead was so popular, in fact, that she was nominated for a Grammy for Best Inspirational Performance. She lost out to Elvis Presley’s “How Great Thou Art”. 

“She had that number-one hit, but she didn’t pursue, you know, a pop career,” O’Donovan explains. 

“Her focus and great vocation in life was really acts of charity and giving back to the community. She did incredible work with disenfranchised people across the spectrum and was really just an incredible pillar in our community of giving and charity and loving and holding that space for those who are less fortunate.”

Sister Janet Mead passed away in January this year, at 84, and elements of Sister Elizabeth will pay homage to the beloved nun.

It’s going to be a really joyous musical celebration 

In stark contrast to kind-hearted singing nuns like Sister Janet, O’Donovan says some of the most commonly featured nuns in pop culture are in the horror genre. 

“They’re so, apparently, mysterious. People can’t get their head around women who don’t want to get married and just want to hang out. Apparently, they are so frightening that they fit into that [horror film] environment.”

However, O’Donovan’s religious upbringing gave her insight into the intricacies of religion and religious figures that goes beyond these representations. 

“I understand, sort of, from a behind-the-scenes look, and how that all works and the real-life people behind the ‘pomp and circumstance’, so this doesn’t frighten me at all. I’m just intrigued by it, really.”

Julie Andrews, as Maria, with a group of nuns in a scene during the song ‘Maria’ from the 1965 film The Sound of Music. Photo: AP / Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment

While propelled by O’Donovan’s own fascination with nuns, Sister Elizabeth is about the music. 

“There’s just great music featured whenever there’s nuns, because there’s this idea that they gather a lot and do a lot of singing together,” she says, explaining that her show will include songs from films such as The Sound of Music and Sister Act. 

“I mean, if someone asked me to include one song from The Sound of Music, I just couldn’t. I couldn’t! I’ve had to include a number of them because it’s so great! There’s just so much wonderful music from the one film.” 

To complement the earnestness and the music – which will include more religious songs such as ‘Dominica’ – Sister Elizabeth will also be packed with humour and entertaining anecdotes. 

“It’s going to be a really joyous musical celebration and [there will be] a few opportunities for the audience to sing along, of course,” says O’Donovan.  

“But there’s a few tongue-in-cheek moments as well; we’ll be having a bit of fun with it all. 

“There’ll be facts and opinions, interesting things that I’m going to be sharing with the audience. And it will just send them off with a really great sense of joy. I want it to be really joyful!”

Sister Elizabeth is at Her Majesty’s Theatre on September 30, 2022. 

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