Opera: the Musical

imagesOpera and music theatre have always had a slightly uncomfortable relationship. They’re obviously related, but are they parent and child, cousins or siblings? Pinning down real differences between the two is difficult.

Opera, of course, is serious, like Otello and Tosca. Except when it’s not. Like The Barber of Seville or The Love of Three Oranges.

Musicals are funny and/or uplifting, of course. Like My Fair Lady or Anything Goes. Except when they’re not. Like Les Miz and Sweeney Todd.

images-3When it comes down to it, what is opera if not music-in-a-theatre? You can argue about the specific ingredients, the artistic intention and ambition but in the end it’s a bit like arguing over who has the best chocolate cake recipe. As long as they contain chocolate, they’re all good, and they’re all chocolate cake.

So why the angst bubbling to the surface in the wake of the National Opera Review about Opera Australia’s growing dependence on staging works (aka opera) usually classified as traditional musicals (aka opera)? I think in classifying shows as operas or musicals, high art, low art, music theatre or popera, we might be missing the point.

Personally, I don’t care what our MPAG companies put on, as long as they are GOOD. Bottom line. Of all the criteria, of all the key performance indicators, ‘artistic vibrancy’ is the clincher. And without wishing to get bogged down in definitions, for me artistic vibrancy means performance which is original, intelligent, coherent, possibly confronting, definitely affecting, hopefully life-changing. It’s a lot to ask, which is why my personal KPIs also include diversity and risk. Because you actually can’t hit all those marks without trying quite a few different things, and you can’t try different things without failing from time to time.

Where I’m going with this is that in response to a difficult financial situation — and let’s face it, finances are always difficult in opera — the larger opera companies in Australia have chosen a narrow, risk-averse artistic direction which is eroding artistic vibrancy. And that reduced artistic vibrancy erodes relevance and reduced relevance erodes audience appeal, which erodes audiences.

The stats contained in the National Opera Review corroborate this view.

But what about Opera Australia’s artistic director, Lyndon Terracini, and his claim that audiences don’t like contemporary opera and, by implication, audiences don’t really like anything challenging. It’s a view he expressed at the start of his artistic directorship, when he gave the Peggy Glanville Hicks lecture in 2011. His logical conclusion is that Australia’s national opera company must give audiences more of what they want.

I have two problems with this: first, the notion that audiences should be given what they want and, second, Lyndon Terracini’s opinion of what that is.

Sir William Glock, founder of Dartington International Summer School of Music, BBC Controller of Music from 1959-1972, and artistic director of London’s Promenade Concerts from 1960-1973, had firm (and not universally popular) views about giving audiences what they want. In a documentary on Dartington Summer School made for Channel 4 in 1988 he says, “If you try to give the public what it wants you invariably fall below its understanding and its appetites. I have always believed that. Aim to be a few yards out to sea.”

Aim to be a few yards out to sea.

Think about it. Coming from a besuited grey beard with a plummy English accent, you expect something patronising or paternalistic but it is anything but. His point is that making assumptions about what people like is where you get into trouble. And that’s where mainstream opera in Australia is heading now. Big trouble.

images-2Opera Australia has chosen a double or quits trajectory, investing heavily in what it believes audiences want: the experience, the glamour, the romance, the occasion. Marketing materials emphasize the aspirational nature of opera-going. Starry-eyed audience members, champagne, a once-in-a-lifetime experience… The experiences on offer are expensive, but worth it. And there are plenty of ‘beginner’ offerings if you are worried about it being boring. In fact, they’re mostly ‘beginner’ or re-runs or ‘event theatre’ (to quote OA’s 2016 brochure). It doesn’t matter whether they are musicals or operas: they all conform to a slavishly traditional, outdated, never-really-existed concept of golden-age music theatre.

Again, two problems.

First, if you’re only going to go to one Opera Australia production in your life and the most-hyped, biggest budget, most opera-y thing on is a musical or a traditionally-staged war-horse, then that’s probably what you’ll invest your hard-earned cash in. You’ll go to a musical or, if you really want to push the boat out, HOSH. Either way, it’ll confirm all your preconceptions of opera and you’ll tick the box: Experience Opera TICK.

Second, if opera is, as Opera Australia tells us, so bloody special, so extraordinary, and so expensive then how does anyone justify making it a regular part of their lives? Why would you go more than once, if at all?

Michael Volpe, artistic director of Holland Park Opera in London:

For opera and the arts in general to flourish as we would like… we should avoid dumbing it down or sexing it up, trying to appeal to what we think are “modern” likes and dislikes; if we try to meet them on their terms or mould opera into something we think will appeal, we will lose. We shouldn’t be running scared of our shadow…

Above all, we must not try to make opera extraordinary – we need to make it ordinary.

Opera. Ordinary. Imagine that. Not frocked to the max, crackling with gold, Kardashian-themed wonderfests, but just another way to tell a story and, when done well, a cracking good one.

It’s idealistic, and Volpe acknowledges as much, but I still find his logic attractive. Not least because my long and torrid relationship with opera began with some distinctly ordinary experiences. A cut down Marriage of Figaro at Fairfield Halls in Croydon. Jenufa in a tiny Glasgow theatre, with an upright piano and no set to speak of. More recently, Christie Whelan Brown’s fabulous Britney Spears: the Cabaret (written and directed by Dean Bryant). Or Sydney Chamber Opera’s Fly Away Peter(Opera Australia also does some great shows like this for its regional touring).

Yes, I’d like to see cheap tickets to improve access and more education initiatives. But beyond that, I’d love to see broader repertoire and less glitz. More ideas, fewer gimmicks. Less assumptions about what audiences will like, and more creativity, more enthusiasm for making live performances to inspire. Not always big, bold, beautiful. Sometimes small, subtle, perhaps even ugly. More to the point, not all the same.

That’s what I’ll be submitting as my response to the National Opera Review. What about you?

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Two weddings and a funeral

The Cunning Little Vixen
Pacific Opera / Sydney Youth Orchestra
New Hall, Sydney Grammar School
Saturday 3 October

There were lots of reasons to see this show. First, Pacific Opera – a great outfit, doing exciting work giving early career / younger singers opportunities in a supportive environment. Second, Sydney Youth Orchestra – the pick of the next-big-things, playing music they clearly loved. Third, the music. Janacek, to be precise, and his iridescent score. Fourth, the chance to see a new venue in action. Fifth, avoiding the footy. No, but seriously, I could go on. There were many reasons. Why then did I leave feeling ever so slightly conned?

Perhaps ‘conned’ is too strong a word. But a combination of all these reasons was both the making and the undoing of this  show.

Let’s take the venue first. New Hall is Sydney Grammar School’s latest no-expense-spared facility, an elegant hole in the ground with raked seating, lighting rigs and a drop dead gorgeous sandstone backdrop to remind you that you are actually underground, three storeys under the basket ball court in Yurong Street. It’s a magnificent performance space and I hope that Pacific Opera will have more opportunities to make use of it. However, the decision to place the orchestra in the middle of the stalls, with a catwalk around the front, had a string of knock-on effects.

Sightlines from the balcony were poor — we couldn’t see what was happening on the front half of the catwalk. More significantly, there were issues with acoustics, balance and sound. With the 80-piece orchestra  bang in the middle, playing Janacek’s full-blooded score, the singers were never going to be heard, hence amplification for all principals. A pragmatic decision, but one which compromises an opera performance on many levels, and not only because the sound reproduction was not always ideal.

Opera has always been more or less about the power of the human voice, whether it is an intimately crafted whisper or a full-throated blaze, and I confess I’ve never experienced a sound system which can reproduce all the nuances and complexity of an unamplified voice. (I’m happy to be persuaded otherwise, honest. Just haven’t been, yet).

Then there is the story-telling aspect: operatic narratives are often (usually?) complicated, and the combination of singing rather than speaking, distance from the stage and diction make a complicated story even harder to follow. When you also add in amplification, so that your ears are getting their primary information from a speaker system rather than character singing, it gets even more complicated. Which character is actually singing? Who is saying what? And with no surtitles in this performance, fitting the words to the character was tricky.

I could now go on about how the amplification didn’t do the young singers any favours, and maybe, given Pacific Opera is a showcase for young singers, I’d be justified but, in the end, I thought they came out pretty well. I *know* I want to hear Alexandra Flood (Vixen) sing again. Anything. Just tell me when, where. Likewise Alexander Knight (Forester). Remember that name. I thoroughly enjoyed Jessica Harper’s blowsy Chocholka and Carli Partridge’s mournful Dog. It was harder to assess the full complexity of Christopher Curcuruto’s voice, although he powered through a tough set of roles with a lively and versatile stage presence. And Sarah Wang as the Fox was a natty foil to the Vixen, musically and dramatically.

The work of the chorus did get lost in the general welter of sound, which was a shame because I suspect they sang rather well. They certainly acted well, throwing themselves into Michael Campbell’s busy production. Vixen is a gift for designers – a wonderful parade of cartoon characters who can be animals or humans or something in between. A small budget and huge imagination here resulted in an enchanting menagerie of deftly drawn characters. The only risk was that in the big production numbers — the weddings, in particular — the action sometimes detracted from the music.

Which brings me to Sydney Youth Orchestra. This was one of the most successful aspects of the production. Indeed, to a certain extent, they dominated, sitting in the middle making these wonderful sounds while the action fizzed around on the edges. Young musicians — singers or instrumentalists — always seem to bring a special edge to a performance, especially when they are discovering new repertoire. It feels like you are literally discovering it with them. And it helps when the leader of the exploration party is someone with the experience of Alex Briger, who put aside any artistic flamboyance in favour of rock-solid semaphore, well-chosen tempi and what felt like the ability to look in multiple directions at once.

Thinking about the performance a few days down the track, I think what most impressed me the sheer ambition of the project, and what it says about Pacific Opera’s ongoing role in the artistic ecology of Sydney and beyond. The logistics for this, their biggest ever production, were considerable. There were compromises. There were problems. They didn’t solve them all. But it was a huge achievement, for the entire ensemble — principals, chorus and orchestra alike — and one which gives me the hope that I long for, but don’t always feel, for the future of opera.

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In defence of slow reading

I’m doing an HDR. That’s a Higher Degree by Research to those of you not completely all over your TLAs. An MCA, to be precise, at UTS.

The idea of going back to study was not on my radar until a colleague and academic suggested, ever so gently, gently but persuasively, that it was time to stop writing 350 word reviews and 500 word previews (let alone 140 character tweets) in favour of something a bit longer, a bit more thoughtful. It was a wonderful suggestion. It still is. I am in love with the luxurious feeling of allowing my thoughts to spread, like a slowly melting ice-cream, across all areas of my consciousness, making new shapes and connections as they find new places to go.

The only fly in the ointment is that the rest of the world doesn’t seem to want to keep pace – a very slow pace — with me. Even the redoubtable University of Technology, Sydney, has been shoe-horning in the learning with brutal efficiency. Research week. Wall-to-wall seminars full of more-or-less useful study tips. Research study skills. Time management. Pre-seminar reading so we can get through all the material more quickly. OK, stop talking now, we’ve run out of discussion time, we must move on.

I’m not ready to move on. I am ready to be still. And that is why I am kicking back against my newly adopted alma mater’s helpful hints. I do not want to learn how to ‘speed read’. I’ve done enough speed reading for a lifetime. I’ve precis-ed Wagner’s Ring Cycle, for goodness sake. I have drunk knowledge from the firehose of the internet and come out gasping for air.

So now I make no apologies for any potential delays. I am a naturally fast reader. Fast and voracious. I gobble words. But for now, I am fighting my own habits and taking it slowly. I am chewing over phrases, letting words rattle around and hang in the air, until complete silence returns. (It’s a long wait for silence, and I’ve never quite managed to get there yet). I am relishing the clarity and intellectual acuity of Stefan Zweig. I am marvelling at Andrew Ford’s nail-on-the-headness. I’m savouring Janet Malcolm. I’m occasionally spitting things out. I am trying not to be overwhelmed by the need to read Everything That Has Ever Been Written before I can myself write.

I’m not sure where this will take me but I feel sure it will be interesting, if only I can hold back the forces of time. Watch this space.

New music and new audiences

A recent article in the Sydney Morning Herald quoted Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia, saying that ‘audiences don’t want to see new works,‘ The context is him defending his 2015 programming choices, which have been broadly discussed elsewhere.

On the face of it, it’s a reasonable argument. Opera is expensive to mount. New opera takes more rehearsal time (e.g. more $$ out) and is seen as a box office risk (e.g. less $$ in). It doesn’t need Mr Pickwick to point out that if you are trying to balance the books a re-run of an existing production of a repertoire favourite is a safer bet.

Where it comes unstuck, however, is if you challenge is the validity of the statement itself.

“Audiences don’t want to see new works.”

Which audiences are we talking about?  All audiences? Classical music audiences? Opera audiences? Audiences who can afford premium-priced opera tickets?

I was at Sydney Opera House on Tuesday and Wednesday night this week. On Tuesday I was seeing the first night of Faust in the Joan Sutherland Theatre, and jolly good fun it was. Tits and tights and Fab-ulous singing. On Wednesday I saw the Sydney Symphony Orchestra performing Boulez, Debussy and the Australian premiere of Georges Lentz’s new work, Jerusalem (after Blake)

The foyer was heaving on both nights, full of sticky, sweaty Sydneysiders who had rushed from work, school, home, through the commuter traffic, to get to Bennelong Point for an evening of kul-cha. There were great crowds of humanity from right across the social spectrum – young, old, jeans and t-shirts, jewels and high heels. What’s more, there was a palpable buzz, that lovely feeling of people excited about what they were going to see.

I didn’t see the ACO crowd come out – we were in Faust for a good solid 3.5 hours. And it was a good solid show. Much enthusing amongst the black ties and sequins as we came out, plus quite a bit of running for car park / taxi / ferry / bus.

On Wednesday night I confess I was one of those people running to get to the car park before everyone else, ignoring the coincidental firework display going off like, well, fireworks over Farm Cove. But I did witness the response to the music. Warm applause after the Boulez, then whoops and cheers after the Lentz. Remember, this is an Australian premiere, 20+ minutes long and about as opaque as a moonless night, and yet it had a power about it which completely gripped me and, it would seem, the majority of the audience. There was that perfect silence at the end before a roar of approval, and an acquaintance in the row in front of me turned round after the last notes and mouthed ‘WOW!’

My point is that this was challenging, uncompromisingly new music which found a wholehearted response from an enormous crowd. OK, it was Meet the Music, so many in the audience were high-school kids who had no real choice in what they went to see. But the way they listened and responded was incredibly heartening. 16 year olds can be a tough audience, and I’ve seen and heard their likes go feral in the Concert Hall before, but not tonight.

So what kind of audience is this? Young, old, dressed-up, dressed-down, gay, straight, culturally-diverse. Some buying cheap school tickets, some spending a bit more. Open-minded, participators. Bottom line, it’s the audience of the future.

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Women conductors: the story continues

More names of successful Australian conductors we should know about.





And while I mentioned them in my post script, let’s put them up in lights here: Lyn Williams, Nicolette Fraillon, Simone Young are leaders, role models and incredible musicians. (And also women, but that’s by the by.)

Keep those names coming.


Women Conductors: a postscript

Last week I spoke to Jessica Cottis, Assistant Conductor of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra for a piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, in print today. As usual, there was plenty more to say than space allowed, so here’s a bit more…

First, Jessica Duchen’s survey, which I cited in the article. She wrote the post when another high profile male conductor had opened his mouth and let his belly rumble about women on the podium. Rather than huffing and puffing about what he said, she put out a call to compile a list of women who are on the podium. It quickly reached triple figures and continues to grow, but the fact remains that we are still waiting for a woman to be appointed to one of the really juicy top jobs. I know, ‘top job’, arguable, but you know what I mean. We’re still waiting for a woman to scratch out the name on Maestro Karajan or Bernstein’s dressing room door.

Meanwhile, Jessica Cottis is getting on with the job, and so are many other talented conductors who just happen to be female. I called up Kate Lidbetter, the Managing Director of Symphony Services International. In conjunction with the state professional orchestras, SSI runs some of the most comprehensive conductor training programs in Australia. According to Kate’s figures, there were 11 applications from women in 2011, out of a total of 52, and the figure has stayed much the same since: 2012 had 14 and there were 12 in 2013 and 2014 each. The success rate for women has risen, with 3 accepted in 2011 and 5 accepted in 2014, rising from a 27% to 42% success rate. Nice trend, but tiny numbers.

As Jessica Cottis observes, the pace of change is painfully slow.

There is the generation of Simone Young, Marin Alsop and Sian Edwards. They were the trailblazers, and then what happened? Nothing. Not very much. I can think of only one person between them and me, Susanna Mälkki. She went, like me, through being a musician first and then into conducting. For me that has been the biggest stumbling block – just starting in the first place.


Consciously or otherwise, we look towards role models, and when I was little, as a young pianist and a young trumpeter, I didn’t see any female conductors. It’s very rare for somebody to break out from what has gone past. For that reason I would say, certainly in my generation, that has been one of the biggest stop signs. However, I would say that now things are changing.


When I went through the Academy I was the only female doing the course and had been for ten years. But I don’t know what happened. I went through and something changed. It’s now half/half.  We’re in a period of transition and I really do think there will be more female conductors coming up because there are more female conductors coming through now the conducting courses. So it’s just a matter of time.

While we wait, Kate Lidbetter gave me a good list of Australian women who are making waves as conductors. There’s Sarah Grace Williams, who founded the Metropolitan Orchestra in Sydney; Kellie Dickerson, who is making herself very, very useful in music theatre;  conductor of Perth Symphony Orchestra Jessica Gethin; pianist and director Aura Go; Liz Scott, who does brilliant work with Sydney Philharmonia’s VOX; and Rowan Harvey-Martin, who conducts the Llewellyn Choir, Canberra Youth Orchestra and many other ensembles in the Capital Territory. It’s worth noting these are all graduates of the Symphony Australia Conductor Development program, which has an impressive record in giving opportunities and training. 

I’m sure that list is just the beginning. What about it, Australia? Have we got any more role models for our young and talented students? Do let me know.




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Timeline: how was it for you?

After the blow by blow account of my 11 yo’s journey through time, space and the land of nod, what did Harriet Cunningham, music critic, make of the experience?


There’s much to love about this quixotic project. Firstly, the immaculate production, which should be the norm but often, in this space, the exception. The complexity of amplifying so many different sound-making devices, from violins to drums to the human voice, alongside sound samples and live electronics, is mind-boggling. Then add in a visual track, lighting, a smoke machine, all needing split second co-ordination… It must have been so tempting to do away with live musicians and just make a DVD.

Live music, however, is what the ACO is all about. Seeing and hearing the ensemble scramble through a Brandenburg Concerto, rip into some Xenakis or re-invent themselves as a backing band was a thrill. The novelty value of seeing Christopher Moore play the chaotic theremin, Satu Vanska doing her delicious Marlene Dietrich impersonation, Julian Hamilton of ludicrously talented The Presets singing Sephardic chants, and a spirited rendition of 4’33”. As I said, so much to love.

Beyond the magical fun palace of sights and sounds, however, Timeline’s genesis is as a conceptual piece, and the concept was what had me thinking as well as listening (and propping up my daughter’s head). Richard Tognetti’s  Theory of Everything approach to music, finding patterns and synergies between distant cultures and times, is clever, creative and a genuinely useful way to look at the history of music (not to mention the history of the world). Only connect, as E.M. Forster reminds us. Only connect, the head and the heart, the primitive and the sophisticated, complexity and simplicity, harmony and melody, vertical and horizontal, until your brain explodes in a kaleidoscopic shower of flashing neurons.

Some of the meeting points were truly revelatory: overlaying Japanese Gagaku music and Satie, putting The Unanswered Question and Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis next to each other and – my personal favourite – playing the third movement of Philip Glass’s third symphony overlaid with Daft Punk, Britney Spears and Eminem. That’s a keeper.

Other meeting points worked as part of the theory, but not so much as part of a show. And that’s Timeline’s weak spot. Film makers know music is useful stuff as an ancillary to a narrative, pushing certain harmonic and rhythmic buttons to trigger visceral emotions. But when music itself is the subject it is more often than not about stopping time, about being in the moment, and not being beholden to what comes next. There were times during Timeline when I heard a reference – Right O, here’s Monteverdi — ticked the box and then… what? Move on? Or listen to a longer or shorter excerpt? Long is nice, but that means stopping, and the point of time is that it never stops. (Some of the tempi, by the way, were quite bracing – I guess you gotta keep moving when you’ve got 40,000 years to cover). I welcomed the sanctuary of Brahms’ Geistliches Lied after the rush and bustle of Rameau, but it wasn’t long before I was thinking “What’s next?”

What is next?

When we came out of the Opera House 3 hours and 40,000 years later, the sun was setting and it felt like the end of a very long day. “Mummy, I’m tired,” said the Little One.

“I know. Time is tiring,” I said. “Exciting, but tiring.”


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The Time Traveller’s Daughter

I took my youngest to Timeline at the weekend. It’s Richard Tognetti’s latest concept show, in collaboration with his band, the ACO, and fab electronica duo The Presets. It promised 40,000 years of music all rolled up and packed into two hours, with moving pictures too. My youngest, who is 11, claims to hate classical music. She also hates sitting still. The only reasons she came were a/ she knows there’s Ben and Jerry’s ice cream at the OperaIMG_2001 House and b/ she didn’t have a choice.

It would be nice to report that she listened, wide-eyed and wondering, transfixed by the brilliant musicianship and came out a convert to high art, but that would be a fiction. My very down-to-earth daughter found a pragmatic solution to an unsatisfactory situation: she went to sleep around 128 BC, to the gentle lullaby of an Ancient Greek hymn, and stayed asleep, head propped on my shoulder, until rudely awoken in 1200 AD by some lusty Perotin. She then dozed through the reign of Henry VIII (1513), opening one eye to check out the rattle and hum of Rameau’s Tambourins (1739) and came to as a moon rose through the trees to bring the Nineteenth Century to a close with Schoenberg’s Verklarte Nacht. 
The second half was  closer to her time and her taste in music and she stayed wide awake throughout Kurt Weill, Dizzy Gillespie and Xenakis. She even managed what we call ‘The Look” at me during 4’33”. “It’s art,” I said, by way of explanation. *Rolls eyes*

The ‘Megamix’  which took us through the last half century was a kind of ‘Name that tune’ game for her. Pink Floyd – “Daddy music” – Bob Marley – “Mummy music” – Dr Who theme tune – “Big sister music”. She was tickled to hear a whisper of Toxic, a fleeting splash of Gangnam Style, and was triumphant that Milkshake got an airing. On the way out she continued to listen closely. “Mummy, I just overheard someone saying, ‘They spend nearly two hours on boring classical stuff, then they run all the good bits over the top of each other…’ ”

She would not confirm or deny whether she agreed.

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The Kingfisher Project


Sydney Conservatorium, March 29
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

Soprano Alison Morgan and mezzo soprano Jenny Duck-Chong founded Halcyon in 1999 to go where other singers fear to tread, into the beautiful weirdness of exploratory new music. Now it is 2014 and, fifteen years on, time to reflect on this many-hued bird.

Halcyon is a creative powerhouse for Australian (and international) new music. In particular, the last five years have seen it champion emerging composers, through performances, commissions and mentor programs. But for its fifteenth birthday Halcyon has turned to older friends, composers who have been with them from the start, to compile an exquisite collection of twenty-one new works.

Last night’s performance featured ten of these four minute offerings. Andrew Ford’s To My Excellent Lucasia, on our Friendship was a thoughtful scene-setter which pulled no punches in its technical demands of the singers. There was a spooky night scene from Jane Stanley, a watery blend of alto flute and voice from Dan Walker, and a flamboyant micro-drama from Graham Hair’s All About Anna. Nigel Butterley, Gordon Kerry and Andrew Schultz all demonstrated just how good they are at organizing sounds and words: Butterley’s gorgeous Nature Changes at the Speed of Life limited its palette to cello and soprano, while Kerry’s Music wove voices and instruments together in an almost orchestral mesh of textures. By contrast, Andrew Schultz’s deft prelude and fugue, Lake Moonrise, handed the main song to Duck-Chong and Morgan, with a choir of individual, instrumental voices underneath. A highlight, for me, was Gillian Whitehead’s setting of two poems from Dunedin artist and writer Claire Beynon. To create such a delicate arc of meaning, amplifying and reflecting on the words at every turn, but still hanging together as a cogent and very beautiful whole shows great skill. To do it in just four minutes is mastery.

The Kingfisher Project is an inspired and pragmatic approach to broadening the Australian repertoire for singer and chamber ensemble: 21 eminently do-able short works which, combined together, represent a major review of Australia vocal writing. It’s Halcyon’s birthday, but we get the present.

Edited version published in the Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 2014, copyright Fairfax Media. 

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Dancing to Opera

I’ve seen two operas in the last week: Sydney Symphony Orchestra performed Richard Strauss’s Elektra, in semi-staged concert, while Opera Australia gave us Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, fully-staged. There was some glorious music-making in both, but what got me thinking was the use of dance in both pieces.

Courtesy Opera Australia

Courtesy Opera Australia

Eugene Onegin is never far from a dance: the grand polonaise, the cotillion, a peasant’s folk dance. This is what people do when they’re not harvesting wheat or running a household. It’s rhythmic, it’s colourful, and it follows a predictable, socially acceptable pattern, unlike those unruly emotions which get in the way of life.

Tatiana is not much of a dancer – funny that – and Onegin uses the dancing at her name-day as an offensive weapon, trampling his best friend in a fatal fit of irritation. By the third act,  the jaunty cotillion which interrupts Onegin’s troubled thoughts is a moment of supreme irony.

Elektra, on the other hand, is short on quicksteps, but David Robertson and his colleague, SSO artistic planner Peter Czornyj, were on to something when they fixed on the theme of dance running through the work. Their inspiration was Elektra’s final words:

Be silent, and dance
Come here to me, all of you!
Close your ranks!
I bear the burden of joy and I lead you in the dance.
There is only one thing fitting for those happy as we:
to be silent and dance!

It’s not the first time she invokes the power of the dance: it comes earlier, when she’s talking to Chrysothemis. But she’s not thinking of Tchaikovsky’s courtly dances, which offer a mindless escape from worldly troubles. This is a visceral, Dionysian stomp, an unleashing of physicality rather than a controlled, social patterning.

So plenty of suggestion in the music and the words for both works. But how did the two shows integrate dance, and was it successful?

Strauss first. The choreographer here was Stephanie Lake, working with eight dancers from the Sydney Dance Company. (And a note – I’m no expert on dance, so I’m simply going on the layman’s impression here). The duets, trios and ensemble episodes came across as powerful abstract expressions of anguish, not trying to tell the story so much as amplify the music. But with the massive orchestra sprawled out across the Concert Hall stalls, Strauss’s music barely needed this kind of intensification. The orchestral musicians and singers generated an explosive level of intensity without further visual stimulation. Indeed, knowing where to look was a real challenge. Orchestra, singers, dancers or the surtitles, which were strung high above the stage?

The choreography came into its own towards the end of the work, not least when the evil waltz struck up for the entrance of Aegisthus. Suddenly, the dancing and the words and the music felt like they were actually integrated, rather than merely layered. And when Elektra (the magnificent Christine Goerke) climbed onto the dancing stage for her final dance of triumph all the art forms combined for a thrilling end.

Director Kasper Holten, who created this production of Eugene Onegin for the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, has used dance in two distinct ways. It is, as discussed before, a colourful and sometimes sardonic backdrop depicting Tatiana and Onegin’s social milieu. It is also a narrative device, but telling a story beyond the actual words with two solo dancers who double the singing Tatiana and Onegin. The doubles are useful in several ways – not least that they can be more touchingly youthful, more physical than their operatic counterparts (although soprano Nicole Car looks positively radiant throughout and has no need of a body double).

The main use is metaphoric: to act out some of the could haves, the would haves, the what ifs which haunt Pushkin’s story of doubly unrequited love. It’s quite powerful at times. Not in the letter scene where, for me, (singing) Tatiana felt distanced from rawness of (dancing) Tatiana’s emotions. But for Onegin, a character who only drops his mask of worldly ennui in the final scene, seeing a dancing double react to Lensky’s death alongside the cold, anaesthetised shock of singing Onegin is incredibly moving. Furthermore, the recounting in dance of Onegin’s idyll through the pleasures of Europe, danced to the Polonaise, is a stroke of genius, and the choreography, by Signe Fabricius, is at all times fluid, surprising, beautiful.

So, two experiments, each pushing the boundaries of opera with different degrees of success, in dramatic terms, but both also retaining the key elements of this art form: magnificent performances, close reading of the original, and music powering the emotions. New ways to do opera? I’m all for it.

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