A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

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The New Critic part 2

"Is it any good?"The latest addition to the ABC — Australia’s Banned Critics — has sent me in search of meaning again. First stop, some definitions.

Criticism: the act of giving your opinion or judgment about the good or bad qualities of something or someone

Critical thinking: the process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and evaluating information to reach an answer or conclusion

Critical review: making judgments as to the truth, merit, relevance, effectiveness, breadth, or contribution to a particular field, as well as its informational structure.

Review: a critical article or report, as in a periodical, on a book, play, recital,or the like; critique; evaluation.

At the risk of being over simplistic, my take away from this is a three step plan.

  1. ask questions
  2. evaluate the evidence
  3. reach a position.

All three are essential.

Without questions, you’re accepting what you are reviewing at face value. Life ain’t that simple. Without evaluating the evidence you’re accepting your perception of what you’re reviewing at face value. Think again. Does the evidence really bear out your perceptions? And without reaching a position, you devalue your observations, and the whole process of review.

This is the framework from which I approach critical thinking in my academic work, my artistic endeavours and my arts reviews. Anything less would be disrespecting and trivialising the work with which I am attempting to engage and, please don’t doubt this, art and art-making is central to my being and it breaks my heart to see it routinely trivialised.


All this as a prelude to my reaction to the latest banning. The torrid little tea cup of dissent that is Opera Australia’s relationship with the critical press is not, in the general scheme of things, big news. Life goes on. Ben not reviewing the OA Winter Season will probably not make a jot of difference to their ticket sales or their artistic development (although his excellent reporting might…)

However, in Australia, in the arts, in music this should be big news, because Opera Australia is a company which commands the lion’s share of arts funding in the country. Yes, it’s a power thing. When a publicly-funded organisation self-nominates itself as above criticism it is taking itself out of the artistic eco-system. When most artists are surviving on the gentle waft of the ubiquitous oily rag, it’s a slap in the face when a company which has, relatively speaking, generous access to the petrol pump, declares itself above the law. It is abandoning critical thinking, rejecting review, and trivialising the art.

And that, above all, is what makes me mad.


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Krol Roger

Opera Australia

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James Egglestone as Edrisi, Gennadi Dubinsky as Archiereios, Michael Honeyman as King Roger, Dominica Matthews as Deaconess, Lorina Gore as Roxana and the Opera Australia Chorus in Opera Australia’s King Roger.

Photo credit: Keith Saunders



There’s a delicious exoticism about capital city of Sicily, Palermo, a heady otherness to the Moorish architecture and Mediterranean sensuality. It’s an atmosphere that could easily intoxicate, especially if you are from the dark, icy North. Especially if  you’re searching for your identity and maybe even discovering your sexuality for the first time.

When Karol Szymanowski wrote King Roger the legacy, or lack thereof, of the twelfth century monarch who is the hero of the piece was surely irrelevant. The real point was the discovery of a place, both physical and intellectual, where he could make sense of his identity.

It is, therefore, an inspired stroke to set the action of this production (originally directed by Kasper Holten for Covent Garden and revived here by Amy Lane) around a supersized head. In act one, we are outside the head, which sits menacingly, centre stage, like a colossal graven idol. In act two, the head swivels around to reveal its interior, a confusing mess of staircases and rooms. And in act three, the head is gone, replaced by a smoking pyre. If you interpret the central character, Roger, as a projection, at least partially, of the composer himself then, for me, you are seeing an artist looking outwards, looking inwards, then trying to resolve the two. Or if you are inclined to Freud, the Super-Ego, the Id and the Ego.

It’s not really a story. It’s more a state of mind, a philosophy, dramatised. King Roger’s kingdom is peopled by sombre suits and sensible shoes. Their singing is weighty, majestic. Dour. Then in walks the Shepherd, a preacher dressed in orange silk, offering a new god, one which embraces freedom, beauty, pleasure. Unlimited pleasure. And in amongst it all, a visible invisible troupe of male bodies, winding and curling and flexing, like the ungovernable Id.

If King Roger isn’t really King Roger, and the setting isn’t really twelfth century Palermo but the inside of a large head, then what is left of Sicily, the setting which so inspired Szymanowksi? Where is the complex, multivalent, cultural mishmash of Palermo? That, for me, is in the music. It’s not a pastiche. It’s shot through with influences, but it’s not trying to dissemble, to be other than what it is. It’s more a palimpsest, layer upon layer of sounds and gestures and timbres.


To be honest, I found it hard to take it all in. Conductor Andrea Mollina did a magnificent job in teasing out the many threads, allowing delicate passages to find their way through the heft, and providing a solid superstructure on which to build the singers’ intimidating edifice. Michael Honeyman, in the title role, was commanding vocally and physically, and Lorina Gore, as Roxana, was dazzling. As for the Shepherd, I suspect Saimir Pirgu will win many followers. Rich and true, sitting evenly in the centre of the note, with the power to sing quietly as well as loud, this is not a voice you hear everyday.

Indeed, it’s not an opera you hear everyday. It’s a puzzle and a problem and a pleasure, and Opera Australia are to be congratulated for taking it on. If you haven’t seen it, you’d better be quick and get over to the Opera House because there are only three more performances. And you might never get another chance.

King Roger, Sydney Opera House, Weds 8 and 15 February at 7.30pm, Saturday 11 February at 1pm. 

If you’ve got this far, why not go further and read about my book project, Sanctuary? Extracts, video trailer and details about how to get it here.


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Ring Ring

To celebrate the start of this year’s Melbourne Ring Cycle, here’s my review of the 2013 cycle, which appeared originally in The Opera Critic.

And so it arrives. The Ring Cycle, flagged as a key piece of Lyndon Terracini’s artistic directorship when he took up the position in 2007, and secured with the munificence of Maureen Wheeler and a host of other visionaries putting their money where their mouth is, is here, happening, in Melbourne. Has all the work, the expense, the wait been worth it for this, Opera Australia’s first complete, staged Ring Cycle?

Yes. A thousand times yes. As with any megalomaniacal 16-hour theatrical endeavour there is plenty to poke and prod as well as praise, but the Melbourne Ring Cycle is worth the wait in gold.


Dominica Matthews, Jane Ede & Lorina Gore as The Rhinemaidens with the Sea of Humanity in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

A huge part of the success of this cycle lies with the director. Regietheater has been the bane of many a Wagnerian reinterpretation, but in Neil Armfield Wagner has found a searching interpretor and studious listener who overlays his own view of the legend with utmost delicacy. Armfield’s greatest asset in the Wagnerian arms race of theatrical whizzbangery is his eye for detail. His approach works on many levels, tossing little in-the-know clues to the rusted-on ringnuts, while at the same time telling the story with the pace and humanity of a child’s bedtime story.

There are elements in this Ring which will be familiar to anyone who has seen Armfield’s work (which includes three Britten operas for Opera Australia and the acclaimed premiere season of Brett Dean’s Bliss). He’s a sucker for quirky anachronisms: if you look closely at the pile of ingots in Das Rheingold you can see they are iPhone boxes; and the ‘ping’ of Mime’s microwave announces that dinner is ready. ‘Spot the contemporary reference’ is an old Armfield joke, but a good one, which works particularly well in the fantastical world of Wagnerian archetypes.

Armfield’s other signature style has been described as ‘poor man’s theatre’, an approach which eschews literalism and cinematic detail in favour of bare stages and imagination. With Wagner’s music providing such a rich and complex narrative, it makes a great deal of sense. When Brunnhilde and Siegfried consummate their love on a bare mattress they don’t need actual fireworks to signal their joy, while with Wotan and Brunnhilde’s father-daughter chat in Die Walkure a bare stage lets the intense tangle of philosophy and emotion play out just through the words and music.

That’s not to say that this cycle looks like it is done on the cheap. In Das Rheingold the gods convene to discuss their home renovations in front of a magnificent backdrop – a reproduction of Bayreuth’s first backdrop – destined to be shredded by the giants. (A few operas later the Norns attempt to repair it.) The waters of the Rhine are created from a writhing mass of human figures on a giant revolve, reflected in a huge mirror suspended above the stage, in a kind of Busby Berkeley meets Hieronymus Bosch scene. And the crossing of the rainbow bridge features all the feathers, sequins and long legs of the Folies Bergere. And so on, throughout the cycle, spectacular set pieces, from trapdoors and trapezes to flying zoos and flames, punctuate the action with a visual ‘wow’ factor to match the vocal pyrotechnics.

But while they are a fitting accompaniment to Wagner’s expansive musical scene-setting, some of the real highlights are less showy. You can almost see the excuses, the slick lines and backstories being calculated on the fly in Loge’s mind as Project Valhalla goes off track. Hagen’s face turns from a fixed grin to a death stare with choreographic precision as his brother dobs him in. And, my personal favourite, Alberich allows himself a triumphant little skip to the rhythm of the anvils when he trumps Wotan. These are the kind of details which make the story come to life.

As for the music, it more than serves the story: it is the story.

With a standing army – the well-respected Orchestra Victoria – of only 60 musicians, Opera Australia has had to assemble an international team to make Wagner’s score sing in the pit. The 90-strong Melbourne Ring Orchestra is, in effect, a festival orchestra, with all the advantages and disadvantages of such a beast: there is a palpable excitement at the sheer beauty of the music as it unfolds, but also a slightly precarious feel to some of the more complex passages. Rather than creating a sense of danger, it comes across as a very pragmatic reading: conductor Pietari Inkinen – remember that name, he’s brilliant, he’ll be back — keeps an incredibly tight ship but does not push the tempos (in either direction), resulting in a sound which is fundamentally gorgeous, but occasionally lacks the range of tone colours and extremes – in dynamics and tempi – which a more experienced ensemble might experiment with. The Ride of the Valkyries hangs together by the skin of its teeth, the fire music tends to be stately rather than scintillating, and by the last Gotterdammerung of the season, ragged edges begin to show in the recitative and exposed brass entries. It is, however, a huge achievement for an ensemble, many of whom are playing this repertoire for the first time, and they received a richly deserved ovation as they gathered on stage for the final curtain call.

And so to the vocal performances. Opera Australia is an ensemble company, and it is good to see a cast assembled almost entirely from its ranks. There has been a little shuffling of names amongst the international imports in the run up to the rehearsal period, but the final casting of Wotan, Siegfried and Brunnhilde is impressive.

Terje Stensvold’s Wotan is a joy: a rich, buttery baritone with a gritty rasp in the lower registers is coupled with a glorious sense of line and a stage presence which grows in power through the first three episodes. Oh to be rocking the sunglasses and topless look at 70!

Susan Bullock’s Brunnhilde is more elusive. She has a magnificent instrument, and throughout Die Walkure it feels like she is holding plenty in reserve: her wild ‘hojotoho’s hang in the air like an unrealised threat. By Gotterdammerung, however, the full range of her voice is evident. Her Brunnhilde is a scary woman scorned, and a desperately noble wife as she takes her place on the funeral pyre.


Stefan Vinke as Siegfried & Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

As for Siegfried, Stefan Vinke manages the impossible, by making the feckless hero almost likeable. It’s a spirited and nuanced performance of a damaged child warrior who realises the duplicity of the human race only moments before his death. Watching that realisation sink in is one of the most poignant moments in the whole show.

Vocally, Vinke makes a beautiful sound about 98% of the time. A pesky 2% of the time he veers towards shouting or gives the impression of tiring, but then his tone bounces back with a radiance all the more brilliant for its momentary absence. In a role of this magnitude, it is a splendid result, and he is never stronger, musically and dramatically, than in the final act of Gotterdammerung.


Jud Arthur as Hunding, Miriam Gordon-Stewart as Sieglinde & Stuart Skelton as Siegmund in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

The other roles reach a consistently high standard, notwithstanding some underpowered deities in Das Rheingold and some wayward Valkyries. Most affecting is the intense duet of Siegmund – the impeccable Stuart Skelton, showing us all how it should be done – and, as Sieglinde, the astonishing Miriam Gordon-Stewart. A big voice with far to go.

Deborah Humble gives us a memorable Erde and Waltraute, while Rhinemaidens Lorina Gore, Jane Ede and Dominica Matthews manage to wiggle and pout through the tricksiest of trios. As Fasolt and Fafner, neither Judd Arthur nor Daniel Sumegi quite find form in Das Rheingold. Their time comes later. Sumegi is a terrifying Hagen, with stony face and a gunmetal grey voice dipping effortlessly into the lowest registers. For Judd Arthur, his Fafner in Siegfried is less about the voice (which is appropriately amplified when he sings from within his lair) and more about the performance. In a stunning scene, which has little to do with dragons but everything to do with transformation, his face is projected, in monstrous technicolour, onto the backdrop as he applies the black eyes and bloody grin of a naked evil clown. Respect.

Back in Valhalla, Jacqui Dark sings her first Fricka with growing confidence. The more complex the emotions, the more she finds in the music, positively blooming in her fraught scene with Wotan in Die Walkure. Hye Seoung Kwon is a convincing Freia, Sharon Prero is a wonderfully hysterical Paris Hilton Gutrune, and, as the Woodbird, Taryn Fiebig lights up the stage with her bright soprano, matching her glittering dress and livewire physical presence.

Some of the strongest acting comes in the lesser roles, notably Richard Berkeley Steele as an always calculating Loge and Graeme MacFarlane, who absolutely nails the character of Mime as the fussy, bitter old craftsman who everyone loves to kick.


Warwick Fyfe as Alberich in Opera Australia’s The Melbourne Ring Cycle 2013. Photo credit Jeff Busby.

Finally, the stand out performance of the cycle must be Warwick Fyfe’s Alberich. The role went to Fyfe less than three weeks out from opening when a health problem forced John Wegner to withdraw. It is a tribute to both Fyfe and to Opera Australia’s reportedly meticulous preparation of covers that he didn’t just step in. He owned it.

This was a fascinating performance which crackled with detail – his gait, his facial ticks and, in Gotterdammerung, even the way he held his hands. When the Rhinemaidens pulled his shirt over his head, exposing his middle-age spread, the audience gasped at his unflinching vulnerability. As the showman in charge of the Tarnhelm he was maniacally delightful. But most of all, when he opened his mouth to sing a gorgeous sound, skilfully articulated, phrased with the utmost sophistication and unerring tonal aim came forth. It was a revelation, and it deserved the audience’s unreserved ovation.

There are many more contributors who deserve a mention: a shout out to assistant director Kate Champion, whose choreography proved that ordinary people can dance to Wagner, and lighting designer Damien Cooper, who directed our gaze to the right place at the right time. And, ultimately, Lyndon Terracini for starting this whole crazy adventure.

Every Ring Cycle, no matter where it takes place in the world, is a triumph of ingenuity over impracticality, and everyone involved in creating Wagner’s great work can count themselves heros. But I can’t help feeling that the Melbourne Ring Cycle has been a little bit special.

The 2016 Melbourne Ring Cycle begins with Das Rheingold on November 21. Toi toi toi to all taking on this massive challenge. I wish I could be there!

In case you were wondering, given my chequered history with Opera Australia, I did not get freebies to see the Ring. In fact, I paid $2000. I don’t get paid anything for writing this blog, but if you think it’s worth something and would like me to write more please take a look at Sanctuary, crowd-funding now on Unbound. I take cash, credit and Rheingold. 


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Opera: the opera

Stacey Alleaume swimming through the air (Photo: Prudence Upton)

Stacey Alleaume swimming through the air (Photo: Prudence Upton)

In the grand tradition of writers writing about writing and painters painting pictures of painters painting, Opera Australia presents an opera about opera. They have the perfect setting, after all: a huge stepped stage with a stunning backdrop, lit by the setting sun. They also have a terrific plot, thanks to Alan John’s and Dennis Watkins’ neatly engineered (and mostly true) narrative of Australia’s biggest home renovation. And, after five years of Handa Opera on the Harbour, they have the know-how to overcome the huge challenges of presenting opera outdoors.

Sydney Opera House: the Opera is the latest incarnation of The Eighth Wonder, Alan John’s 1995 opera tracing the history of the building, from conception in 1958 to its opening night in 1974, 15 years behind schedule and eye-wateringly over budget. The opera has been presented twice inside the Opera House, but this production, outside, with the star of the show towering over everything, is surely its ideal setting. Director David Freeman and stage magician Dan Potra has solved the staging problems with a series of moving platforms and an inflatable castle, which also serves as a screen for projections. It’s a great deal more elegant than that description sounds. It also allows the Architect’s breakthrough aria — when he works out how to construct the sails — to be delivered in front of a dynamic animation of the fascinating geometry of the roof.

Yes, you can sing about geometry. More to the point, you can sing about that moment when you reach an epiphany – a profound, life-changing clarity — and, indeed, the entire work turns on such moments. Rather than dancing to opera’s stock-in-trade tunes of sex and death, the score surges when the central characters, the Architect (admirably sung by Adam Frandsen) and Alexandra, the would-be opera singer (Stacey Alleaume) conceptualise their dreams. Their soaring final duet, where the two meet for the first time, is a love song in the sense that it is a meeting of minds. A romance of ideas.

Other reviewers have paid tribute to the admirable cast and creative crew. Yep. What they said. Stacey Alleaume is a feisty heroine with a glorious voice, Adam Frandsen makes this physically, musically and dramatically difficult role into a wonderfully cohesive whole, and the myriad supporting cast — I particularly loved Martin Buckingham as Cahill and David Parkin as Alexandra’s barbecuing father — sang and acted their socks off. Meanwhile, the orchestra, safely locked up in the Studio with conductor Anthony Legge, brought out the rich and delicate colours of John’s score with brilliant fluency.

As for the entire, outdoor experience, it had plus and minus points for me. The major plus point was the amazing backdrop. As artistic director Lyndon Terracini said, it’s hard to think of a more Sydney experience. The site logistics were also impressively managed; everyone got their headsets, the queues for the bar and bathrooms were minimal and everywhere you turned there was a nice person saying ‘can I show you to your seat’ or ‘can I help you with your headset?’

Ah yes. The headsets. I nearly got into a Facebook fight with Julian Day about a careless generalisation about amplified music when I said I preferred opera unamplified. At the risk of starting another fire, I’ve got to say I’m still have two fundamental problems with amplified opera. The first is dramatic. With the sound either coming out of speakers or being funnelled directly into your ears via cans, it’s not always obvious who is singing. You can mitigate this problem in filmed opera using close-ups or, as they did here, by clever lighting (by the fabulous Trent Suidgeest) to direct the attention. It still, however, feels like a compromise.

The second is to do with tone quality and vocal technique. We talk about traditional opera voices being unamplified, but that’s not strictly true. Opera singers use specific techniques, which people singing in a choir, or a pub, or with a ukelele or, for that matter, into a microphone, don’t. I’m not an expert — there’s some explanation here — but it involves the position of your larynx and manipulating the fundamental and resonant frequency of your voice. So when opera singers sing, naked or into a microphone, their voice is already, to a certain extent, amplified. And while you could say that a microphone just gives them a greater dynamic range – in this case, the sky’s the limit – it also makes me wonder whether it is appropriate to use traditional operatic technique when you’re wired for sound. After all, Opera Australia mainly uses ‘singing actors’ in its (fully-miked) musicals, rather than opera singers, who use their voice in a way much closer to how you or I would sing in the shower. I’m not saying, as Guy Noble naughtily suggests, that acoustic opera should be phased out. In fact, I love the intensity and intimacy of the human voice in an appropriately sized space.  But as performance practices continue to evolve and as opera companies increasingly explore extra-theatrical spaces, will we see singers setting aside techniques developed in the nineteenth century in favour of twenty-first century technology?

If you like reading my reviews, please support my work. Following this blog or liking my posts on twitter, facebook and wordpress all helps. Best of all, I’d love you to look, share and support my forthcoming book, Sanctuary, a history of Dartington International Summer School in words and pictures.


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?


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.


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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La boheme: Opera Australia

Another one killed by the Space monsters. Enjoy. I did.

La boheme
Joan Sutherland Opera Theatre, January 4
Reviewed by Harriet Cunningham

4 stars

It’s Christmas Eve in Berlin, again. The lads are still behind with the rent, the ladies at Momus are still lovely, and Mimi is still looking for a light. As Gale Edwards’ glitzy take on La boheme rolls out for its fifth season in three years, some Opera Australia regulars might be forgiven for thinking they have déjà vu. Puccini’s music, however, never grows old, and a slew of fine performances keep the ennui at bay.

One of the delights of this production is that there are always new things to notice: a meaningful look between Schaunard and Colline as Marcello ignores Musetta, the glee of a youngster with a new toy, the maître de on the make. In spite of the vastness of the sets and the spectacle of Brian Thomson’s flashy Café Momus, this is intricate theatre, almost baroque in its detail, every individual on stage with a story to tell. At times there is so much to see, and Puccini’s score cracks on with such concentrated brevity, that it is almost a relief to see the third act quartet on a largely bare stage.

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello, Richard Anderson as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Sharon Prero as Musetta, Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo & Nicole Car as Mimì. Photo credit Branco Gaica.

Giorgio Caoduro as Marcello, Richard Anderson as Colline, Shane Lowrencev as Schaunard, Sharon Prero as Musetta, Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo & Nicole Car as Mimì.
Photo credit Branco Gaica.

The cast, very strong this year, are also at their best in the third act. Ji-Min Park returns to the role of Rodolfo with less physicality and more volume, his voice blooming at the top of the register, but slightly inconsistent in the middle. Giorgio Caoduro makes a winning Marcello, while Nicole Car continues to impress with her dynamic range and sheer beauty of tone. It is hard not to like her Mimi, even if she did blow out her candle and drop her key on purpose. The weakest of the four is Sharon Prero, in the role of the showgirl Musetta. Her singing and characterisation cut through the ensemble clutter but both could use a little more subtlety. Shane Lowrencev’s bottom-pinching Schaunard is equally obvious, dramatically, but rock solid musically, while Richard Anderson’s finely-turned rendition of Colline’s ‘Coat Aria’ stops the show for a lovely moment of intimate introspection.

The orchestral playing is ardent and rough-edged and occasionally overwhelms the singers, which actually serves to heighten the emotion as a surge of passion swamps clarity. The chorus work is, as ever, a multitasking masterpiece, juggling props and fancy footwork with the musical complexities of the second act finale. The greatest multitasker of them all, conductor Andrea Licata, pulls it all together with a sure hand and lifetime of experience in this repertoire, wringing a gut-wrenching play out from the strings as the story of Mimi and Rodolfo comes to its predictable end.

La boheme plays until January 21


Live music in Dead City

Went to Die Tote Stadt first night on Saturday. The much anticipated ‘Australian premiere’ production by Bruce Beresford, starring Cheryl Barker and power-tenor Stefan Vinke. At the season’s launch back in August 2011 there was much talk of technology and vague promises of holograms to create the Maria/Marianna doppelgänger. That idea obviously got binned, but the production had one significant technology-dependent innovation, the remote orchestra.

Opera Australia has battled with the physical infrastructure of the Opera Theatre ever since the building opened – not an uncommon problem for opera companies / houses, but particularly intractable in this case, not least because the building is a national icon, World Heritage, and built on water and political stuff-upperies. The company gets by with a rather thin serving of strings and liberal use of earplugs for romantic repertoire, but there are some scores which simply won’t fit. Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt, even with parsimonious string allocations, is one such. Multiple keyboards, two harps, and a barrage of percussion require real estate.

Conductor Christian Badea has plenty experience in delivering non-traditional concert presentations such as live music to film, so he was a willing and thoroughly competent collaborator Opera Australia’s solution, putting the orchestra in a room on the other side of the Opera House and piping the music in. It was superbly executed: close your eyes, and it sounded just like the pit was full of musicians. Indeed, it sounded better than usual, perhaps because there were more strings. The orchestra, reportedly, love playing in their own little studio – the conditions are much more comfortable – and they get an onstage bow at the end. The downside, for the audience, is the black hole of the pit — there’s no-one there, and speaking as someone who loves watching the orchestra, that’s miserable. That, and a few notable moments when the sound system could not reproduce the visceral, raw complexity of a grand romantic tutti. But top marks for trying.

I have to admit I was, in the end, a bit nonplussed by the whole experience, and it got me thinking about whether there are other solutions to the pit apart from this hi-tech approach. I came up with three (with lots of help, it must be said, from @prestontowers and @Stufromoz). There must be more…

1. Spend gazillions on making the bugger bigger. I can just see the builder standing in the pit, sucking through his teeth and saying, “you’d be better off to pull it down and start again, luv”. Given that it’s a State-owned building and NSW ain’t exactly flush right now, I would not be holding my breath.

2. The pragmatist’s approach: use less players, rescoring the work if necessary. That’s what will happen for Strauss’s Salome later in the season. Strauss wrote for an even bigger orchestra than Korngold (although not quite as many offstage players). Opera Australia uses a (composer sanctioned) cut down version.

3. The absolutist approach. Don’t do big romantic repertoire in Sydney Opera House’s Opera Theatre. In fact, be more flexible about venues in general, fitting the repertoire to the space as demands. Baroque works brilliantly in City Recital Hall. Wagner works well in the Capitol. Mozart and Britten can be great in the Opera Theatre.

Many people do not realise that Opera Australia is *not* the same company as the Sydney Opera House. They are Australia’s national opera company, resident at the Opera House. But if the Opera House cannot meet the company’s needs, why should it not seek more suitable performance spaces in the service of its art?

Maybe it is because art is not the only master Opera Australia serves. And whether you are a cynic, a pragmatist or an idealist, that is the real concern behind the current ‘solution’ to the Sydney Opera House pit.

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The eyes have it #2

Following on from my SMH article here and my previous post, here’s Tim Calnin of the Australian Chamber Orchestra talking about music and vision in classical concerts. First, there’s the use of the big screen to magnify a small stage presence, in the same way as you might do at a sports event. Look out, back desk of violas, you’re in close-up!

That’s something we’re doing with one program in particular at the Sydney Opera House. We tried it out last year. It was our smallest program – the Trout Quintet. At Angel Place that program will be absolutely wonderful, perfect environment. But at Sydney Opera House, a 2700 seater hall, the experience for someone sitting way up at the back of the balcony is going to be quite compromised by the scale of the venue. We wanted to see whether it would work, and what the reaction from the public was. So we tried it for the Schubert concert last August and surveyed the audience and we got a really positive response.

Peter knows what he’s doing. He can follow a musical thread from one instrument to the next, really making sense of it. It was intelligently directed content. And because it went down well with subscribers we are going to do it again for our smallest program in the Opera Hosue this year. In a way that’s a quirk of programming chamber music in a large hall.

The Peter he is talking about is Peter Butler, who is one of the gurus of music video directing. He has directed a zillion productions, including many of the Opera Australia DVDs. He directed the YouTube Symphony Orchestra concert at the Sydney Opera House.

Film can help people hear structurally what is going on. What’s making that interesting noise? You open ears by showing people things. What’s more, unlike a rock concert, it is not personality driven. I don’t think anything on TV is as good as being there. Sport, ballet, opera, concerts – there’s a different vibe, it’s a different experience. But I do believe it should be hand in hand.

Peter is not a big fan of the montage concert – a music soundtrack with gorgeous photos as a backdrop.

I don’t think adding visuals to concerts is very successful. It turns the music into a soundtrack. Everyone has different imaginations. Even if it is really beautiful and well done, I resist.

So he’s obviously not going to be a big fan of this, a US photographer who has created packages of images and proposed programs, with all the hardware provided in one simple hire. James Westwater has even come up with a title for this genre: symphonic photochoreography.

Symphonic photochoreography is an innovative art form that engages audiences worldwide with evocative, multi-image photographic essays choreographed and performed live to selected works of classical music.

I particularly like the community-sourced photo presentation idea – quite, quite brilliant as a concept, although I agree with Peter Butler that I doubt it would serve the music. Danger, danger, heart strings will be tugged.

Next up, more from Tim Calnin and a look at the next step – fully integrated music/video compositions.