This page is a blog of my experiences directing opera. As well as developing Sydney Opera Company and projects for Operasmith & Co., I've enjoyed rewarding seasons directing for Opera Australia. Other highlights have included a new role directing opera for iSing International Young Artist's Festival in Suzhou, Beijing, Hangzhou and Nanjing, China and a new Carmen for Kaohsiung Spring Arts Festival in Taiwan.
If you'd like further information, please feel free to get in touch via my contact page.
This is the second outing for Barrie Kosky’s production of ‘The Nose’ since it premiered at Royal Opera House Covent Garden in 2016. Following the Sydney Opera House season, the next stop will be Berlin at the Komische Oper. This was a much-anticipated return to the company that supported Kosky’s early career productions of The Flying Dutchman, Wozzeck and Nabucco. And I’ve been fortunate to work with Barrie Kosky on this season and learn something about his approach to opera production, alongside his assistant Felix Seiler.
‘The Nose’ is a singular experience. It’s been described by one reviewer as “weirdly exhausting with its hysterically exaggerated comedy, its bipolar changes of direction and its adolescently incoherent narrative!”
The plot has all the hallmarks of a Kafka-esque short-story - themes of alienation, a character
facing a surreal existential crisis and impossible bureaucratic hurdles. In fact it is by Gogol, written in short-story form in 1836 and concerns a
low-ranking government official, Major Kovalyov, who wakes up one morning to discover that his nose has vanished from his face. He’s desperate to
recover it and finds that until he gets it back, he’s not only disfigured, but finds himself impotent. He’s lost more than the ability to smell, it’s
his sense of self that his Nose has stolen away, his manhood, his social status.
Gogol inspired Shostakovitch to take ‘short-story slapstick’ and turn it into ‘musical slapstick’, and in the process show off his mastery of many musical styles. He’d graduated from the Leningrad Conservatory of Music just a couple of years earlier and this was his first foray into opera, just 21 years old when he wrote it, in 1927.
The setting is the capital of the Tsarist Russian empire - St. Petersburg in the 1830’s - right in the middle of Russia’s complex bureaucracy. The plot quickly becomes a riotous, nightmarish chase as Kovalyov tries to catch and reattach his Nose: darting across town, pleading with corrupt police, appealing to apathetic newspaper clerks, he summons a doctor, he visits church, but everywhere he’s defeated by the bureaucratic machine or derided and humiliated by acts of cruelty.
Gogol wrote this story nearly two hundred years ago, but it’s familiar for anyone who’s been at the mercy of institutions, frustrated living in the shadow of Big Brother, or powerless against the forces of public opinion or perhaps today’s social media.
Gogol was not only a favourite of Shostakovitch, he was also a favourite writer of Kafka, who died few years earlier in 1924 at the age of 40 and you see traces of Kafka in the stage design by Klaus Grünberg - the characters are presented to us on tables covered with giant doilies, a metal bed, a light bulb, a mirror. Tables become bicycles for policemen, gigantic noses dance and attend church.
The work also questions whether we are in the distorted, irrational nightmares of Kovalyov’s imagination. Gogol’s original short-story was called ‘Dream’ before he changed it to ‘The Nose’.
The stage set helps to create the dreamscape / nightmare. It is entirely devoid of decoration. We have a cold, monumental, steely-grey chamber. Without any hint of naturalism, the audience can associate freely with whoever or whatever is put into the space – a grotesque array of psychotic characters from various walks of life - or the giant industrial-sized hook that these people use to lynch Kovalyov’s Nose at the climax of their wild, vodka-fuelled party. The complexity of the production comes from the performer themselves, their body, their voice, costume, the play of lights. In a Kosky production, it is this that resonates meaning. Gogol wrote fragments of a senseless story. In a similar way, you won’t stage sets that try and evoke reality. Quite the opposite – Barrie Kosky says “you celebrate opera by being as un-literal and un-naturalistic as you can, and through that, you get to the truth”.
The director calls Kovalyov “a very sad, weird
clown” and created a circus-like world for him to exist in - a series of circular tables and characters that jump from the pages of Alice in Wonderland or a Buster Keaton film. Kosky creates a medley of vaudeville, revue, theatrical cliché and circus theatre to tell the story in its original 1830’s time period.
In the middle of the opera, Kovalyov launches into a monologue of self-pity, singing: ‘To lose your arms or your legs would be socially more acceptable, a nose-less man is somehow not a man, less a dog or a worm, nothing at all.” Kovaloyov may be obscene, but he can still arouse sympathy. His nightmare ends with the Nose mysteriously back on his face. Life resumes as it used to be – Kovalyov greets various sycophants and relieves himself with lashings of self-glorification, having learned nothing from the experience.
Gogol’s story has fascinated readers for decade, but defies easy explanation. Barrie Kosky, considers the operatic version is about ‘about fear and loss and paranoia, about bodily parts and sexuality and castration’: without his nose, Kovalov no longer feels like a man, he’s unable to chase women, and marriage to Podotchina’s daughter is out of the question. A novel solution is offered up onstage – simply substituting a penis in the place of his former nose! But there is other, more subtle castration imagery in the set design - a huge iris frames the stage - with only a hole when fully opened it shows the absence of Nose. It towers over the action like a colossal birthing canal.
A practical problem when staging the opera is how to show a character losing a nose - and then appearing nose-less for the rest of the opera? The solution in this production is to give everyone in the cast a rather large prosthetic nose, and to use red stage paint to mark the place on Kovalyov’s face that is without a nose.
But what kind of nose should everyone else wear? Barrie Kosky describes the nose of choice as “Barbara Streisand’s nose, but one that morphs into an anti-Semitic Nazi cartoon nose of a Jewish banker!’
As I mentioned earlier, ‘The Nose’ continues to
fascinate and confound. A London critic wrote about this production that “one is never sure whether you’re
meant to mock the whole thing as a crazy drunken joke or be terrified of it as a nightmare of castration and persecution.”
Perhaps the last words are best left to Shostakovich, he writes - “In ‘The Nose’, people saw the satiric and the grotesque, but I have written completely serious music to it. Honestly what is funny about a human being who has lost his nose? The Nose is a horror story, not a joke. The crowd in the Nose isn't funny either - taken individually they’re slightly eccentric, but together, they're a mob that wants blood. Without a nose you are not a human being. However, with a nose you can become a man, even a highly positioned one. Nowadays one can only be amazed how many Noses walk around.”
I’m thrilled that the Sydney Opera Company has been invited to present a new production of La bohème at the Hanoi Opera House in Vietnam by the Moet-Hennessy organisation. As a special event to mark the 20th year of the Hennessy Concert Series in 2016, the complete opera was staged showcasing some of Australia’s finest singers including Natalie Aroyan, Lorina Gore, Samuel Dundas, David Parkin, Shane Lowrencev, Warwick Fyfe and Korean tenor Ji-Min Park as Rodolfo.
In collaboration with a team of Australian creatives, the production was framed by LED screens spanning the full width and height of the Hanoi Opera House stage in a painterly ‘magic meets vérité’ style production – the romantic streetscapes of Paris re-imagined by Justin Nardella and vividly brought to life with animations by Stanley Orwin-Fraser. The costumes were eclectic vintage creations by Megan Venhoek, inspired by interwar fashions and touches of the present-day hipster.
The orchestra was made-up of thirteen pre-professional musicians from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, prepared in Sydney by conductor Paul Fitzsimon. They toured to Hanoi in the first week of April along with two Australian actors to make a touring party of over twenty-six people.
The venture was a wonderful success, with strong character-driven, naturalistic performances from the talented cast that took full advantage of their youth, personality and appeal to create moments of drama and beauty that captured the romance, laughter, heartache, tears and joy of Puccini’s music and story.
The Hanoi Opera House building was built in 1911 by Charles Garnier to be a less ornate, more boutique replica of the Paris Opera Garnier. We aimed to ‘tie-in’ the production design artwork with the theatre’s magical architecture - romantic and wondrous - so that by the end of the story it was a case of ‘fantasy meets grim reality’ – visually and emotionally.
The classical-architecture of the auditorium seats just 550 patrons, I think we exceeded full capacity with an invited audience of Ambassadors and Embassy personnel, government officials, corporate clients, A-list guests and a very large contingent from Vietnam’s Ministry of Culture.
Opera is very rarely performed in Hanoi and it's even rarer that it should be staged with fully-professional production values; there was an element of ‘outreach’ to the entire event. At the cocktail reception afterwards, the Vietnamese Vice Minister of Culture reported in a sincere and heart-felt way that the performance was the “most moving, touching and spectacular event of any kind he had ever seen.”
All in all it was a rewarding and unforgettable experience, my appreciation goes to all who took part and brought so much goodwill and enthusiasm to the adventure.
William Walton's inspired musical settings of Edith Sitwell's surrealist poetry caused an outrage when first performed in the 1920s with their scandalous modern sounds and absurdist prose. Fully staged and presented by Operasmith & Co. in association with Places and Spaces, Facade: An Entertainment is thirty-one musical vignettes that capture the wit, frivolity and blithe spirit of the 1920s.
Facade: An Entertainment was performed in 2015 at the beautifully restored Glebe Town Hall, recited
by Silvia Colloca (Orfeo and Euridice, Spectrum Now Festival, 'Made in Italy with Silvia Colloca' SBS), and baritone Simon Lobelson (SSO, ROH Covent Garden, ENO), featuring the Sirius Chamber Ensemble conducted by Luke Spicer, directed by Matthew Barclay and Johanna Puglisi with lighting by Colin Alexander.
These brilliant musical miniatures are today celebrated for capturing the eccentricity of 1920s modernist music performance like no other work. Sitwell's original performance featured her with a megaphone, hidden behind a screen, together with Walton’s jazz-inspired music and rhythms of tango, foxtrot, tarantella and waltz through to the avant-garde sounds of Stravinsky and Satie.
Edith Sitwell once said "I wonder what my poetry would have been like it I’d had a normal childhood”. She was a neglected, lonely child, "unpopular with my parents from the moment of my birth” and then relegated to the back of the nursery when two little brothers came along, her parents refused to educate her and didn’t mind when she left home to live in tatty rooms in London.
She began writing at 25, published her first volume of poetry in 1916 and began hosting Saturday night literary salons. Sitwell’s experiments played with the notion of pure rhythm in poetry. She also aimed to 'free words of the burden of meaning’ and so found herself at the forefront of a movement that was to radically change English poetry after WWI.
At the first public performance of 'Facade: An Entertainment’ in 1923, so bewildered were the audience by the avant-garde approach that they thought it was an elaborate hoax. They found themselves staring at a garish, painted backdrop of a Greek mask and listening to Sitwell reciting her poetry by way of a Sengerphone (an kind of paper-mâché megaphone) while William Walton’s orchestra played unseen behind.
At the time, Walton was just 21 and one of the young Turks of British music. Having been adopted by the Sitwell’s artistic coterie he composed a menagerie of musical vignettes to accompany Sitwell’s words, inspired the likes of Satie, Stravinsky, Rossini and Schoenberg’s Pierrot Lunaire.
Early reviews were extreme… “as a musical joker (Walton) is a jewel”; “…drivel that they paid to hear”, “… naggingly memorable”.
What emerges in our rehearsals is Sitwell’s pleasure in musically spoken sounds, her delight in polishing a turn of phrase, her sense of vitality, inventiveness, no anarchy, no angst, just the world turned upside down and seen from a vivid, original viewpoint. When it comes to meaning, Sitwell doesn't give the audience a series of connected thoughts or threads of logic to trace methodically, but she does express her feelings and she does have targets! Liberated by her playful, verbal dance she joyfully dismantles tall poppies and stuffy last-century mores.
Sitwell rejected the Romantic poets with their archaic diction, ‘rimes' and images of Troy, Babylon and clover. Lord Tennyson appears ridiculous in ‘Hornpipe' and ‘Sir Beelzebub’, Samuel Coleridge is her wrinkled old 'Mariner Man’. Against lingering Victorian-era prudishness and philistinism, Sitwell plays bohemian denouncing platitudinous, popular taste. In ‘Hornpipe', Queen Victoria is horrified by the sexual freedoms on display, in ‘En Famille’, Joshua Jebb can’t control his daughters' thoughts despite military-style discipline. Lily O’Grady’s ambitions to be a lady of leisure corrupts even the fish when she swims through ‘Popular Song’!
And then we have images from Sitwell's childhood, carnivalesque scenes by the seaside in Scarborough with minstrels, pierrots and "Mister Wagg like a bear”. Her mother’s blind rages in 'Black Mrs Behemoth’, the father of two girlfriends is "tall as a stork” in 'Old Sir Faulk’.
Behind the facade of her very theatrical persona, Sitwell was no doubt able to mask her true feelings. It is ironic then, that she’s left us Facade to bear witness to herself as a vulnerable child, crooked nose and buckled spine, braced as she was from head to toe, living in a distorted world of eccentrics gone mad, a harlequin stage "where Hell is just as properly proper as Greenwich, or as Bath, or Joppa!”
Launched in 2011, the iSING! International Young Artists Festival was the very first festival of operatic vocal arts to emerge in China. The concept is to teach Mandarin as a lyric language and merge it with Western-style operatic tradition through the introduction of contemporary Chinese vocal repertoire.
Under the guidance of coaches from the Metropolitan Opera and major conservatories in Beijing and Shanghai, the festival offers a unique opportunity for Western singers to be exposed to the developing opera scene in China and provides Chinese vocalists access to quality training in Western-style opera.
I was invited to take part as stage director and acting coach for the 2015 iSing! Festival in Suzhou, Hangzhou and Shanghai, working with around twenty Western vocalists from ten countries alongside twenty Chinese counterparts who earned their places by way of extensive auditions in Europe and North America.
The experience can be 'career-changing' for the artists involved, who gain valuable training and performance experience as well as the opportunity to discover new repertoire. The local Chinese audiences responded enthusiastically - they enjoyed seeing and hearing Chinese singers performing Western opera, but even more so hearing Chinese compositions sung by international singers in Mandarin.
The finale of the program was a concert with the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra conducted by Long Yu, where all the artists contributed impressively to create a memorable night.
In China there is huge growth in opera compositions that are written in Mandarin about Chinese themes, with increasing commissions and co-productions by both Western and Chinese opera companies. The kind of cultural exchange that iSing Festival offers opera artists can only benefit the standards of vocal and stage performance in the future.
For an emerging young opera artist considering applying for the program, on offer is a full-scholarship, including accommodation, meal allowances and financial aid for international air travel expenses.
The brainchild of American director Julie Taymor, this production of The Magic Flute is reduced in length from Mozart's original to make it as accessible and 'family-friendly' as possible. It is sung to an English libretto by J.D. McClatchy and was first presented in 2006 at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2012 I directed a version of the production for Opera Australia that has since been revived several times at the Sydney Opera House in the summer.
The brainchild of American director Julie Taymor, this production of The Magic Flute is reduced in length from Mozart's original to make it as accessible and 'family-friendly' as possible. It is sung to an English libretto by J.D. McClatchy and was first presented in 2006 at The Metropolitan Opera in New York. In 2012 I directed a version of the production for Opera Australia that has since been revived several times at the Sydney Opera House in the summer.
The Magic Flute is the last of Mozart’s seven major operas. It was first performed in Vienna in a suburban theatre, the Theater auf der Wieden on 30 September, 1791. It was first presented by Opera Australia in 1956, then a newly created venture called the ‘Australian Opera Company’. For its maiden season the company presented four Mozart operas in state capital cities, commemorating the bicentenary of Mozart’s birth.
And ever since, The Magic Flute has had a prominent place in the life of this company. From that early 1956 production, through to John Copley’s celebrated production that coincided with the official opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, in front of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II. Following this there was a minimalist production in 1986 by Swedish director Goran Jarvefelt that explored themes of human potential and betterment that one finds at the heart of Mozart’s response to the Enlightenment. Then came director David Freeman’s production that cleverly balanced intellectual concepts and circus arts and featured a team of aerialists from the physical theatre company Legs on the Wall.
Australian audiences know this opera really, really well, and I think it’s fitting that the company turned to a visionary theatre-maker such as Julie Taymor to lead audiences and artists in an imaginatively new direction.
Both Tamino and Pamina’s stories are archetypal, rites of passage journeys in a metaphysical, fairytale world. Accordingly, we’re not in a literal or physical reality in Julie Taymor's production, but in a temporal, celestial place. We are up between the sun and the moon. To help create this unearthly quality, the set is constructed from clear perspex that materialises under light, and otherwise appears transparent. George Tsypin has described his set design as a crystelline temple floating in space.
Julie Taymor's costuming works on human and also symbolic levels. Pamina is Water, Tamino = Fire, Papageno = Air, Monostatos and his lust = Earth, Sarastro = Sun, Queen of Night = Moon. These wonderful associations increase the dramatic possibilities on stage.
To create the animal puppets, the idea was to avoid the ‘stuffed animal’ look of people in costumes that’re often a part of Flute productions, and instead design kite-like beasts made of sheer fabric stretched across frames with moving parts, that’d be manipulated by dancers. We have make-believe bears and serpents and birds; translucent, airy, and worthy counterparts to Mozart’s intricate and fine music. I believe the ‘skeletal’ and ‘stretched fabric’ puppet design experimented with here was later used to create the safari of animals required for The Lion King. The production's next season at the Sydney Opera House will be January 2016.
For Mozart, action would dominate every moment of Don Giovanni, a work he called a “drama giocosa”. In line with tradition, the drama accelerates at the end of each act, where he writes extended finales for the performing ensemble. The eponymous anti-hero of the opera is Don Juan, first introduced to theatre audiences by Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina in 1626. Where de Molina depicted three days in the life of his enigmatic Don Juan, Mozart’s opera shows the audience only the last day of his Don Giovanni.
I have directed Don Giovanni several times for Opera Australia - a former 'retired' production based on the work of the late Swedish director Göran Järvefelt - so when the opportunity came to assist Sir David McVicar on a new production of Mozart's masterwork in 2015, I jumped at it.
McVicar takes as a starting point the idea that Mozart was ahead of his time, and that here is a work that looks forward to the Romantic Movement because it values intuition, spontaneity, free expression and Individualism over the rationalism of the 18C Enlightenment. McVicar believes that people got ‘caught up’ in what Mozart was doing because he wasn’t writing conventional, repetitive music (like his contemporaries), but was experimenting and pushing boundaries. Don Giovanni’s a good example of this; musically, he confronted audiences with extreme emotions and moments of terrifying impact; thematically, he explores sex and death and the supernatural - areas that particularly obsessed the 19th century Romantics - writers, poets and painters.
So in-line with this perceived connection with the development of 19th century Romanticism, the opera's setting has been updated to the early 1800’s, and audiences may notice similarities between 'The Don' and the archetypal Byronic love hero. In fact, it could easily be Lord Byron himself - who as well as being a poet and politician, was also a notoriously flamboyant celebrity playboy, sexually broadminded and promiscuous, lavish with his money, extravagant and always destined to live fast and die young.
The set and costume designer is Robert Jones, who’s created a ‘tunnel of darkness’ on stage. The set design was inspired by a tour of the catacombs underneath Vienna - the presence of death is everywhere, with skulls and skeletons stacked up in piles - a tour of the catacombs is something Lord Byron might have done on one of his Grand Tours’ of the continent. The stage has dark, sinister corners, shadowy light, and a big, black silk drape for a show curtain that is bleakly funereal.
The stage design takes its cues from 19C aesthetics and thinking, in particular the way painters were inspired by ageing ruins of the past to reflect death and decay and show how Nature will overcome the transient creations of men.
Romantic-era painters, such as Caspar David Friedrich or Johan Christian Dahl, sometimes placed figures or symbols alone in a huge landscape to represent the transitoriness of human life, or to function as a premonition of death. In Robert Jones' production design audiences will see a village cross upstage centre, set against a graveyard that’s a permanent and ominous fixture.
The set changes are quick and in full view of the audience so the action isn’t interrupted. The space can become various locations - the interior of a ballroom, a street, a house, a tavern,
a grand entrance hall, a dining room – all on one level, as if we’re in a cellar or tomb. Above, visible through the cracks in the ceiling panels, is the world of air and light. But
it is only reachable via a huge staircase, that lowers and raises to seal off access like a drawbridge.
The usual master/servant relationship between Giovanni and Leporello is abandoned for a more equal footing between them. The servant could leave, but chooses not to, he’s an opportunist not a victim.
I think it's true to say that McVicar sees Giovanni as focused and fixated on power, with the business of charming and seducing a barely tolerable necessity. His egoism dominates and destroys those powerless to prevent his abuse. Giovanni believes it’s his right to do entirely as he pleases, to satisfy his own desires and live beyond the laws of God and man, and in doing so, cheat punishment and death. He's a mortal who wants to wake the Gods, to stir Nature, make the heavens thunder, see the supernatural, dine with zombies.
The story of Cio-Cio San first came to the attention of Puccini when he travelled to London in 1900 for the premiere of “Tosca” at Covent Garden. While he was there he saw a one-act play presented by David Belasco called “Madame Butterfly” based on a popular magazine article by John Luther Long, which had appeared in print a couple of years earlier. Belasco’s play must have been very modern & progressive for it’s day as it featured – quite boldly – a scene with no words – when silence held the stage for 10 minutes - perhaps the part Puccini enjoyed the most, as he apparently understood little of the English language. This section of the work is today the famous humming chorus as Butterfly keeps vigil in anticipation of Pinkerton’s return at the end of Act 2.
He was hugely enthusiastic about the project, he wrote at the time “At last I have embarked for Japan and I will do my best to recreate it. But more than articles on moral & material habits, I would like some notes of popular music for a clue…”. For Puccini, “embarking for Japan” involved a period of research and creative invention. Not surprisingly, he’d never gone to, nor would ever actually go to Japan. Neither did his librettists - Giacosa and Illica, or David Belasco or John Luther Long.
Puccini was still sufficiently affected by the piece to pursue the operatic rights when he later returned to Italy. Incidentally, as part of the double-bill that night Puccini also saw a play called “Miss Nobbs” by Jerome K. Jerome. It’s curious to consider, I think, what might have eventuated if Miss Nobbs had 'fired-up' his musical imagination instead of the enigmatic character of Cio-Cio San.
The tale of Puccini's Butterfly is an interpretation and impression of Japan from afar. A view of the East as seen from through Western eyes, at the turn of the century.
This was important to the creative team led by director Moffatt Oxenbould when devising this production, acknowledging this fact was been crucial in determining the design and overall style of performance. To tell the story through Western eyes, or in this case, Australian eyes allows the possibility to create a new impression of Japan. So the creative team set about inventing their version of the floating world. And there’s no shortage of inspiration, Japan has such a rich aesthetic and culture, so many qualities and textures come to mind, colours, shapes and scents, natural elements, wood, stone, fire, water.
It was a case of taking away or distilling down the design to arrive at a minimalist-like space. I think the two designers realised along the way that an empty, elemental space was the perfect expression of the complex thinking behind Zen Buddhism – where less is more and existing in harmony with ones environment and the universe is central. The outcome is a simple wooden platform that seems to float on water, enclosed by Shoji-like screens and contained in an airy green box, made out of textured paper.
Every opportunity to direct this wonderful production has been a lesson for me, it is absolutely 'water-tight' with its unified approach to performance style, concept, design and movement. I had the pleasure of directing Johanna McWaters at the Stage Opera of South Australia in 2013, making her debut in the title role, with James Egglestone as Pinkerton, Catriona Barr as Suzuki and Doug McNicol as Sharpless. Directing the opera at Opera Australia in 2015 featured the peerless Hiromi Omura as Cio-Cio San, James Egglestone as Pinkerton, Sian Pendry as Suzuki and Michael Honeyman as Sharpless.
Opera Australia has always had a close rapport with the operas of Benjamin Britten. Back in 1958, in just the third year of the company's fledging existence, it programmed Peter Grimes,
Britten’s breakthrough opera, just a decade after the premiere at Sadler’s Wells in London. The company staged The Rape of Lucretia in 1971, directed by Moffatt Oxenbould, then
followed this production of Albert Herring directed by John Cox in 1976, just few years after the Sydney Opera House was opened in 1973.
Since then the company has turned to a handful of leading theatre directors - Baz Luhrmann, Neil Armfield, Jim Sharman - to bring to the stage new productions of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, The Turn of the Screw, Death in Venice and Billy Budd respecively. And over this time audiences and performers have responded keenly to Britten’s music and to the psychological drama that is central to his theatre.
Britten’s music’s not easy to perform, and generally speaking his stories are not easy to stage. The music is complex, harmonically and rhythmically, and avoids predictable patterns of composition that would assist in learning it. It’s as though Britten wants all involved to operate in a heightened state of awareness, never comfortable that he or she has ‘got it’ under their belt. So the rehearsal experience can be intense and long for all involved if artists haven’t previously spent many, many months of musical preparation in advance of the first rehearsal.
The depth of sub-text in his operas presents a challenge for the storytelling. Britten’s own personality and views on issues such as sexuality, pacifism and socialism intertwine with his creativity. Britten has been described as a socialist rebelling against his own middle class background, and a believer challenging his Anglican faith as a homosexual. He certainly seems to have weaved his character and experience in and out of his operas in an almost subterranean way – and directors must decide how often and how much to explore this world. What kind of stage performance or design will be ideal to bring clarity to the work? Tackling the ‘man and his music’ is a challenge for directors and Australian audiences seem to have an appetite for it. I think they've relished the output of Britten operas that have come their way over the past 50 years.
The comic plot concerns Lady Billows, who together with the May Day Festival committee, rally against the loose morals of the town’s youth. When the search for a May Queen turns up no young lady of virtue, the committee discovers the only village youth of unblemished character is a boy - Mrs Herring’s lad, Albert, who works at the family green grocers. The only way out of the crisis is to honour a May King at this year’s festivities, and break with centuries-old tradition.
Audiences could be forgiven for likening the early moments of the opera to a genre of comedy in the vein of Oscar Wilde's 'Importance of Being Earnest', a play he labelled himself as ‘a trivial comedy for serious people’. But before long Britten’s opera deviates by introducing a secondary plot midway through Act 1, making it impossible to categorise the rest as a conventional Comedy of Manners.
Because we meet Albert Herring himself: he’s a shy, awkward young man living a sheltered life in the overly protective care of his mother. The temptation to live his own-life can only ever be a shameful dream, something that only others will ever be able to experience. Like the butcher’s apprentice Sid, who Albert observes seducing the baker’s daughter Nancy. The idea of Love is something that poor Albert can only imagine, momentarily, before returning to his chores.
The May Day committee arrives and Albert is duly enlisted to be this year’s May King, to be dressed in virginal white and orange blossom, despite his protests and efforts to stand-up to his domineering mother.
Three weeks pass, during which we imagine Albert growing in frustration at his predicament. The festival-day arrives and it’s the catalyst for Albert’s decision to ‘break the apron strings’ and run away from home. Several moments contribute: There’s the alcohol (Sid spikes Albert’s drink with rum); and an explosion of defiance (Sid and Nancy’s derision and pity provokes a dizzying moment of self-awareness). Albert heads out into the night for a drunken night, a rites-of-passage experience and returns home the next day with a newfound sense of self-confidence. He finds his own voice, one that he uses to assert his independence over his mum and the town’s stuffy establishment. His reward is total rejection from everyone... except Sid and Nancy, who approve.
The Opera Australia production by John Cox is, in John's own words, ‘an affectionate glimpse at an eccentric corner of the Motherland in 1900’. And it’s unashamedly realistic - the curtain rises to reveal the posh interior of Lady Billow’s home, with it’s wood paneling and rather forbidding atmosphere - in start contrast to Mrs Herring’s dusty old, under-stocked grocery shop. John Cox says “I realised when I was directing Albert Herring how thoroughly English I am at heart, my roots are in that soil."
A naturalistic stage setting’s become the exception rather than the rule these days, and I understand that it was John's choice because he wanted to bed the piece down in truth and avoid the kind of farce that you sometimes come across in productions of the opera. It’s easy to find the comedy for Albert Herring in mockery, but unless one connects with the tone and quirkiness and intimacy of the piece, its deeper pleasures remain elusive.
The name 'Don Juan' instinctively evokes images of a promiscuous anarchist on an endless pursuit for sexual conquest - a freethinking Baroque hero who's gone from Spanish myth to poetic fantasy and inspired radically different treatments by generations of writers and artists. However, the most enduring version of the legend - in the sense that it's familiar and popular – is probably that of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni.
In 2013 I returned to Perth to work with the West Australian Opera company. It is the only opera company in Australia will rehearse an entire production in the theatre building itself. The studio is on an upper floor that runs alongside the sun-drenched balconies above Hay Street. The theatre itself is a gem - the only operating Edwardian theatre in the country - and it is charming.
The production we're presenting in Perth is based on the work of Swedish Director Göran Järvefelt and his ideas developed, in part, from his time working at Sweden's Drottningholm Theatre. Situated within the grounds of the Royal Palace in Stockholm, the Drottningholm Theatre was built in 1766. The building fell into disuse sometime after Gustav III's assassination in 1792, and not rediscovered until 1920. The dust magically stirred to reveal a perfectly preserved baroque theatre, with all its stage machinery and scenery still intact. The curtain rose again on performances in 1922 and today it's the venue for a summer festival of opera.
The wax candles have been retired in favour of electric lighting, but the theatre is still a unique environment that links centuries of operatic endeavour: with singers, musicians, conductors and directors finding a bridge into the world of 18C opera production. Göran Järvefelt was one such artist who embarked on this journey with enormous integrity.
Act 2 Sextet: James Clayton, Katja Webb, Nicole Car & Henry Choo
He first introduced his Drottningholm/Age of Enlightenment view of Mozart operas to Australian audiences in 1986, when he directed The Magic Flute at the Sydney Opera House. The impact was immediate for audiences and performers.
The foundation of Järvefelt’s approach was to explore and reinforce elements of truthfulness and humanity inherent in Mozart’s operas: the audience is encouraged to focus on the emotions of the characters by a set design free from any unnecessary furnishings or decoration. The storytelling is likewise clear and engaging, the effect is to “demystify” the opera rather than complicate it. It's a concept that encourages the artists to interpret their roles with respect for the words and music of Mozart’s score.
The production designs feature 18th century style theatre spaces, and the characters appear costumed as Mozart might have imagined them at the time of composition - on the streets or in the drawing rooms of Vienna or Prague. Mozart put the world onstage and allowed his audience to see themselves, revealing their intrigues and travesties.
Göran Järvefelt felt that while the guiding principles may remain the same, each production should be built around the individuals who perform it. So while each revival comes with a sense of responsibility to present performances consistent with Järvefelt's style, we also must make sure it is a singular event shaped by new interpreters, that evolves from their input.
It means the production is perfect for artists making a role debut - there is plenty of scope for creativity and collaboration - and this was the situation at West Australian Opera. Leporello (James Clayton), Elvira (Katja Webb), Zerlina (Sara Macliver) were all performing their roles for the first time.
Opera Australia tours each autumn and spring season to The Arts Centre, Melbourne. I'm often involved with one or both of these tours and it's a time I really look forward to as a chance to retrace my steps. Although I grew up nestled in the paleoconservative eastern suburbs of Melbourne, I spent years 'kicking around' the streets of downtown in the 1980's- the network of dusty lanes, arcades, department stores, pedestrian tunnels, Princess Street Bridge and Flinders Fair - when the Yellow Peril sat in the City Square. Melbourne is a much cleaner and more vibrant city today, but to a 9-year-old back then it was very exciting, and you could really 'cut loose'! Like jumping from the tram running-board onto my school bag, skidding down the tram zones on its little metal studs, or sitting on the rear bumper for a few metres.
This was back in '78, '79, '80 and when I was doing hard labour as a choirboy at St Paul's Cathedral. This meant practise before school on Monday mornings, evensong four weeknights a week, plus 'two shows on Sundays'. It was a grim schedule for a child, but the period is caked with nostalia when I look back now. I remember the dark, dank, dungeon-like choir vestry, underneath the staircase where we dressed into black cassocks, white surplices and envied the medals some boys had earned for long service. The practise room at the top of the stairs was run like a war room, as if the world depended on music, by our drill sergeant June Nixon and it filled with shimmering particles of dust when sunlight streamed through an undrawn curtain. And the oppressively long sermons that held up our meticulous singing, that I often endured by holding a tear-drop between my eyelids like a kaleidescope, so that the cathedral lights transformed into a vision of shapeshifting creatures.
I learnt a lot, especially about the benefits of childhood discipline and servitude - because every day of adulthood feels like precious freedom! But it was by no means exploitation - the church paid for my school educution at Trinity Grammar. I think cathedral choirs requiring that kind of commitment in return for scholarship are peerless institutions for teaching young people the fundamentals of music.
On the subject of music-making, our cast for 'Un Ballo in Maschera' here in Melbourne is peerless. Diego Torre, Jose Carbo, Mariana Pentcheva have all returned to their roles for this season, and we've been strengthened by the addition of Hungarian soprano Csilla Boross who makes her debut as Amelia.
When a production transfers between cities, rehearsal time is usually condensed, and on this occasion with travel days and the Easter holidays coming into play, we've spent ten days in the studio rehearsing for the Melbourne premiere on 12 April.
Verdi had all sorts of trouble with the censors when composing his opera. When they did finally approve it - the opera premiered in Rome on February 17, 1859 at the Teatro Apollo - the scenario had been shifted to Boston!
Verdi’s wanted to explore absolutism - something at the centre of political thought in the 19th century - the question of a monarch’s sovereignty and unlimited authority.
But his story about the assasination of the Swedish King Gustav III in 1792 was censored by the forces of conservative politics in Italy, terrified by the mere idea of rebellion, and driven right out of Europe. Most importantly for the drama - the 'conspiracy element’ of the plot was diluted to such an extent that any trace of political ideology is completely lost.
Although the opera was popular throughout the ten years of Italian unification that followed its premiere, and Verdi could have returned the opera to its original setting, he never did.
So, bearing in mind that Verdi was only able to narrate the political thought of his time ‘between the lines’ of his opera, the director of this new production, Alex Ollé looked for a context for today’s audience that echoed the original ideological plot. And he found he could trace a new version of the story in the struggle against totalitarianism and the horrors of blind bureaucracy faced by societies in the 20C and 21C.
Alex also found inspiration in the writings of José Ortega y Gasset, a Spanish philosopher and contemporary of George Orwell’s. In 1930 he wrote:
The mass crushes beneath it everything that is different, everything that is excellent, individual, qualified and select. Anybody who’s not like everybody, who does not think like everybody, runs the risk of being eliminated.
So, to those Melbournians who are expecting ball-gowns and an 18C Swedish royal palace, that's not the case with this new production, but it is another kind of power architecture - a cement bunker typical of the headquarters of an international bank or government agency, with fascist aesthetics and grey, futuristic tones. And I would argue, equally beautiful for the manner in which it's been realised. The 'palace' is a save haven for the economic elite and the bureaucrats to live protected from the outside world. And for a portrait of King Gustav... you'll see him omnipresent, his image projected like Orwell’s Big Brother on an LED screen upstage centre.
A couple of days after Christmas, rehearsals started on 'Il trovatore' with the aim of restaging Elke Neidhardt's production with fresh eyes. These occasions are always stimulating, especially when there's a cast of principals who are also approaching the work without prior knowledge of the production. It means the director can focus on aspects they wish to preserve, modify other elements that may benefit from a different approach, and work with opinions and ideas offered by a group of artists who are responding to the production in the present.
I doubt that anyone who has worked in repertory opera could say they've never been affected by the ghosts of the past. By this I mean, the memory of past performers, past performances, past opening nights - share the room with you - in the same way that costumes with old name tags speak to artists of the legacy they inherit.
You can sometimes find ghostly traces in the rehearsal room, for instance, when watching an artist approach their role. They may have difficultly breaking from familiar patterns of behaviour, or objectify an acting choice based on what has 'worked' before. Ghosts can also have a positive presence - respect for what came before may be a useful 'entry point' for an artist needing connect with the material, or add layers of meaning to a performance.
Dealing with the past in the present. It's seems to be a situation unique to opera. The same production of Verdi's 'La traviata' may be presented for audiences every three years for twenty years or more. One has to think hard to recall a production of a play that has been revived in Sydney. Where repertory 'straight' theatre companies archive their work with documentation, repertory opera companies store their work in containers, in warehouses!
Our new cast for 'Il trovatore' features two international artists - Arnold Rawls as Manrico and Daria Masiero as Leonora - onstage lovers that fight to stay together despite the best efforts of their leacherous nemesis, the Conte di Luna played by Michael Honeyman, a Sydney-based baritone. Verdi originally planned to call his opera 'La vendetta'. It reflects the fact that all the threads of the story a bound together by a daughter's horrifying objective - to avenge the execution of her gypsy mother that took place many years earlier. Azucena is the traumatised daughter, and having witnessed her mother burned alive, will now stop at nothing to see the killers punished.
Richard Anderson is another Sydney-based artist who, along with his collegues in this cast, is maturing impressively as a fine singer and actor. He plays Ferrando, a man with a penchant for violence akin to one of Coppola's mafioso strongman. It's a fanaticism that serves di Luna's needs for supremecy over his adversaries - both military and spiritual.
The cast is completed by Sian Pendry, over-supplied with talent as Leonora's confidante Inez and Jonathan Abernethy as Ruiz, who only recently made his stage debut in Lucia di Lammermoor.
In this production, the action is updated to the Spanish Civil War of the late 1930’s - with the sides made up of Nationalist forces fighting against a coalition of socialist, anarchist, landless peasant and worker groups forming the Republican rebels. By shifting time and place to as possible to a modern audience's experience, the aim is to give the themes and situations real punch and relevance. Looking for a political situation that mirrors the civil conflicts of Spain in the 15th century, it's logical that Elke Neidhardt should find a strong framework for Verdi’s work in 1930’s Spain.
In this scenario, Di Luna is a Francoist army officer of the ruling elite, a wealthy fascist, looking maintain his status and privilege. The Troubadour, Manrico, is a revolutionary leader, active in the Republican militia.
Leonora is a young aristocratic woman, looking for a sacrificial cause, growing manic and obsessed with the idea of loving Manrico, and dying for him.
Azucena tells us she is from Biscaglia. Governed by the Basque party, Biscay supported the Republican side against the Francoists when civil war broke out. She and di Luna are enemies in every sense. Her son, Manrico inherits her politics, and bears her endlessly depressing, haunted moaning for revenge. It's for this purpose alone that Manrico has been raised and readied.
As a Roman Catholic priest, Ferrando's clergy supported the Nationalists against a Republican cause that wanted the separation of church and state, and to remove the church from the education system.
The famous Anvil Chorus has been entirely re-interpreted. Traditionally depicting Gypsies working through the night forging metal, it's instead a re-enactment of Gypsy persecution at the hands of the Fascists - merciless ethnic cleansing not unlike that of more recent times.
Another re-interpreted scene opens Act Two, where we find di Luna awaiting fresh recruits for his army unit. It affords as opportunity for a nostalgic look back at 1930’s gymnasium callisthenics performed very accurately by the gents chorus, and a rubber-gloved army medical examination / initiation of new recruits that is, well, very much in the style of the day!
In addition to Elke Neidhardt's strong context for Verdi's melodrama, the production boasted fine principal performances, Michael Scott-Mitchell's beautiful stage architecture, Nick Schleiper's sculptured lighting and the excellent work of the Opera Australia chorus. The season at the Sydney Opera House was in the summer of 2013.
As a post-script to what I have written about Elke's wonderful production of Il trovatore above, a few words about her passing...
I think anyone who knew Elke in the final years of her live knew that she was still 'expanding' creatively and intellectually and was physically still so energetic. It is an enormous loss that, only ten years after her landmark production of Wagner's Ring Cycle in Adelaide, Elke has died at the age of 72.
Opera is a comfortable place for traditionalists, but Elke was one of only a few truly rebellious opera director's Australia has produced - the old traditional old male guard might label her 'feisty' but Elke was much more dangerous than that - challenging, formidable, mischievous, daring!
Elke's rehearsal room was highly-strung and highly entertaining - you never quite knew what she'd do or say to provoke a singer to give more, or to fight-off an evil conductor who might want her to make compromises. Like most directors, she liked to 'dissect' the personalities of those around her and she had different sides to her own character that was evident in all her opera productions.
One side was the Provocateur - she felt that Australia was something of a cultural backwater when she arrived in the 60's and for many years rallied against what she saw as prudishness and conservatism on the stage. And consciously or not, she was energised by the tension between what she wanted to present onstage and what she believed was acceptable to Australian society. Onstage nudity is an example, her production of Tannhauser featured Amor as a grotesque aging and degenerate senior citizen, sporting a fallus, her Don Giovanni got ready for a night of debauchery by singing the famous champagne aria in the shower, completely nude. In that season, Elke couldn't believe that signs were dotted around the Sydney Opera House warning patrons in case they should see a stray hair.
And then there was another side to Elke's personality, the director that respected operatic convention, who was not afraid to stage a big operatic gesture when it seemed appropriate, or put singers in positions where they can be heard, like downstage centre. Above all, Elke liked to present character driven stories with real emotions - and that's the legacy she has left us - provocative, larger that life, operatic melodrama, fully drawn characters with complex, inner lives.
And let's not forget her genius for placing a story in the right world - often an archetypal one where where we recognise the fight between good and evil, fascist versus republican, ignorance and repression versus knowledge and free expression. She was a iconoclast alright, vale Elke Neidhardt.
I sometimes direct for a year or two on my own before having the opportunity to assist another director, and it is often a welcome change of pace to be able to take a step back and play a role in someone else's directing process. In 2013 I had the pleasure of working alongside directors Alejandro Ollé and Valentina Carrasco from Barcelona's La Fura del Baus, who were in Sydney directing a new production of Un ballo in maschera. La Fura del Baus' creative team, that includes designers Alfons Flores and Lluc Castells, have envisioned Verdi's opera as a prophetic omen, signalling a terrifying Orwellian future. Giuseppe Verdi was prevented from presenting his original political drama the way he intended, thanks to a nervous officialdom and some over-zealous censorship, but in Sydney, audiences were able to experience the story in a more biting and contemporaneous setting.
Alejandro Ollé has located the opera in a post-apocalyptic world, where the despotic Gustavo controls a regime that is part-government, part corporation - morally bankrupt, devoid of compassion - controlling minds with lies & propaganda. And existing beneath this structure, literally within the foundations of power, is an underworld of outcast humanity and simmering rebellion.
The rehearsal process was thoughtful and relaxed, progressing through the entire opera to date over about three weeks, with another two weeks before the production transferred onto the stage to revise. I remember at every stage the rehearsals progressed on time and the opening night on Wednesday, 16 January 2013 in the recently renamed Joan Sutherland Theatre of the Sydney Opera House was really impressive, the design was breathtaking, the effect as powerful and disturbing as intended.
Below are the stage designs of Alfons Flores, the imagery was exceptionally well documented - it's rare when we are in rehearsal to be able to get such a clear picture of how the stage environment will actually appear.
Sunday 14 October, 2012: We've just completed three weeks of studio rehearsal preparing Francesca Zambello's acclaimed production of Carmen, working with a talented team lead by Kirsten Chavez (Carmen), Konstantin Andreyev (Don Jose), Jose Carbo (Escamillo), Lecia Robertson (Micaela), Andrew Collis (Zuniga) and Guy Booth (Morales).
Each session we've been enlivened by several different languages in the room - our efforts are guided by the urbane Frenchman Emmanuel Joel-Hornak conducting Bizet's masterpiece - and we have Spanish, Italian and Australian tongues wagging! The collaboration has been lively and... a pleasure.
This week we transfer to the Lyric Theatre stage of the Queensland Performing Arts Centre, it'll be exciting to see Tanya McCallin's set and costuming again, and witness the energetic Opera Queensland chorus develop their individual performances, they are sounding very fine.
There are many special joys working on Carmen. As someone who has a low threshold for unneccesary reiteration in opera, or mismatched words and music, Bizet's score is rare treat. Every note is in perfect accord with the inflection and rhythm of the text, which makes for a beautifully coherent and authentic-sounding music theatre score. The Act 2 Quintet (above) is a perfect example, and reminds me of what was once said of Berlioz - that he composed 'with the point of a needle'. In this way, Bizet points the way forward to what would be expected of any great composer of verismo opera.
For me, Carmen is the most physical of operas. To see it performed 'disconnected' from the body would be like watching a bird with clipped wings attempt to fly; it'd be a futile and disturbing experience. I think the impulse to express extreme emotional states with the body is easily triggered by Bizet's music, but it's sometimes challenging to do so in a way that appears natural, or is feasible given the technical demands placed on the singer. It's always a thrill to see artists 'put it all together' and through a combination of repetition, experimentation, sweat and abandon transform to become the character, in motion, in the moment.