I have been trying to catch up on missed posts for a while now, and among them are stories about goings on at Opera Australia – and good goings on, I mean. For many years Australia’s most expensive performing arts company thrived of the rare vocal gifts of Dame Joan Sutherland. Her voice was so great, and she was so loved and admired by audiences, that the company only had to include a production with her in a season and they basically had a thriving subscription base. Like any good ecosystem – a generation of fine Australian singers and other theatre-craft folk grew up around her. It was also an era when many subscribers were European emigres, with good ears, who came to HEAR opera rather than necessarily LOOK at it. Directors included some great originals like Elijah Moshinsky, but very often what we might call the exceedingly capable, like John Copley, who could mill massive crowd-scenes (aka the chorus) into elegant shapes around a diva in just a few rehearsals. It was the way opera was done back then – and few complained.
I am telling this story in a kind of cartoonish-way to keep the story succinct. The point being that as Sutherland (who never took her full fee when performing back home) approached retirement, management was placed with the impossible: how was La Stupenda – artistically and financially – to be replaced? We had many other very fine Australian singers – Joan Carden, Donald Shanks, Anson Austin. But no one else in Sutherland’s league – in the popular imagination anyway – whose voice could send a whole audience into tingling flight. Callas may have had more soul, but Sutherland was peerless – especially in the highly technical bel canto (sweet singing) style. If you want the in-depth version of this tale, read Moffatt Oxenbould’s 700-page memoir, Timing Is Everything. Oxenbould served as artistic director of the company for several decades, retiring in 1999. In that time, among many achievements, he oversaw the gear-shift, the style-change, the new strategy that would keep Australia’s premiere performing arts company – post Sutherland – afloat. It was a model akin to one already deployed by the Welsh National Opera – another spunky if financially under-resourced outfit, compared the the tens of millions of Deutschmarks, US dollars and English pounds the world’s biggest opera companies could spend on singers and sets. The trick was to look to where local resources were strong – and in Australia that was our theatre directors. Of course we had another problem after the Sydney Opera House opened: a brilliant new venue from the outside, but the inside too small for large-scale opera productions. This greatly limited performing choices in Sydney and one reason why we have never seen Wagner’s Ring Cycle here.
The new model would be to create great productions of the smaller works of the repertoire which meant embracing what was possible in terms of star power and orchestra size: but – boldly – bringing in more visually imaginative directors and designers. If we couldn’t have mega-star singers as often as we’d like, let’s at least start creating productions that were better staged, that made better theatrical sense, that looked good.
Barry Kosky believes the chief weakness of our theatre making lies in the shortage of gifted trained directors. If only we had a dozen more top-of-the-range directors to make better use of the scripts of our fine native writers’ and the bodily gifts of our very many truly great actors. Or at least re-engage or engage some of the older and younger ones that were sitting at home waiting for Centrelink to call. You don’t need that many good directors, however, to engineer the shift in opera making that Oxenbould and his team had in mind. While there has always been, to my taste, some ‘old-fashioned’ stuff in every season, over the past 20 years, I have also witnessed some amazing opera productions created by locals including Jim Sharman, Barrie Kosky, Gale Edwards, Patrick Nolan – and tomorrow night, for me, Benedict Andrews’ debut production for Opera Australia (OA). The historical aspect to this narrative, so far as we theatre-folk are concerned, is that Oxenbould is one of NIDA’s earliest graduates. As well as being a discerning lover of good singing, play-making has always been in his blood. Similarly when Donald McDonald was general manager: over many of the same years, having come directly to Opera Australia from the Sydney Theatre Company (STC).
The IT moment in the journey to redefine OA’s modus operandi, I think it would be fair to say, commissioned by Oxenbould and supported by McDonald, was Baz Luhrmann and designer Catherine Martin’s 1990 production of La boheme. This is to skate over some very very fine productions by other directors, above mentioned, to get to my point. At the end of the opening night of Luhrmann’s boheme, his agent Hilary Linstead and I turn to each other, almost white with shock. In just a few words we agreed we had just witnessed the arrival of a directorial superstar. How right we were. As you can see from the images below, many of the ideas in that production turned up in Moulin Rouge.
This production was so loved and so successful, no one until last year has been brave enough to create a new version. So, in terms of catching up with assignments, here I want to pay my respects to director Gale Edwards and designer Brian Thomson for his set and Julie Lynch for costumes. I am cutting corners putting up this story, but what I wanted to do was host some images of this latest, intelligent and visually splendid La boheme. I am not up to the task of evaluating the singing, but below are some photos of what the production looked like. Certainly with an eye to appearances. Many of us now go to look at opera as well as listen. That is the game changer. Where Luhrmann and Martin set their version in late 1920s Paris, Edwards and Thomson located theirs in 1930s’ Weimer Germany. If its achievement came as less as a surprise, that’s only because we already knew how good these two theatre-makers are. I have left out two names (of many who worked on both these shows): contributing to the design effort of the Luhrmann-Martin production was Bill Marron. And integral to the success of the Edwards-Thomson production was costume designer, Julie Lynch.
What I also wanted to do with this post was alert readers to some highlights of this year’s opera season; the first over which Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia’s current artistic director, has had total control. There is so much booking ahead in opera-land, a newbie artistic director has to see through several seasons before they can truly take hold of the commissioning reins. As that wonderful generation of opera lovers who arrived here from Europe after World War II are getting too old to go out, indeed many have passed on, Opera Australia has had to rethink who it can, or is performing for. To stay alive they must reach out for a new demographic. You only have to look at the hordes of expensively-suited finance district guys and their high-heeled female bosses who descend every Friday afternoon on the lower Sydney Opera House concourse for drinks and lots of very loud chatter (plus a DJ or a band) to stare the answer in the face.
Just as Upton and Blanchett, my beloved Fluffy and Glitter, have re-engineered the STC’s subscriber base, so too is Terracini and his team at OA. And Terracini, known previously as a fine opera singer, is also at heart a theatre guy. Among his many achievements including running arts festivals, and I quote: “In 1993, Lyndon Terracini founded Northern Rivers Performing Arts (NORPA), which developed into one of the most important performing arts organisations in regional Australia and was awarded the Myer Foundation Group Award in 2002.” How is that for being a man of the people. So much so, when I was reviewing for the Sydney Morning Herald, Terracini invited me up to see one of the Lismore shows. He paid for the flight: bringing the mountain to Mohammed as it were. I was impressed by his chutzpah.
For a taste treat, let me mention some of Terracini’s upcoming programing. Right now, at the Sydney Opera House, you can go see an edited production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, directed by none other than Julie Taymor, famous for the Broadway The Lion King. This is a production that has been designed especially to appeal to children, with prices to match. Where size matters, both Melbourne and Sydney get very big gigs. Because it has a stage and orchestra pit large enough, Melbourne gets Wagner’s Ring Cycle. Directed by Neil Armfield and designed by Robert Cousins. It premieres in 2013, marking the 200th anniversary of Wagner’s birth.
Devoid as we are of a suitable venue here in Sydney, we get next month a production of La Traviata – performed on the best outdoor stage in the world. More than outdoors, on a giant floating pontoon sitting off the Botanical Gardens on Sydney Harbour. “This monumental production features a forty-piece orchestra, magnificent sets, beautiful costumes, dazzling effects and a 9-metre chandelier suspended above the purpose-built stage. The Sydney Opera House, Sydney Harbour Bridge and city skyline provide the spectacular backdrop.” To be directed by Francesca Zambello and designed by Brian Thomson. Plus fireworks, of course!
For low-brows like me, we are getting in the Sydney winter season a production of South Pacific. I have argued for years that Opera Australia should produce the best of popular musicals. They are no different to Puccini’s works in their time, even if they require a different kind of singing. If OA can produce, virtually annually, ultra-lousy productions of Gilbert & Sutherland, what is stopping them from putting on this era’s versions of the same? Not only to fill the coffers, but also to open up the company’s vast resources to a whole new class audience category. Which definitely includes me. Though you must never catch me singing in the shower – “I’m Gonna Wash That Man Right Outa My Hair’. Meanwhile, Terracini has not abandoned the highbrow stuff. Starting with, as I countdown the hours, Benedict Andrew’s directorial take on The Marriage of Figaro. More on that, I hope, in a new post here soon.