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This is the future of Australian opera

Andrew Fuhrmann

As the debate about the future of opera in Australia heats up, financially independent opera companies are gaining loyal audiences by refusing to "fit in".
This is the future of Australian opera
The Four Larks have forsaken their "Brunswick Bayreuth" for a stint in the Malthouse Tower as the Malthouse Theatre's company in residence, wherein they have turned their cooperative imagination upon the tragic folk-mysteries of medieval Europe in their latest "junkyard opera", The Plague Dances. It is another compelling production from a company whose comprehensively reconstructed notion of the immersive Gesamtkunstwerk has produced some of the most inspiring and original art I've ever seen. This is a darker and more thoroughly modern piece in its structure than their previous works, despite the medieval theme and archaised harmonies. They've developed the playfully romantic self-awareness that informed their earlier pieces into something more formally and thematically dense. But it is still alive with all the pleasures of conspiracy and concealment, and where the text is somewhat stiff, if not obstinate, there is an agility and diversity in the score and libretto which opens out the drama. Like all the company’s previous efforts, The Plague Dances has been widely praised for its musical arrangements and scenic design, but criticised for disdaining the performance norms of Melbourne's independent theatre scene: the taste for pragmatic egotism in the writing and direction. The dreamlike dislocation and transparent displacement of myth that is the hallmark of the Four Larks' style continues to infuriate many, and, again, the familiar cry has been heard: why don't they try and just fit in? Why don't they, that is, engage more with what is current, and shake off this wilful self-enchantment? Across the boulevard, in the State Theatre, you'll find a first-class example of "fitting in". The lofty ambition of Julie Taymor's particoloured 2006 production of The Magic Flute, adapted for Sydney and Melbourne by Opera Australia, is to "fit in" with absolutely everyone, the only possible exception being a mysterious clique of bluebloods known only as the "club". "The audience that we want to play to now has to include as many people as possible," declares OA's artistic director Lyndon Terracini. "It's a democratic society and we need to be as democratic as possible." To hear Terracini describe it, and there can't be many who haven't heard him describe it, the Flute is the crowning jewel in Opera Australia's autumn season and the model to which all future Opera Australia productions will in one way or another aspire: a visually engaging and heavily abbreviated production sung in English, suitable for children and families and those not necessarily au fait with the full range of operatic conventions. It's a fun, gambolling sort of production, always obliging, always ready to flourish some new trick or other of stagecraft to draw us further into the foolery. There's something refreshing in that, in the way it makes an exhibition of these tricks, letting us in on the game that “bourgeois opera” has been playing for more than a hundred years with its relentless exaggerations and heightenings of the mise en scène, the neverending effort to mask eighteenth- and nineteenth-century dramatic forms with a kind of paint-and-motley currency. Indeed, Taymor’s Flute puts its claim for meaningfulness – positioning itself as pure escapism – so shamelessly that it becomes almost cheekily endearing. Whether or not it is strictly opera does not concern Terracini, so long as people are buying tickets. "Fundamentally," he says, "we're not an opera company. We're a production house. We're presenting a musical, or Singspiel, which is The Magic Flute, an opera, which is Turandot, then later in the year we're presenting another musical, which is South Pacific, and we're presenting this enormous outdoor event, Opera on Sydney Harbour." Whereas some see in all of this a crisis of identity, I feel as though Opera Australia has never been more authentically Australian. In the person of Lyndon Terracini, Australia's largest performing arts company has found a voice capable of connecting with the national mythos, with a country that sees itself as democratic, pragmatic, loud, attractive, anti-intellectual, fearless and independent. In the grand operatic style, I imagine him sweeping through a crowded theatre, scattering the pointyheads to the far corners of the suburbs. Before Terracini, there always seemed something a little chancy about OA, about where it saw itself in the collective imagination. Little wonder that, with its ground so doubtful, the company became a site of conflict in the culture wars, in the so-called debate over whether arts funding should be diverted from "heritage" to "humbug", to use Richard Mills' idiosyncratic frame. The fact that the debate over Opera Australia's role has moved into a more serious discussion about Australia’s cultural priorities generally suggests that the company is now more confident with its own brand. Even an essentially foreign import like The Magic Flute has an Australian feel. There's a recognisable energy to it. As Gail Edwards said of her own production of OA's La Boheme last year, "Even though it’s set in Germany, and it’s sung in Italian, and the two stars are American and Korean respectively, I think this is a distinctly Australian production. It’s the expression of freshness and courage that are integral to Australian culture." Something similar could well be said about this Magic Flute. Unlike many who expressed initial enthusiasm for the rhetoric of Terracini's Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, but whose interest waned at the appearance of a fairly conventional 2012 program, I'm still broadly positive about the new noise at Opera Australia. This is not because I have any time for Terracini's anti-elitist broadsides. Nor is it because I have an especial desire to see another chandelier strung up over Sydney Harbour. Quite the opposite. I see here a chance for the Opera Australia that I once knew and despised, when I had a series of youth subscription in my early twenties, to be violently transformed. What I really want is the banishment once and for all those plaster-cast museum pieces – not even genuine exhibits – that for years have smothered the theatrical possibilities of the operatic form, operas which are in fact not "operas" at all, but concert performances hidden beneath the flimsiest of dramatic facades. Developing a commercially viable national company which unashamedly stages ruthlessly-adapted, culturally-inclusive, family-orientated events that aspire only to entertainment, gentle inculcation and, of course, professional excellence is I think the best chance of achieving that revolution. Popular theatre may treat its material roughly, but at least there is life in it. The problem many see with this, however, is that in their quest for a popular audience, Opera Australia are neglecting the development of new work. “A lot of people will tell you they've done a new work and it was incredibly successful,” Terracini says when pressed on whether Opera Australia has a responsibility to support Australian composers, “but the key issue is how many tickets they sold.” Innovation at a “truly democratic” Opera Australia, believes Terracini, should always be aimed at widening the company’s appeal. “Yes, we are going to do new pieces,” he explains, “but not necessarily in the theatre. One of them I'm looking at doing is a television opera.” Instead, he believes that experimentation should be left to “small, nimble companies.” It is easier to excuse this abrogation when one discovers that, actually, in Melbourne at least, a healthy number of smaller and more "nimble" companies are innovating with new works, supported by main-stage venues like the Arts Centre and the Malthouse. In addition to The Plague Dances, new company Three Masks recently staged a showing of Kevin March’s Razing Hypatia, the Arts Centre Melbourne have just finished with Angus Grant’s netball opera Contact!, Chamber Made Opera recently extended their living-room series with The Box and will soon be heading to the Malthouse in order to bring an earlier living-room opera to the Beckett Theatre as part of OperaXS, which is itself a weekend given over to various explorations of the operatic form, and in May Victorian Opera will stage Gordon Kerry’s new true-crime opera, Midnight Son, also at the Malthouse, with a libretto by Louis Nowra. For David Young, artistic director at Chamber Made, however, this plenty is no excuse. "It's a funny equation," he says, musing on the co-incidence between Opera Australia's increasing populism and the sudden proliferation of new independent operas. "But I don't think they're related. I think if anything Opera Australia's activities at the moment are taking a lot of resources and possibly audience away from things that they might otherwise go to." With Opera Australia this is where the argument always comes back to: the public purse. It's an unlikely proposition given current attitudes in this country toward philanthropy but if they could make do with subsidies on a par with what New York's MET Opera receive – a tiny fraction of its overall budget – and make up the slack through box office and donations, I suspect that many of Opera Australia's problems would disappear. On a smaller scale, the desire to ease their reliance on state money has meant something of a revolution at Young's own company, with Chamber Made's Living Room Opera series. Contemporary opera lovers donate their living rooms to enable the development of new work, sometimes also donating a commission fee. Far from diluting their practice, this has meant a renewed focus on the intimacy of the spectacle, something which has always been at the core of Chamber Made's work. "I'm amazed actually that there are actually a growing group of people interested in supporting experimental art and interested in taking risks and being scared by what is made," says Young. The Four Larks, too, are a company whose artistic identity is bound up in their financial independence. Entirely unfunded, they have gained their loyal following through the captivating aesthetic transformations they effect in their unlikely warehouses and backyards on the fringes of the inner-city. These two companies are I think testament to the kind artistic "liberation" that Norman Lebrecht describes in his manifesto-ish article for Standpoint, "Just Say No to State Funding". They have each made a virtue of exclusivity, using the sense of intimacy and uniqueness integral to their respective operatic styles to make the form more accessible, even while indulging experimental or obsessive aesthetic agendas. "While it might look exclusive from the outside," says Young of the Living Room Opera series, "it's also this really amazing audience development vehicle as well." Young cites the example of the couple who opened up their home in Armadale for director Daniel Schlusser to make Ophelia Doesn't Live Here Any More. "They really wouldn't regard themselves as opera aficionados, but over a year of speaking to them and taking them to shows, they just became so excited by the work. You enter into this relationship that is a very long-term relationship and also a very meaningful relationship." This feeling of a meaningful long-term relationship is certainly something I feel with the work of the Four Larks. To borrow Lebrecht's way of putting it, for all their introverted dilettantism, their refusal to "fit in", the care which the Lark's take when designing the theatrical space is apt to make fundamentalists out of their audience: The arts need to learn a thing or two from fundamentalist religion, which [...] attracts new followers by greeting them at the doorway of the mosque, church or synagogue, asking if they need help with the service and inviting them home for lunch.

About the author

Andrew Fuhrmann is a freelance writer. Currently, he is performing arts editor with Time Out Melbourne, theatre reviewer for ABR and an ArtsHub contributor. His tweets may be perused @arfuhrmann.