What Is Opera, Anyhow? (Part One)
By Stephen CrittendenFebruary 29, 2012
The answer these days is: not your grandmother’s opera. Young Australian producers are giving an old art form new vibrance.
In 2006, when he was 18 and living in London and hating it, Louis Garrick decided to get on a flight to Lithuania ("I'm half Lithuanian"), where he spent $250 on an old bomb that needed to be hot-wired to get it going, and set out on a drive that took him through 14 countries in central and eastern Europe.
"The radio didn't work but we managed to buy a single cassette tape in a market in a little town somewhere in Ukraine. The cover was in Cyrillic so we didn't know what we were buying, but it turned out to be Abba's Greatest Hits. It kept us going," he says.
Now 24, Garrick says he looks back on this road trip, which included bribing the guards at Chernobyl to let him see inside the restricted zone, as a turning point in his life.
"It was all completely unplanned, and it still seems like such an adventurous thing to do. After that, I thought, 'From now on I'm just going to do things.'"
That same spirit of just doing things led Garrick, who graduated last year from Sydney Conservatorium of Music, to create Australia's newest opera company together with composer and musician friends Jack Symonds and Huw Belling.
Sydney Chamber Opera came into existence while Garrick and Symonds, 23, were both students at the Sydney Conservatorium. Symonds took the university medal in 2010, but Garrick still faced another year of study to complete his degree. The pair had been friends since their days at St Andrew's Cathedral School in Sydney and already had put on their first show, a production of Benjamin Britten's chamber opera The Turn of the Screw at the Performance Space in Sydney. They were surprised to find themselves performing to full houses.
"Mates from the Conservatorium made up the orchestra and we had some superb post-graduate singers. Later we went to see the Victorian Opera do Turn of the Screw in Melbourne. We were flabbergasted. They had more resources for better props and costumes and all that, but we could see that we were already 90 per cent of the way there in terms of musical performance," Garrick says.
But the young collaborators say they were surprised when their extra-curricular projects seemed not to be embraced by the Conservatorium. At the time, the institution was in the throes of a long-fought civil war around the leadership of then-dean Professor Kim Walker, who has since been removed. But the young producers persevered.
Operating on a shoestring budget, in 2011, Sydney Chamber Opera went on to present Jack Symond's graduation year opera Notes from Underground, based on Dostoevsky's novel, and Leoš Janáček's difficult 1924 opera The Cunning Little Vixen. Both productions were sell-outs and earned very positive reviews.
A little over a year since its formation, the opera company has a partnership with the National Institute of Dramatic Art, NIDA, and is now in the process of incorporating as a limited liability company with a board chaired by former Macquarie University vice chancellor Di Yerbury. Artistic director Louis Garrick says the company has ambitious plans to explore an unfamiliar contemporary chamber opera repertoire that is rarely if ever seen in Australia. "I'm only starting out in my own career, but I really feel my role is going to be about finding gaps that need to be filled, and at the moment it's chamber opera."
In April, the company will present the Australian premiere of Philip Glass's 80-minute chamber opera In the Penal Colony (2000), based on one of Kafka's allegorical short stories.It seems hard to believe, but the company claims this will be the first time a Philip Glass opera has been staged in Sydney. Later in the year there also will be a staged production of Stravinsky's The Soldier's Tale (1918) in a double bill with Into the Little Hill (2006)
by British composer George Benjamin, a reworking of the Pied Piper tale that Louis Garrick describes as "a masterpiece of 21st century opera by one of the world's leading younger composers, whose music is hardly ever performed in Australia." It has been widely performed overseas and has proved very popular with audiences. Finally, there will be a production of The Lighthouse (1979) by Peter Maxwell Davies.
"The Lighthouse has become a stock-standard repertoire piece for virtually every chamber opera company in England alongside Benjamin Britten's Rape of Lucretia and Turn of the Screw," says the company's music director, composer Jack Symonds. "And it needs people here in Australia to begin to see it as a repertoire piece, because it has broad appeal. It's great drama and great music."
In 2013 the company's production schedule will be even more ambitious, with a production of Benjamin Britten's 1970 television opera Owen Wingrave, based on a short story by Henry James, to celebrate the centenary of Britten's birth; a new opera by Australian composer Brian Howard; and to mark the bicentenary of the birth of Richard Wagner, a special project that "will somehow reimagine Wagner's music."
One major British composer whose work they are also keen to perform as soon as possible is Harrison Birtwistle (b. 1934). Apart from his two chamber operas, Punch and Judy (1967) and Io Passion (2004), all of Birtwistle's operas require large orchestras and big casts, and they are rarely performed anywhere in the world. None of his operas ever has been performed in Australia.
"We believe these pieces are fundamentally important to where opera has been in living memory, and in the cultural memory of the rest of the world, but here in Australia they have been sort of skipped over," says Jack Symonds. "And we want to try and redress that in any way we can."
It's a reminder of just how many full-scale modern operas have not been staged by Opera Australia. Apart from such major Philip Glass operas as Einstein on the Beach (1976), Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten (1983), the list includes such major 19th century landmarks as Richard Wagner's completeRing Cycle and Parsifal, and in the 20th century Schoenberg's Moses and Aaron (1932), Bartók's Bluebeard's Castle (1911), Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex (1927), Janáček's From the House of the Dead (1930), Zimmermann's Die Soldaten (1965), Messiaen's St Francis of Assisi (1983), John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, (1991), Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre (1974, revised 1996), John Adams's operas such as Nixon in China (1987), The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) and Doctor Atomic (2005), the operas of Darius Milhaud, Samuel Barber, Michael Tippett, Hans Werner Henze, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies, and many more.
Opera Australia performs the works of Benjamin Britten to international standard, and when the company really raises the bar, as it did last year with Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men, the results can be extraordinary. In 2013 it will stage its first ever complete Ring Cycle in Melbourne. But for the most part, the repertoire of the past hundred years has been one big missed opportunity. The restricted nature of the Sydney Opera House stage may be counted as a factor in these artistic choices, but it has only ever been part of the story.
IN THESE DAYS OF declining subsidies for the arts and neglect of music education in schools, no artform comes in for as much carping as opera. As federal arts minister Simon Crean puts together a once-in-a-generation National Cultural Policy, he has no doubt been hearing claims that opera is a moribund artform of the Old World of Europe, irrelevant in Australia, and an expensive and elitist waste of ordinary taxpayers' money.
But the kind of repertoire that Sydney Chamber Opera is exploring on a shoestring budget (they did The Cunning Little Vixen for just $90,000) is a reminder that this view of opera is both provincial and historically uninformed.
Provincial, because it shows little awareness of the present state of opera outside Australia, and historically uninformed because throughout its long history opera has exhibited a capacity to renew itself in response to social and political changes or changes in the other arts.
Part of the reason for this provincial and historically uninformed view of opera is that audience expectations in Australia continue to be shaped by the years when Dame Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge were at their peak. To most Australians, opera still means vocal pyrotechnics, heavy costumes, hopelessly old-fashioned, chocolate-box sets, pantomime-level acting and utter conservatism and complacency when it comes to contemporary repertoire. In other words, most Australians think of opera as something that belongs in a museum.
It's a view of opera and its possibilities that Louis Garrick rejects. "What is opera, anyhow? It's a story told on stage through music, to put it bluntly," he says. The point is that this kind of theatrical presentation of "sung stories" is as old as human culture, and as new as the culture of our own time.
IN TERMS OF SCALE, modern chamber opera takes opera as an art form back to its historical roots in the late 16th century Florentine Camerata. But the core repertoire of modern chamber opera is English, not Italian. According to Louis Garrick, this is why a lot of Sydney Chamber Opera's intended repertoire seems somewhat Anglocentric:
"It goes back to the fact that Britain was very slow to recover economically after the Second World War. For a long time, the arts in Britain were not well funded, and a lot of British composers started writing chamber operas for pragmatic reasons, most famously Benjamin Britten, who inspired others like Peter Maxwell Davies. The bottom line is that there is simply more of it in the UK and lots of those Anglo masterpieces need to be performed here in Australia."
Chamber Opera did branch out later to Europe, and there are a number of German composers too.
"In particular, Hans Werner Henze is one of the great composers - in fact, one of the great voices - of our time, but almost completely off the map here in Australia, unfortunately. One of the reasons we are holding off on doing this German repertoire at the moment is that it is technically very difficult," Garrick says. "We want to work our way up to it when we have the resources."
But none of this music is easy - Notes From Underground had lots of difficult music in it, and Janáček's Cunning Little Vixen is a very technically difficult piece for every voice type. But, so far, the company has used almost exclusively young singers and musicians, many of them friends and former student colleagues. Some of the young singers who appeared in Sydney Chamber Opera productions last year already have gone on to major opera companies in the UK and Germany. "So far we've been able to cast every production using local singers, the technical demands of every piece have been met. If there's been any criticism it hasn't been on the level of the musicianship," says music director Jack Symonds. He says the company has not chosen its singers solely because of how they sound; they also have to be the right musician and actor for the task.
Not everything Sydney Chamber Opera has done has been equally successful. Late last year the company presented a double bill in which J. S. Bach's cantata Ich Habe Genug(I Have Enough) was paired with a brand new Nunc Dimittis composed in just four weeks by Jack Symonds himself. Unfortunately, despite its vivid images of gluttony and debauchery, the production served more as a distraction from the fine singing and orchestral playing than serving the text.
IT ISN'T JUST ITS determination to fill gaps in the repertoire that makes Sydney Chamber Opera interesting. According to artistic director Louis Garrick, the company is self-consciously trying to model itself as "a 21st century opera company, as opposed to a 20th century opera company."
The distinction is all about the creative hierarchy within the company. According to Garrick, a 20th century opera company ("and Opera Australia is a quintessentially 20th century opera company") places singers at the top of its creative hierarchy. In fact, even higher than the singers is a mysterious something the singers themselves refer to as "The Voice". In other words, this is the Bel Canto world of Joan Sutherland, Richard Bonynge and Luciano Pavarotti. "For all her greatness, think what a lot of trashy trivia Dame Joan sang," says Garrick.
But in a 21st century opera company, the top of the hierarchy is musical repertoire and composers. "Instead of asking which fabulous singer is coming from overseas, a 21st century opera company asks, 'What new and interesting repertoire are we presenting?'"
The director's theatrical vision for the piece also rates very highly, and a generation of younger singers is being trained to act and move on stage.
Asked to name some 21st century companies, Garrick lists the English National Opera, and Berlin's Komische Oper and Staatsoper Unter den Linden. One could add the Stuttgart Opera to this list.
"Once upon a time the leading opera houses that everyone thought of were La Scala, Covent Garden and the Metropolitan in New York," Garrick says. "Now, all the leading developments in the way opera companies are run are happening in Germany and Britain. At the English National Opera, the performances are not all that much better than Opera Australia's, but look at the repertoire, oh my God! New pieces, existing pieces, obscure pieces by well-known composers. Always Turandot and Rigoletto, there's no escaping that, but those productions make up two out of ten in any season, not eight or nine out of ten."
To illustrate this point, the present English National Opera's 2012 season includes the London stage premiere of The Death of Klinghoffer (1991) by John Adams; a new opera, Dr Dee, by the lead singer and songwriter with the Gorillaz, Damon Albarn; the first-ever English-language production of Jakob Lenz (1978), a chamber opera by Wolfgang Rihm to mark the German composer's 60th birthday; and a new production by Australian director Benedict Andrews of German composer Detlev Glanert's Caligula (2006).
In practical terms, building an opera company on this 21st century model means building a company that turns its back on the kind of "singer-led" opera culture they describe as the "Bel Canto ethos".
An example is the company's decision to give the lead soprano part in Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen to Julie Goodwin, a rising star from musical theatre who had appeared in West Side Story and Phantom of the Opera. It was a decision that "raised quite a few eyebrows in the singing community", according to music director Jack Symonds. "In its construction, The Cunning Little Vixen is a modernist piece, but an extremely beautiful and lyrical one. And it needs a completely modern approach to how the music is performed or it risks turning into a romantic opera, which is a mistake. So we deliberately chose someone who wasn't one of those glorified sopranos who get shipped in without any identification with the character or the concept of the piece, or the rest of the cast, as is so often the case with this particular opera." The result, he says, was a production that was completely unified aesthetically.
"The Bel Canto repertoire that Richard Bonynge and Joan Sutherland opened up is really quite irrelevant for contemporary audiences," says Symonds. "Except perhaps for some young singers who continue to be inculcated into that culture, our generation of musicians, composers, theatre directors and audience members is very unresponsive to the operatic diva culture. "
Contemporary opera needs to be a much more "polyvalent art form", Symonds says; it's about not just plonking a self-regarding singer in front of a set and allowing them to get away with a fairly one-dimensional performance. "Until that culture can be overcome or at least tempered there is going to continue to be a complete disconnect with a younger generation," Symonds says.
LOUIS GARRICK AND JACK SYMONDS are probably typical of their younger generation in not being preoccupied with promoting a national Australian cultural identity through music and theatre. These were preoccupations of earlier generations and they have largely petered out through lack of interest. Because Garrick and Symonds operate in a digitally connected world, they identify instead with a larger, Euro-American musical tradition.
"I don't think there are a lot of composers in Australia writing opera in some acknowledgement of that larger 20th and 21st century Euro-American operatic tradition. And I think this has a lot to do with the fact that our Australian opera companies aren't producing these operas, so that Australian composers can understand them and absorb them as part of our own tradition," says Symonds. "One of Sydney Chamber Opera's goals is to help fill that void by producing those late 20th century and 21st century pieces."
That internationalist view carries over into music director Jack Symonds's attitudes as a composer. He says it is a generational thing and nothing to do with cultural cringe.
"In terms of my own aesthetic, I really can't say that any Australian composers have much meaning for me, apart from Brett Dean. I think Brett Dean is our greatest composer," he says. "Richard Meale [1932-2009] wrote some important pieces, although I'm not sure they're so important now for our generation. But the whole populist, outback, Australiana, Sculthorpey thing is definitely not something I feel connected to at all."
Symonds says he feels a much closer sense of kinship with German composer Hans Werner Henze (b. 1926); British composers Thomas Adès (b.1971), George Benjamin, Harrison Birtwistle, Peter Maxwell Davies; John Adams and Steve Reich among the Americans; and Pierre Boulez, Henri Dutilleux, Tristan Murail and Bruno Mantovani among the French.
Describing himself as "very much a classic paper-and-pencil composer", Symonds says that because of the internet, new music from overseas has never been more available to composers and performers in Australia. "The advantage for our generation is that every premiere of every important new piece is available over the net virtually instantly, so you can keep abreast of everything that's happening. In Australia it used to take years sometimes before you got to hear a piece, or get a recording, or get hold of a score. So the rate of absorption and change has become much faster."
Symonds already has written two works that have been performed by the Sydney Chamber Opera, including his student opera Notes From Underground and a Nunc Dimittis that he completed in just four weeks, and he plans to go on writing for the company. At present he is completing a Masters in Composition at the Royal College of Music in London.
"I see composing as very analogous to performing," Symonds says. "Your clarity of expression is never going to be what you want it to be unless you develop an absolutely infallible technique, so I practice the technique of composition every day. I think one of the big Achilles' heels in Australian composition has been the shucking off of a perceived Euro-centrism of technique, and it has resulted in compositions that can't stand up in the international new music market. It's quite prevalent in scores written by an older generation of Australian composers."
He is also critical of the standard of teaching on offer at Sydney's Conservatorium of Music, where he did his bachelor's degree. "The Sydney Conservatorium was a very unsatisfactory place to study composition. There are some very good teachers who have excellent skills, but, without naming names, a lot of the teachers have no engagement with developments in music in the rest of the world over the last 30 years, and due to their own training they find it very difficult to read scores," Symonds says.
ASKED ABOUT WHAT KIND of audience Sydney Chamber Opera is aiming for, artistic director Louis Garrick says it is a difficult question that "we think about a lot". If the company eventually manages to build a "youngish and adventurous" audience like the Griffin Theatre Company's audience, he says he will be very happy.
But Louis Garrick has no hesitation in saying that chamber opera is something that appeals to a niche audience and can't be made mainstream. "That's not to say I don't care about the mainstream," he says, "but I can't think of a single example of a mainstream chamber opera company anywhere in the world, so we would be setting ourselves up for failure if we attempted that."
Garrick says there is a "new music ghetto" in Australia, and mostly the same, small handful of people go to see performances by various contemporary music ensembles. "It's quite depressing really, but thank God there's something rather than nothing." But he doesn't think Sydney Chamber Opera will end up as part of that ghetto itself. "One of the advantages with chamber opera is that there is a lot more to cling onto for the audience: the staging, the acting, the literary element in cases where we set a story by Dostoevsky or Kafka," he says. "In the end it's a show, and even if you don't know much about contemporary music you can still get a lot out of it."
Garrick says the company is still only beginning to find its audience, but that it is already appealing to a younger audience who want to come to "a night at the theatre, rather than a night at the opera". He points to what he calls the "disconnect" between what 20th and 21st century work our art galleries and theatre companies feel they are able to present, and what opera companies and orchestras think is the limit of what they can present. "Theatre companies wouldn't think twice before presenting a difficult or thought-provoking Beckett cycle or something. Whereas if you even mention having a focus on a difficult 20th century composer like Arnold Schoenberg, our Australian symphony orchestras would panic and think no-one would come."
Music director Jack Symonds agrees: "Theatre audiences absolutely get what we are doing. They come with no preconceived notions about what they're going to see. They pick up more than opera audiences. Sydney really does have a large younger audience of theatregoers, who want to see challenging things on the stage and want to be culturally connected with a city that has all the potential to be one of the cultural capitals of the world, but just hasn't connected the dots yet. To market opera to young people as just being something nice and easy is absolutely the wrong approach."
In Part Two of What is Opera, Anyhow? Stephen Crittenden looks at the present identity crisis affecting Opera Australia and speaks with the artistic director Lyndon Terracini about the complex choices the company is confronting if it wants to succeed in an uncertain future.
Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony, directed by Imara Savage, with Paul Goodwin-Groen, Pascal Herington and Anthony Hunt and Orchestra, runs at the Parade Theatres in Kensington,April 7 to 14, 2012. More information: www.sydneychamberopera.com