In the grand tradition of writers writing about writing and painters painting pictures of painters painting, Opera Australia presents an opera about opera. They have the perfect setting, after all: a huge stepped stage with a stunning backdrop, lit by the setting sun. They also have a terrific plot, thanks to Alan John’s and Dennis Watkins’ neatly engineered (and mostly true) narrative of Australia’s biggest home renovation. And, after five years of Handa Opera on the Harbour, they have the know-how to overcome the huge challenges of presenting opera outdoors.
Sydney Opera House: the Opera is the latest incarnation of The Eighth Wonder, Alan John’s 1995 opera tracing the history of the building, from conception in 1958 to its opening night in 1974, 15 years behind schedule and eye-wateringly over budget. The opera has been presented twice inside the Opera House, but this production, outside, with the star of the show towering over everything, is surely its ideal setting. Director David Freeman and stage magician Dan Potra has solved the staging problems with a series of moving platforms and an inflatable castle, which also serves as a screen for projections. It’s a great deal more elegant than that description sounds. It also allows the Architect’s breakthrough aria — when he works out how to construct the sails — to be delivered in front of a dynamic animation of the fascinating geometry of the roof.
Yes, you can sing about geometry. More to the point, you can sing about that moment when you reach an epiphany – a profound, life-changing clarity — and, indeed, the entire work turns on such moments. Rather than dancing to opera’s stock-in-trade tunes of sex and death, the score surges when the central characters, the Architect (admirably sung by Adam Frandsen) and Alexandra, the would-be opera singer (Stacey Alleaume) conceptualise their dreams. Their soaring final duet, where the two meet for the first time, is a love song in the sense that it is a meeting of minds. A romance of ideas.
Other reviewers have paid tribute to the admirable cast and creative crew. Yep. What they said. Stacey Alleaume is a feisty heroine with a glorious voice, Adam Frandsen makes this physically, musically and dramatically difficult role into a wonderfully cohesive whole, and the myriad supporting cast — I particularly loved Martin Buckingham as Cahill and David Parkin as Alexandra’s barbecuing father — sang and acted their socks off. Meanwhile, the orchestra, safely locked up in the Studio with conductor Anthony Legge, brought out the rich and delicate colours of John’s score with brilliant fluency.
As for the entire, outdoor experience, it had plus and minus points for me. The major plus point was the amazing backdrop. As artistic director Lyndon Terracini said, it’s hard to think of a more Sydney experience. The site logistics were also impressively managed; everyone got their headsets, the queues for the bar and bathrooms were minimal and everywhere you turned there was a nice person saying ‘can I show you to your seat’ or ‘can I help you with your headset?’
Ah yes. The headsets. I nearly got into a Facebook fight with Julian Day about a careless generalisation about amplified music when I said I preferred opera unamplified. At the risk of starting another fire, I’ve got to say I’m still have two fundamental problems with amplified opera. The first is dramatic. With the sound either coming out of speakers or being funnelled directly into your ears via cans, it’s not always obvious who is singing. You can mitigate this problem in filmed opera using close-ups or, as they did here, by clever lighting (by the fabulous Trent Suidgeest) to direct the attention. It still, however, feels like a compromise.
The second is to do with tone quality and vocal technique. We talk about traditional opera voices being unamplified, but that’s not strictly true. Opera singers use specific techniques, which people singing in a choir, or a pub, or with a ukelele or, for that matter, into a microphone, don’t. I’m not an expert — there’s some explanation here — but it involves the position of your larynx and manipulating the fundamental and resonant frequency of your voice. So when opera singers sing, naked or into a microphone, their voice is already, to a certain extent, amplified. And while you could say that a microphone just gives them a greater dynamic range – in this case, the sky’s the limit – it also makes me wonder whether it is appropriate to use traditional operatic technique when you’re wired for sound. After all, Opera Australia mainly uses ‘singing actors’ in its (fully-miked) musicals, rather than opera singers, who use their voice in a way much closer to how you or I would sing in the shower. I’m not saying, as Guy Noble naughtily suggests, that acoustic opera should be phased out. In fact, I love the intensity and intimacy of the human voice in an appropriately sized space. But as performance practices continue to evolve and as opera companies increasingly explore extra-theatrical spaces, will we see singers setting aside techniques developed in the nineteenth century in favour of twenty-first century technology?
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