La Traviata review (Belvoir, Sydney)

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It was always a crazy idea that could have only been dreamt up by the Melbourne-spawned indie queer theatre duo Sisters Grimm (Ash Flanders and Declan Greene): take one of the grandest operas in the canon and recreate some version of it in one of Sydney’s most intimate performance spaces, Belvoir’s 80-seat Downstairs Theatre.

But this is what Flanders and Greene have built a reputation for: melding popular culture with high art, and a playful approach with intellectual rigour. Nowhere is that more apparent than in the second section of their La Traviata which sees a cast of four (Flanders, Zindzi Okenyo, Emma Maye Gibson and Michael Lewis) lip-synching riotously to the second act of Verdi’s La Traviata, surrounded by cardboard cut-out sheep, tacky balloon clouds and a giant inflatable swan. The cast members mimic the absurd, larger-than-life, hyper-stylised gestures that dominate traditional operatic performance to superb comedic effect.

In Traviata, Sisters Grimm have moved beyond the queer space they initially occupied in many ways, but there’s still something deliciously queer about lip-synching to Verdi. By conveying the highest art through a form of performance developed and popularised by drag queens in the dark corners of (often) illegal gay bars, the Sisters have taken what is, apparently, an art form for the elite and placed it squarely in the hands of misfits. It’s extraordinary how quickly various lines blur in this scenario: between high and low; serious and frivolous; earnest and absurd; classic and contemporary.

When a single massive, gaudy, skeletal beast finally lumbers awkwardly onto the stage, there are clear echoes of any number of grand opera processions, but the one which will be most clear in Sydneysiders’ memories is the one staged for this year’s Aida as part of Opera on Sydney Harbour (an event which has always been determined to show its audience and sponsors exactly where their millions have been spent). If art is actually dead, at least its corpse is being proudly paraded.

But this particular scene, which occurs about a third of the way into the performance, is the first noticeably operatic section of the work.

Sisters Grimm were never going to produce a Traviata much like Verdi’s, and the show kicks off with Flanders, Okenyo and Gibson aggressively pitching their ideas to reinvigorate the operatic art-form in a flashy corporate presentation. The audience members are all potential investors, and the three actors onstage have come up with brilliant ways for our brands to align with the future of opera. They’re creative people after all — they are/used to be artists.

When this production of Traviata was announced at the end of 2014, Flanders and Greene said they would, through the tale of the ill-fated courtesan Violetta, interrogate the rather dry subject of arts funding and corporate sponsorship. They couldn’t have known back then just how timely the production would be, performed mere months after the Federal Arts Minister George Brandis stripped $105 million from the Australia Council for his own National Program for Excellence in the Arts.

It’s certainly a rather abrupt collision between the highly emotive world of the opera and the more intellectual subjects covered, but that collision reflects the difficult friction between the romantic ideals of artists and the demands of the massive organisations which may sponsor them. As arts funding diminishes, artists are being forced to consider how their practice can remain independent and evolve while still attracting funding from generally conservative philanthropists. This production is a hilarious, scathing satire on that theme, as well as the ridiculous ways we’ve learnt to talk and think about art.

Of the four Sisters Grimm shows Sydney has seen in the last few years, La Traviata is the most sprawling. It’s also probably the most confident: while it remains an experimental mish-mash which leaps from mode to mode and style to style, it works in such a way that the audience is more willing to go along with the eclectic ride.

I wouldn’t want to give away too many of the surprises and, in any case, there’s only enough space in this review to tackle the tip of the iceberg of scenes, ideas and symbolism explored in the piece. There is one segment which throws these themes over to the audience quite explicitly in a relatively simple fashion, and the audience, at the performance I attended, was encouragingly engaged.

That this all comes together so strongly is down to the hard-working cast, drawn from different worlds of performance. There’s veteran operatic baritone Michael Lewis, who shows off both his acting and vocal chops in this production, Emma Maye Gibson, better known as the performance artist/burlesque star Betty Grumble, and theatre actor Zindzi Okenyo. Flanders also appears in various guises, and his comedic timing has never been sharper, nailing everything from subtle gags in throwaway lines to broad slapstick.

And Marg Horwell’s design conveys as much meaning as any of the performers, from the paint-by-numbers/adult colouring book backdrop to an extraordinary, glamorous and literal bird-cage crinoline, which in itself raises all kinds of questions about tragic female figures in classic texts.

My one misgiving about the production is that it’s very much art about art, clearly made for people with a fair amount of knowledge about the issues currently facing Australia’s artists. But it is being performed at the Downstairs Theatre at Belvoir, which tends to attract a pretty arty and informed crowd, and the questions at the very core of this work are surprisingly universal: about integrity, community, money, the value we place on culture and, therefore, on our own souls.

The final scene is a simple but beautiful testament to the ability of art to activate (yes, I used that arts buzz-word) and connect hearts. Launching into this experiment from a work like Verdi’s La Traviata, which Greene and Flanders acknowledge was quite revolutionary in its time, reminds that it is the innovators and the artistic pioneers who dare to take chances and break new ground that most deserve our support. That will always make our culture richer than another pitch-perfect traditional production of La Traviata. Are you listening, Mr. Brandis?

La Traviata is at the Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Sydney until September 20. Image by Patrick Boland

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