In 2015, Opera Australia will be bringing old favourites back to the stage alongside Cole Porter’s classic musical Anything Goes, a monumental production of Verdi’s Don Carlos and the company’s first new work since Brett Dean’s Bliss in 2010.
Artistic director Lyndon Terracini describes the company’s 2015 season as the culmination of almost four and a half years’ work (he took over the artistic directorship of the company in 2009, in the role with seasons he inherited until his first in 2012) focused on playing to as many people as possible.
And on that count, Terracini’s directorship thus far has been a resounding success, thanks to mainstage programming decisions, as well as the introduction of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, and extensive seasons of classic musicals South Pacific and The King and I. Despite deficits recorded in his first two years as artistic director, audience numbers have risen sharply over the last few years (from 289,000 in 2009, up to 544,000 in 2012, and back down to 460,000 last year), securing the company’s financial position in a time when opera companies around the world are struggling to stay afloat. The 2015 season doesn’t deviate from that course, made up largely of crowd-pleasers, but there are a few more adventurous productions and ventures in the mix.
Terracini says the company is constantly aiming for a balance between the works that will get big crowds in the front door and those that are essential, if not always popular, parts of the repertoire.
“Every major opera company, like every major gallery, has to have the great masters in there,” he says. “But it’s how you do those which is the tricky part. You have to be able to hire the best conductors, directors and singers that you can possibly find.”
Among the mainstage seasons in Sydney and Melbourne are returning acclaimed, much-loved productions including Gale Edwards’ Berlin-inspired La Boheme, Julie Taymor’s family-friendly The Magic Flute, Moffatt Oxenbould’s Madama Butterfly, Elijah Moshinsky’s sumptuous La Traviata and Graeme Murphy’s Turandot.
The new productions include David McVicar’s second Mozart production exclusively for Opera Australia with The Marriage of Figaro, starring Dalibor Jenis, Paolo Bordogna, Nicole Car and Taryn Fiebig, and McVicar’s Covent Garden production of Faust, with Micahel Fabiano, Giorgio Caoduro, Nicole Car and Teddy Tahu Rhodes.
The company is again partnering with John Frost to present its third musical in four years, with Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Terracini has previously said he would only be producing musicals which fit within the scope of what an opera company is doing, and maintains that the operatic influences in Porter’s music are clear.
“Cole Porter uses the text in such a witty way, and the way he aligns that with the music — he is a master of his class. Words and music are the fundamentals of opera, and it’s not as big a stretch as some people would believe.
“You can see similarities between Cole Porter and Rossini, whereas you can see similarities between Rodgers and Hammerstein and somebody like Puccini. A lot of contemporary composers could learn a hell of a lot from those guys.”
The jewel in the crown for the “serious” opera fans is a production of Verdi’s epic Don Carlos, directed by Elijah Moshinsky. Terracini describes Moshinsky as “one of the most important opera directors that Australia has ever produced”, but when Moshinsky was in rehearsals with the company for a production of Don Carlos in 1999, he made headlines when he launched a scathing attack on the company’s artistic standards.
But a lot has changed since then, and the company is now involved in far “bigger” projects than ever before, including its hugely successful Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, which enters its fourth year with Aida in 2015. The production has attracted new audiences to the form, with over 60% of attendees having never been to an Opera Australia production before.
Terracini’s audience-focused philosophy is also reflected in his attitude towards commissioning new work. Next year, the company will perform Kate Miller-Heidke’s new opera for families based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s book The Rabbits (pictured above) in Melbourne and Perth.
“The Rabbits is an important piece because it’s not by somebody you would tradtiaionally go to to write an opera,” Terracini says. “Kate is a really unique and extraordinary artist. She’s singing at the Met this year, but in Australia she’s known as a popular singer-songwriter.”
The opera is Terracini’s first commission in his time in the role. In the past, he’s been criticised for not using the national opera company’s strong financial position and subscriber base to champion new work.
“Of course commissioning new work is important,” he says. “It’s the future of the form. But I don’t see the point of a formulaic commissioning process. It’s really about thinking very carefully about the pieces you want to have, the artists you want involved and the audience that’s going to play to.
“There isn’t one contemporary Australian opera that is now part of the repertoire. We have to do something about that, and we have to be a lot smarter in what we commission.”
Terracini says Miller-Heidke’s score for The Rabbits, alongside Lally Katz’s libretto, is deliberately accessible.
“It’s highly intelligent and witty. A composer needs to have those attributes to convince people that what they’ve got to say is worth listening to. In terms of it being accessible — Verdi’s music was accessible, every major composer’s music was accessible. We’re trying to create a piece that will find an audience.”
The company is also casting The Rabbits with performers from diverse musical and theatrical backgrounds.
“We need to have a much more varied palate to draw from so that the work we’re presenting has a resonance that’s recognisable to the wider community, otherwise you’re ghettoising what you’re doing.”
As part of that mission, the company has also commissioned its first ever “opera for television” in The Divorce, with music by Elena Kats-Chernin and a libretto by Joanna Murray-Smith.
The opera is a contemporary Australian soap opera, which will air over four episodes in the course of one week on the ABC. Terracini hopes the production will air by the end of 2015, but no dates are locked in yet.
Opera Australia is hoping the venture will attract new audiences into the opera house, but Terracini says that isn’t the only goal.
“If the audience only wants to see these things on television, then I’m fine with that, because it means we would create more work specifically for television,” he says.
“It’s really about us being open enough to play in contemporary society and use contemporary mechanisms to connect with the public. Opera doesn’t have to be in a theatre, behind a proscenium arch. That’s a very 19th century idea of the form.”
Full details of Opera Australia’s 2015 season are available at opera.org.au
Faust (Sydney – February 17 to March 13)
David McVicar’s critically acclaimed production of Gounod’s devilish Faust was created for Covent Garden in 2004, and comes to Australia with a cast of international artists and leading Australians, including Teddy Tahu Rhodes who plays the devil himself. “It’s a spectacular show, and it is a ‘show’, with can-can dancers and a big, monumental, Gothic set,” says Terracini.
Don Carlos (Melbourne – May 20 to 29, Sydney – July 15 to August 15)
If four-plus hours of Verdi sounds like heaven, Don Carlos could be your highlight of 2015. With a cast featuring Anna Pirozzi, Diego Torre, Giacomo Prestia, Jose Carbo and Milijana Nikolic, as well as 140 extras, this production will set the hearts of the most serious opera fans racing. The production is directed by Elijah Moshinsky.
Tosca (Sydney – January 13 to March 17)
John Bell’s spectacular, dramatically taut production of Tosca received ecstatic critical praise when it premiered in Sydney in 2013. After it plays Melbourne later this year, it returns to the Sydney Opera House with Amanda Echalaz in the leading role. Set in Mussolini’s Italy, this is a fresh, but faithful take on one of the greatest operas ever written.
Aida (Sydney – March 27 to April 26)
While we’ve been told it’s unlikely there’ll be floating elephants on the harbour, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s fourth year is bound to be spectacular with Aida. American soprano Latonia Moore is returning to Australia, where she will share the title role with Daria Masiero. Moore’s previous performance in the role was rapturously received in Sydney in 2012. Director Gale Edwards returns to the event after directing 2013’s red-hot Carmen.
Anything Goes (Melbourne, Brisbane, Sydney)
With some of Cole Porter’s most recognisable tunes, including I Get a Kick Out of You, It’s De-Lovely and the iconic title song, Anything Goes will bring a slice of Broadway to Australia. This production, directed by Dean Bryant (behind Hayes Theatre’s Sweet Charity), comes after a 2011 Broadway revival which won three Tony Awards, including Best Revival of a Musical. “It’s a Cole Porter masterpiece,” says Terracini. “I think most people know at least bits of all the songs.”
The Rabbits (Perth – from February 13, Melbourne – from October 9)
With a score by pop-star Kate Miller-Heidke and a libretto by renowned playwright Lally Katz, The Rabbits is a new, family-friendly opera based on John Marsden and Shaun Tan’s book of the same name. Terracini says: “Kate is a genuinely contemporary artist. What she creates is absolutely relevant to this time and place.”