Victorian Opera’s Richard Mills isn’t just an artistic director, he’s something of an artistic philosopher as well. His approach to programming isn’t just about dealing in song and stagecraft. There’s a foundation of carefully pondered strategy behind his selections, geared towards reconciling some of the big questions of the art form: what is the future of opera? Where will the next generation of operagoers come from? How can opera be forward thinking without forgetting its heritage?
The answers to these are far from obvious, if the perennial programming quibbles that seem to raise their heads each year when season announcements roll around are anything to go by. With such head-scratching conundrums to solve, you might picture Mills (below) furiously ruminating in a dark room, perhaps scribbling flashes of insight on a chalkboard like something out of A Beautiful Mind.
In reality, as Mills succinctly puts it, his guiding principles are elegantly Zen. “My responsibility is to curate the form, reveal it in all its richness and variety, offer audiences the comfort of the familiar, while never neglecting the joy of discovery.” Easy as that.
Of course, in practice there’s a little more to it, so it’s no surprise that this seemingly simple methodology is powered by an encyclopaedic knowledge of operatic history, both global and local. A perfect example of this can be seen in one of the more traditional productions in Victorian Opera’s 2017 season: Vincenzo Bellini’s 1831 sleepwalking fantasy, La Sonnambula.
It will star two celebrated Australian coloratura sopranos, Jessica Pratt (whose astonishing performance in VO’s Lucia di Lammermoor in April was surely one of the highlights of this year’s operatic calendar) and Greta Bradman, alongside Italian basso cantabile Rodolfo Paolo Pecchilo. It’s a cultural combination that’s become a trademark of Mills’, bringing together the finest Australian-born talent in a production that still boasts an authentically Italian connection to the highest pedigree of the bel canto tradition.
While the aesthetic distance between Bellini and Waits might seem light years, Mills insists their similarities are more numerous than their differences.
“The whole craft of singing and the setting of text is enshrined in the aesthetic of bel canto,” Mills tells me, as he explains why La Sonnambula is one of 2017’s flagship productions. “The bel canto repertoire should be the baseline for any opera company. It is the essence of good singing in all languages and fundamentally at the heart of the operatic medium.”
If this production from next year’s season represents Victorian Opera’s commitment to the art form’s past, at the other end of the spectrum is a work that, superficially at least, seems outside of the operatic canon altogether: Tom Waits’ Faust-meets-Weimar Cabaret, The Black Rider: The Casting Of Magic Bullets. Written by the versatile American blues-rock icon in 1990, this Victorian Opera production will see the piece get a spit and polish, courtesy of new orchestrations by Australian composer Iain Grandage.
Like La Sonnambula, artists at the top of their game are at the heart of this show, albeit of a very different ilk. Australian cabaret heavyweights Meow Meow, Paul Capsis and tenor Kanan Breen, who as one half of Strange Bedfellows straddles both the cabaret and opera worlds, will headline the co-production with Malthouse Theatre, which will be directed by Matthew Lutton.
Cynics might suggest this foray into cabaret is selling out to crowd pleasing, but while the aesthetic distance between Bellini and Waits might seem light years, Mills insists their similarities are more numerous than their differences. “Black Riders is operatic in its exploration of emotion,” he explains. “That’s a very important and beautiful quality of the medium of opera: it’s a rhetorical exploration of the landscape of feeling. We find this in The Black Riders, and La Sonnambula and every other work in this season.”
Beyond their visceral sympathies, Mills has galvanised all eight of the operas on offer next year under a single thematic banner: fables. These magical, fantastical fairy stories have undergone a radical metamorphosis over the past century, largely thanks to Disney’s sugared and sanitised adaptations of the tales of Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm. In typically philosophical fashion, Mills has honed in on the most metaphysical qualities of this genre. “I’ve always been fascinated by the notion of discovery, especially the idea of discovery in darkness,” Mills shares. “The archetypal example is Dante’s Divine Comedy. The poet wakes and finds himself in the middle of his life in a dark wood. Virgil comes to be his guide through the cosmos and this notion of the dark wood as a place of discovery is a common theme explored throughout this season.”
It’s a high concept train of thought, but Mills isn’t trying to be didactic. In fact, it’s the most instinctual and accessible qualities of the human experience that he aims to channel through the operas he presents.
“These stories are like photographic negatives of the real world. The everyday phenomena that we encounter in our lives are transformed into this very stylised image, in a place of darkness, where we can discover them as if for the first time again.”
For details go to victorianopera.com.au