Australia. Its Curious Relationship with Regietheater.
Melbourne Opera’s director Suzanne Chaundy: “The Melbourne Opera has a very established and very opera literate audience base. We also have an audience of people who’ve never been to the opera before. They’ve got no point of comparison.”
Damiano Michieletto’s production of Il Viaggio a Reims, Opera Australia’s co-production with Dutch National Opera, and Royal Danish Opera, was certainly not staged as Rossini intended, but then, Rossini never intended the piece to survive – he recycled half the score for Le comte Ory three years later, and the work only exists at all today because of a musicological reconstruction in the 1970s. The disconnected, patchwork nature of the piece is such that it kind of needs some measure of defining overall conceit to make any sense of it… and it’s not the only opera that needs that.
Il viaggio a Reims, Dutch National Opera. Direction: Damiano Michieletto.
“I can certainly see an argument,” Chaundy explains, “if you’ve delivered an opera like “Il Viaggio”, or certain baroque pieces, of why you’d really dig into it – to make something of the work that doesn’t inherently have a strong dramaturgical basis. I can completely understand that. But again, everything (Michieletto) was doing was actually really anchored in the piece, it had a strong conceit, and it made sense at the end.”
The mercenary reality of the scene Down Under is that it is sufficiently small and boutique that the cultivated cultural lassitude which defines much of the European audience is rarely found among Australia’s punters. Even if it’s parochial, it also appears to be bankable. The market gets what the market wants, and if audiences are unresponsive to too much experimentation, then even the esoteric repertoire – which is more suited, almost by definition, to esoteric stagings – is going to suffer.
Between the inherent conservatism of the bulk of Australia’s opera-going audience and the several years it will take for the arts in this country to come even close to fully recovering from the global pandemic, familiarity and accessibility have emerged as the key to successfully regrouping. Opera Australia’s post-COVID 2021 season is about as conservative and box-office friendly as it gets.
A planned season of Zimmermann’s Die Soldaten has been shelved, and alongside two mercenary, purely commercially-driven forays into Broadway musical theatre – Lloyd-Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera and Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella – are seasons of La Traviata, Aida, Otello, The Tales of Hoffmann, and a new Ring Cycle… warhorses all the way. Only Verdi’s galley years rarities Attila and Ernani lean toward the fringes of the repertoire. And as far as production conceits go, the most radical thing on offer is the use of LED screens and digital scenery for Aida and the Ring. Post-COVID fear is pushing experimentation in Australia’s opera scene even further to the fringe, despite attempts to popularise it, and has made the use of digital scenery the most radical thing being offered to audiences. And according to Terracini, even that might be too much for Australia’s Wagnerians. Only time will tell.
Ernani in Melbourne’s State Theatre, 13-22 May 2021.
But if digital scenery is sufficient to alienate them, then there is solace to be found in the other Ring being mounted Down Under – Melbourne Opera’s recently commenced cycle, which Chaundy is mounting for the company across the next few years. The company has a “very established and very opera literate audience base,” according to the director. “We also have an audience of people who’ve never been to the opera before. They’ve got no point of comparison.”
With sponsors and audiences forcing companies to keep them wrapped in the warm blanket of familiarity, it seems that for the foreseeable future, conservatism will prevail, and Aussie operaphiles can continue to mark ourselves mostly safe from the “begriff” of the opera world’s naughty children.