Australia. Its Curious Relationship with Regietheater. Part 1.

Australia. Its Curious Relationship with Regietheater.

Opera director Suzanne Chaundy  about Regietheater: “I love it when it makes sense, but if it’s for the sake of being different without anything really particular to say, then it irritates the hell out of me.”

Whether you call it deconstructionist genius or masturbatory gobshite, that very peculiar strain of theatrical practice favoured by enfants terrible across the European opera circuit – “konzept” or “regie” theatre – has become as entrenched, and, frankly, as much of a cliché these days, as any of the more conservative monuments of the traditionalist age of Zeffirelli, Copley, and Ponnelle, et al. Whether it’s La Bohème on the Moon, Faust in a nudist colony, or Meistersinger in Auschwitz, the seemingly inexhaustible quest to alleviate the ennui of jaded directors, intendants, and audiences has left many of us – and particularly those of us who retain an abiding respect for basic narrative storytelling and its techniques – wondering where it all went so horribly wrong.

Managements across Europe appear sufficiently desperate to keep seats filled with paying customers that they now routinely dress the core repertoire in the borrowed robes of “edginess” and “relevance”, and distance themselves from (what they perceive to be, at least) hoary tradition and yawn-inducing conservatism – doing everything they can to counter the dinosaurs of the supposedly retrograde nonsense of… well… the entirety of operatic practice until well into the 20th century, it seems.

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Claus Guth’s spaceship production of La Bohème

It is a trend that appears uniquely European. So much so, in fact, that the pejorative and increasingly problematic moniker “Eurotrash” is now matter-of-factly applied to anything that isn’t pure tradition. In the U.S. and elsewhere, it appears to be less of an issue. Down Under, in Australia, it has a small wedge in the market, but is still finding it all an uphill battle. In fact, it seems that quite the opposite effect is at work on Australia’s opera stages when it comes to keeping audiences happy.

I live in Melbourne, one of the largest and most artistically active of Australia’s cities, where we boast two major locally-based professional opera companies – Victorian Opera and Melbourne Opera – as well as an annual residency of several months’ duration by the national company, Opera Australia, which is otherwise based in Sydney, where it performs in that most iconic of opera houses on Sydney Harbour.

The Flying Dutchman, Melbourne Opera

Regietheater is a fairly rare phenomenon in Australia, and is generally not favoured by audiences, and therefore by managements. In fact, according to both Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of Opera Australia, and leading Melbourne opera director Suzanne Chaundy, the very idea of a “Konzept” production being unleashed on core, mainstream repertoire in Australia is anathema to good box office. According to Terracini, Opera Australia relies on box office for as much as 70% of its annual revenue, and with comparatively few options for large-scale international opera when compared to the saturated European market, audiences can apparently afford to be discerning – and vocal – about which productions they support and which they reject.

“The managements are extremely risk-averse,” says Chaundy. “I don’t think it’s because there isn’t a will to do it, or Australian directors who are capable of doing it, I just think that there’s so much pushback from sponsors and audiences.”

The most prominent and notorious Australian purveyor of Regietheater, Melbourne-born Barrie Kosky, found early in his career that Sydney audiences were having none of his nonsense when he tried to foist upon them the hot mess that was his 1995 take on Verdi’s Nabucco. These days he is Chefregisseur (Artistic Director) at the Komische Oper Berlin, and is apparently feted and adored – a stark contrast to the almost universal disdain that greeted his garish, Vegas-meets-Folies Bergère take on Verdi’s biblical melodrama. Melbourne audiences were a little more forgiving when it played there the following year, but then… hometown boy, and all that.

Despite his many years as a singer in decidedly experimental productions staged by the likes of Peter Greenaway, and in mostly new works at that, Terracini’s tenure as Artistic Director at OA has been noted for a heavy strain of stark conservatism in contrast, and Chaundy’s productions for Melbourne Opera in particular are likewise noted for their fundamentally traditionalist approach to staging and design.

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Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of Opera Australia

Which is not to say that they haven’t tried. Desperate to provide a contrast to the warhorses of the core repertoire, which audiences lap up time and again, Terracini has been gently prodding OA’s subscribers with forays into fringe repertoire like Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges, Szymanowski’s King Roger, and Shostakovich’s The Nose. These, he says, are far more welcoming of – and suited to – less conservative stagings. Chaundy occasionally collaborates with the independent chamber company Lyric Opera of Melbourne, and her and her colleagues there routinely explore the fringes with comparatively more freedom, but again, in works that sit at the fringe of the repertoire, and which do not necessarily set the box office on fire, such as Ravel’s L’heure Espagnole, Poulenc’s Les Mamelles de Tirésias, and works by local composers. As Chaundy explains, these operas are not on most folks’ lists of Top 5 Favourite Operas, so there are less points of comparison with the formative productions of their youth, or the one they saw on Marquee TV that time.

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Lyric Opera Melbourne. L’heure espagnole. ©Kris Wasahusen.

She and Terracini both agree that core repertoire, more-or-less straightforwardly staged, is key to a company’s long-term survival. If directors are disconnected from the musical narrative, and the onstage action wilfully different to what’s being driven musically, audiences will walk away from it. People don’t disrespect original, innovative interpretations as long as they’re good faith attempts to illuminate the work at hand.

“I love it when it makes sense,” says Chaundy, “but if it’s for the sake of being different without anything really particular to say, then it irritates the hell out of me.”

To be continued…
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David Meadows
David Meadows

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David is a career performing arts practitioner based in Melbourne, Australia. He aspires to transcendence in his artistic endeavours, and when it comes to opera, he has very little patience with those in professional practice who attempt anything but the same.

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