Die Tote Stadt: Opera Australia proves size doesn't matter

A larger-than-life opera gets the cinematic treatment.

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Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette and Stefan Vinke as Paul. Photos by Lisa Tomasetti
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Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette and performing artists of Opera Australia
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Cheryl Barker as Marie or Mariette and José Carbó as Fritz.

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It’s coming up to opening night of Die Tote Stadt (The Dead City) at the Sydney Opera House, but if you crane your neck to peer into the orchestra pit, you’ll find it deserted and completely covered over by the extended stage.

Since Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s lush, Straussian-sized score couldn’t be contained in the cramped space allocated, the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra – beefed up to 86 players – has relocated to the neighbouring Opera House Studio. From there, the music will be piped live to the singers and audience through the 97 loudspeakers that have taken over the theatre.

“If somebody forgets to plug something in, we are going to be in trouble,” says guest conductor Christian Badea. 

It all seems like a rather elaborate, unconventional game of musical chairs, but, as Badea explains, it is “just an experiment – it’s a solution to a problem” that he proposed when he saw the limitations of the space on a trip to Sydney last year. It’s a solution that enables Die Tote Stadt, composed in 1920 and banned in Nazi Germany, to have its first staged performance in this country. 

Rather than compromising on sound quality, the Romanian conductor is confident it will be a vast improvement on the muffled sounds from underneath the stage to which Sydney opera-goers are accustomed. Badea worked with sound engineers to sculpt “a natural sound so that what we play in the room is what comes out on the stage. 

“The orchestra is extremely rich. And because of the set-up, we can bring some of that richness out. We have the singers to back it up – thank god, because it’s not that easy.” 

The singers, who won’t be miked and who will communicate with their displaced maestro via monitor, are impressed with the end result. 

“It still feels as if it is coming out of the pit,” says soprano Cheryl Barker. “It’s all covered up but we can hear all the detail of the instruments, not only what can come out and filter up to us. 

“It’s not cheating in any way,” she adds. And just to prove that there is in fact a live orchestra, the 86 players – with piano, celesta, harmonium, two harps, pipe organ, two harps, bells and all – will be projected onto a screen during the prelude, so that they can be seen in action. 

Korngold’s masterful grasp of opulent orchestration made him one of the most sought after film composers in Hollywood during the 1930s, turning out classic scores for the likes of The Sea Hawk and The Adventures of Robin Hood. It was only natural, then, for Opera Australia to engage a director well versed in the language of cinema: Bruce Beresford. As with his production of Carlisle Floyd’s Of Mice and Men last year, Die Tote Stadt includes a short film depicting and responding to some of the action, which blends elements of fantasy and reality.

“Visually, Bruce has taken head-on this concept that it is a cinematic thing and brought the projections in and put it all together in a way which you are not quite sure when it's opera, when it's movie,” says Badea. “It's kind of in between, which is very fascinating.” 

For Barker and her co-star, German Heldentenor Stefan Vinke, shooting even a few minutes of footage on green screen presented an entirely different challenge to acting on the operatic stage.

“We are always acting, playing for the last row 30 metres away,” he explains, “so we are used to exaggerating every gesture.”

“We felt as if we were hardly doing anything; we just had to think.” Barker chimes in. “Bruce offers just very tiny little gems; he doesn't over-direct so he makes it quite natural. It was an exhausting day but now we can all say we’ve made a film with Bruce Beresford!”

If the plot of Korngold’s opera had to be likened to something out of Hollywood, Hitchcock’s tragic, romantic thriller Vertigo springs to mind. Die Tote Stadt explores the psychological state of Paul (Vinke), a grief-stricken widower who has shut himself off from the world since the death of his beloved Maria. When he meets the charismatic Marietta – who uses her striking resemblance to his wife to taunt him – Paul takes us into a turbulent dream state in which his fixation builds to a shocking climax. 

Badea insists that “the story is very cinematic – more cinematic than operatic, when you start to think that this is a kind of a parallel world.”

Vinke, a champion of the opera and one of only two tenors in the world currently with the role under his belt, likens Die Tote Stadt to “an epic duet between the soprano and the tenor. My part is huge, maybe the most exhausting I’ve ever done.”

Barker, who portrays both women in a psychologically complex dual role, cites the Romantic Act 2 duet as her favourite part – before Paul strangles Marietta and everything goes sour.

“It starts with a big quarrel,” says Vinke, “with me shouting and screaming at her. And it ends with us leaving the stage to make love.”

“It’s a shame the opera doesn’t finish there, really!” laughs Barker.

“It could have been the perfect end...”

Die Tote Stadt opens at the Sydney Opera House on Saturday June 30 and runs until July 18. View event details here.

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