Sculptures in sound: Sydney Chamber Opera's gallery of songs

These young opera adventurers explore the art of song at the Biennale of Sydney.

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Baritone Mitchell Riley sings as he negotiates his way through an installation by Belgian artist ...
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Mezzo-soprano Anna Dowsley sings Bach and Poulenc in Through the Gates. Piano: Jack Symonds.
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Mezzo-sopranos Emily Edmonds and Anna Dowsley with Jack Symonds (piano), Madeleine Slaughter ...

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A typical recital of classical art song might shine the spotlight on a satin-gowned soprano or a tenor in tails, frozen on stage and barely glancing at their accompanist. It’s no wonder Sydney Chamber Opera found that boring – the company is run by hip twentysomethings with Gen-Y attention spans, after all. In their new, semi-staged song cycle, Through the Gates, they have joined forces with the Biennale of Sydney to inject the static art song with the drama and theatrics of, well, art.

First things first, SCO transposed proceedings from the concert hall to the Biennale’s happening pop-up bar at Pier 2/3, Walsh Bay. There, members of the audience can wander through the space, drink in hand, contemplating the evocative installations of Belgian artist Honoré δ'O. In these uniquely atmospheric surrounds, three singers and three instrumentalists take the crowd on a journey through Bach and Mahler to Barber and Shostakovich in SCO music director Jack Symond’s bold new arrangements for piano, violin and electric guitar. "I thought that the torrents of anger in the late Shostakovich songs could be further unleashed by invoking the energy and the distortion of the electric guitar," he explains. "By contrast, the instrument also provides a quasi-sacred haze of reverberant harmony around Bach and Barber's visions of heaven."

As the Australian Chamber Orchestra confirmed in its recent genre-defying gig at indie rock pub The Standard, a change of scene can open up unexpected dialogues about classical music. SCO founder and artistic director Louis Garrick, 24, hopes that presenting art songs amid sculptures and cocktails will “reach out to new audiences in both theatre and visual arts to attract young people to the artform”. 

It's not the first time Sydney Chamber Opera has brought a theatrical dimension to vocal music not intended to be staged. Last year they courted both critical acclaim and controversy with the full-scale production I Have Had Enough, which presented Bach’s sacred cantata Ich habe genung atop a mound of dirt with bondage chains and intestines thrown in for good measure. Clearly, SCO is already in the business of producing powerful visual art. 

The creator of that haunting piece, Kip Williams, returns from directing Under Milk Wood with Sydney Theatre Company to choreograph the Biennale performance. The 25-year-old promises “a unique evening of immersive opera, part installation, part happening. It transposes opera from the stage to the gallery space, allowing festival goers to get lost in and amongst singers, musicians and the awe-inspiring works of Honoré δ'O.” Best of all, it's free.

Sydney Chamber Opera's Through the Gates is at the Biennale Bar, Friday August 31, at 7pm and 8.30pm. View event details here.


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