Melbourne’s Emotionworks Cut Opera was founded by Green Room Award-winning director Julie Edwardson to bring opera to a broader, younger audience. Not only does Emotionworks present opera in a relaxed cabaret environment, it also takes popular pieces from the repertoire and fuses them with different musical genres and vocal styles, spanning jazz, blues, rock and Latin. The works are also condensed to around 90 minutes, promising an immersive, emotionally intense experience for those audience members new and familiar with the art form.

Katy Turbitt, Michael Lampard and Kerry Frankland. Photo © Phil Thomson

When was Emotionworks Cut Opera established, and what does it aim to do?

It was established in 2011, eight years ago, as an opera fusion concept. Prior to this I had been experimenting with cutting down traditional operas to a 90-minute format, but in 2011 we presented our first opera fusion production, which was Carmen integrated with Latin, Salsa, Jazz and Blues.

We integrate opera and other music genres into the opera narrative without compromising the musical integrity and authenticity of these idioms. We have performed in most of Melbourne’s major rock venues like the Prince of Wales and Corner Hotel – a crossing of cultures. We perform in a cabaret, non-theatre presentation, often site-specific or in music venues.

Cut Opera has been developed to appeal to today’s mainstream audiences (and particularly the youth market) who seek high intensity entertainment and expect to experience action and plot sequences that move at a faster pace than traditional opera. We aim to make the experience of opera much more casual – like going to see a band and to perform to people who otherwise would not experience opera. Our productions are fun and appeal to all musical tastes with a lot of larrikin Aussie humour thrown in.

We believe that opera has to find a way of being sustainable when so many opera companies around the world are producing musicals to fund their financial losses in producing opera. We are a grass roots experimental company that has received no funding and we have grown rapidly based purely on our box office, to a point where we are a financially sustainable professional company.

At the end of the day theatre is about entertainment and engaging audiences and this is our absolute intention. We also have a policy of encouraging youth to see live music and wherever possible make half price [tickets available] to under 25s.

Why did you decide to rework Tales of Hoffmann? What about the opera did you feel lent itself to what Emotionworks sets out to do?

All operas lend themselves to what Emotionworks sets out to do. We adapt, rework and devise any opera we love and look for the perfect fit for idiomatic integration. We have even performed Wagner’s Ring Cycle in 90 minutes as part of Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle Festival in Melbourne in 2013, in which the characters [referenced] rock legends and performed in a boxing ring.

I love the melodies in Tales of Hoffmann and Offenbach’s music is quintessentially French, having inspired so much French popular music of the 20th century – it is a perfect fit to integrate French and French-inspired popular songs into the score.

What kinds of popular songs have been included and how do they further or complement the narrative?

Universal sentiments and truths are in all forms of lyrics-based music. We also highlight the different vocal styles and the myriad ways in which the human voice can be used. We use both opera singers and contemporary singers in all our shows and the juxtaposition is highly entertaining. Some of the well-known songs you will hear are The Beatles’ Michelle, Charles Aznavour’s She and Yesterday When I Was Young, Dusty Springfield’s version of If You Go Away, as well as some Piaf, like La Vie en rose and Non, je ne regrette rien, some French-inspired jazz songs like Autumn Leaves and I love Paris, and even some punk like Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer!

How did you go about editing the opera to 90 minutes? What kinds of considerations did you bear in mind?

The editing of the score is a carefully crafted process seamlessly flowing from opera into song and sometime overlapping. This is done by arranging the opera score into a chordal format and elements of improvisation are used throughout. I edit the narrative, so the story is intact but fast moving in real time. The integrity of the story is maintained while removing musical repetition.

Photo © Phil Thomson

How will you stage it in a ‘cabaret environment’?

The show will be accompanied by a five-piece jazz band combo, featuring a piano accordion. There will be eight singers (two of whom double up as members of the band). The performance is on the floor amongst the audience and on the stage – in all our shows the performers move in and around the audience, so it is an up close and personal experience for the audience – they feel immersed.

What are the challenges of creating something like this?

The biggest challenge is around people’s perceptions. A challenge comes from the opera “purists” who are often quick to criticise what we are doing without actually coming to see a show or understand our respect for opera and all music idioms.

Another challenge comes from the opposite end of the spectrum with people who don’t like opera and trying to convince them that our shows appeal to a mainstream audience. This can be a problem when you are trying to put on an opera at a rock venue, but it hasn’t stopped us yet!

What do you hope audiences take away? 

We aim to have our audiences totally immersed, engaged and entertained by the production and we hope to break some negative stereotypes about opera. We hope that those who have never seen an opera will have a wonderful introduction to this powerful art form and may be tempted to go and see an opera on the mainstage. We hope that audiences get to hear and understand that all music comes from the same roots and is inspired through centuries of creativity and adapted ideas. There is well written music and badly written music in all idioms and the well written music with its universal human themes will stand the test of time.

Emotionworks Cut Opera’s Tales of Hoffmann is at the LUX nightclub, Melbourne on November 10, 17, 24 and December 1