What made you want to program Charpentier’s Actéon?
There are several reasons, the first being that there’s much to this very old story that’s relevant to a modern audience. Particularly in the way we’re presenting the action, the topics of gender roles, privacy and revenge. Lost & Found has also never ventured into the world of Baroque opera, of which there are many lost pieces!
This opera is based on a tale from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. What is Actéon about?
We see Actéon out with his hounds, sung by the male chorus, and discovering by accident a group of women bathing. Led by the goddess Diana they take their revenge on him for breaching their privacy and coming to their sacred space. Her revenge is to transform him into a deer and he’s destroyed by his own hounds.
We see a conflict between two people who have very different backgrounds and expectations. Ultimately, a crime is committed, and punishment is meted out. Charpentier doesn’t in my view come down on either side, though the grief for Actéon at the end is palpable. Like most opera I’d like to see the audience engage with the story and music in a way that’s challenging and meaningful.
What’s the joy of doing an opera based on an old myth?
It’s obvious that these very old stories have been passed down because they deal with issues that are relevant today. There’s a real joy in getting to the heart of them and retelling them.
Is Charpentier a composer you have a particular fondness for?
I do very much like his music but wouldn’t consider myself a particular expert. Certainly, there are musicians out there with more expertise in Baroque performance practice. Of particular interest to me is the openness of the score. Very little is spelt out in terms of instrumentation and style and it’s in this way we’ve taken the score as a starting point for both the production and instrumentation.
You’ve staged this opera in a swimming pool, using a synchronised swimming squad. How does it help to tell this story?
When Lost & Found Opera was first formed the dream was to link together the music, text, drama and space in a way that enhanced all the elements of the story. For Actéon, given that the key moment is the discovery of Diana bathing with her nymphs, that meant finding a pool in which the action could take place and be transformed. Because Charpentier included ballets in his operas we looked for a group of people who could collaborate on this and found the wonderful team at Syncho WA. Casting Actéon as a counter tenor played on the gender politics in the piece and updating the orchestration to include jazz and toy instruments enhances the modern and then supernatural elements of the music. We’re always looking for the things that can make the production special in the way the parts can inform and interact with each other and I’m always curious and (mostly!) delighted with how that comes together.
Why do you like working in unusual spaces? How does it challenge the performers?
Something unusual happens when you’re in a new space and we’ve seen that across all Lost & Found productions. People are naturally curious about what’s going to happen, and the space becomes one of the performers. It colours the whole night and provides either a sympathetic or contrasting foil to the performance. It also changes the way singers and musicians perform. A very simple example is that if you’re close to the audience you don’t need to sing as loudly as you do in a larger theatre. Options for vocal and dramatic contrast can become more acute. In Actéon we’re also asking the singers to perform in a pool, so there’s a host of challenges there!
How have you re-orchestrated the music?
I’ve taken the original basso continuo section – keyboard and bass – and rethought that for modern times, using keyboard instruments like piano, celeste and organ, percussion and double bass. This means at times we can be very true to the baroque and at other times move all the way to modern jazz. The traditional continuo section is very improvised and so it translates well into a different sound world.
Then we’re working on separating the worlds of Actéon and his hounds with a more modern sound from the world of Diana and her maidens. Her music is where the more unusual instruments come in, hopefully taking the audience away from the earthbound. Then when their worlds collide we’re mixing these slightly. As in all opera the orchestra both comments on and supports the dramatic action and the singers. So, there are moments when the orchestration is very much in the foreground and other times when we’re hardly there.
What will audiences be surprised by?
We have a wonderful group of synchronised swimmers from WA Syncho, there’s a group of singers from Voyces choir taking part, our cast and orchestra is world class and the designers have taken over the space to transform it. All of this is being imaginatively directed by Brendan Hanson. I think doing an opera in a pool is pretty surprising and I think the audience will have very little idea how all these creative forces come together to make something unique.
What do you hope audiences will take away?
I’m hoping they find the production moving, that they see the story in a new way. That the operatic art form opens out a little in what people can expect from it in both sound and space. Also, if they’ve been to UWA Aquatic Centre before that it looks and feels transformed for them and they see the cast, chorus and swimmers from WA Syncho in a whole new light. Most importantly that they can take away a reaffirmed love of music, text and voice.
Lost and Found Opera’s Actéon is at the University of Western Australia, UNISWIM Aquatic Centre from September 12 – 15