Unique Perth-based opera company prepares to unveil The Emperor of Atlantis.

Lost And Found Opera was the toast of the Perth Fringe Festival this year following their presentation of Poulenc's La Voix Humaine. The French existential opera was staged in a hotel room and limited to an audience of less than fifteen for each of its performances, and was regarded by critics as a "Tour-de-force". The production was something wild and new for Perth audiences, proving that Lost and Found Opera was anything but conventional, existing to fill in the blanks between our understanding of what contemporary opera could and should be.

Lost and Found Opera exists to discover lost works and present them in found spaces that speak to the resonance of the work. It’s a brief that provides artistic directors Thomas de Mallet Burgess and Christopher van Tuinen with a unique context for the works they produce.

“We start from the premise that music and drama is a relationship not a competition,” explains Chris. “The 'Lost' part of the equation comes about from works that are rarely, if ever, performed. Mainly, this is because they don't fit into the current model of a 1700 seat, lyric theatre presentation. They are works that are perhaps more unusual, or by lesser-known composers, or that simply haven't yet had their day in the sun. Ultimately, they need to be works that are worth staging, works that have a great musical and dramatic intent to them, ones that speak to performers, musicians, and through them to the audience.”

But it’s the utilisation of a ‘found’ space that helps to strongly define the work by Lost and Found. In every case, a space is chosen that is going to enhance or respond to the production in some way. “We don't have a preference for small venues!” responds Chris to my suggestion that a very intimate setting is a distinctive characteristic of Lost and Found Opera. “The audience for The Human Voice at the beginning of the year was only 15 people per show but that's because we staged it in a hotel room. But it's a good example of what we try to achieve."

Fiona McAndrew in The Human Voice

“That work was about the last moments of an affair, with the audience eavesdropping on one side of the phone call between the two ex-lovers. Anonymous hotel rooms and illicit relationships share a connection and it made sense for the woman in that situation to end the affair in one. It served another purpose as well in that it brought the audience close to the emotion of her life, to what she was going through and to experience at close quarters the power of her singing. We had audience members react very emotionally to that work, uplifted and deeply moved. We hope it by producing works in unique spaces, we can show the work in a new light which emphasises and colours the experience of the opera.”

While choosing an unconventional performance space may help a performance resonate thematically, resonances of an acoustic manner are another thing altogether. “Of course, found spaces also come with their own unique acoustic, which in turn affects how an audience 'hear' the work,” admits Chris. “In particular, a space may open up different ways of singing a role or playing the music in response to the options offered by the acoustic of the space. In the case of The Human Voice the performer was able to explore a dynamic range that would not have been possible in a larger space with a full orchestra. This in turn affected how the audience felt the emotions in response to the drama.”

The company’s second production for the year is Viktor Ullmann's The Emperor of Atlantis. Written in 1943 in the Nazi concentration camp of Terezin, the opera was rehearsed but not staged. Both composer and librettist would die in Auschwitz without ever seeing the work performed. In choosing a site for the production, Lost and Found decided to stage the work at the Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue in Menora.

“I think the audience that sees The Emperor of Atlantis in the Synagogue will feel that this is a continuation of that effort, a celebration of the effort of those artists,” explains Chris. “Funnily enough though, the choice of the Synagogue was only partly influenced by the Jewish connection. More importantly, it was that the opera deals with the subject of the meaning of life and the relevance of death. Big questions about love, the relationship between leaders and their people and questions about our humanity… Quite a bit for a 60-minute piece! But these are also the types of questions that get discussed and examined in religious spaces on a regular basis.”

The Emperor of Atlantis is certainly a huge work, both thematically and contextually. But beyond the significant thematic earnestness, it is important to realise that the opera features some simply amazing music. “As a musician, it's the sound world that effects me the most,” enthuses Chris. “The Emperor of Atlantis is written for seven singers and a chamber orchestra of thirteen, and while regular instruments are in, strings and woodwinds and so on, it's also got banjo, harmonium and saxophone. The music is reminiscent of Mahler and Berg, but there are moments of Kurt Weill and Richard Strauss as well. I think it's a love letter or farewell letter to all the composers in Ullmann's life that influenced and nurtured him.”

For those familiar with Lost and Found Opera, rest assured that The Emperor of Atlantis will be different to anything you have seen so far. “Everything we've done so far has been different from everything else we've done,” says Chris, “except one thing: we're striving to bring the audience to a place both physically, dramatically and musically where they can connect to a piece of opera, listen to some great singing and playing, see and engage with a production that reaches into a work and space. We feel that transforming the experience like this will hopefully reach an audience and maybe transform them a little as well.”

The Emperor of Atlantis will be performed at the Perth Hebrew Congregation Synagogue, Menora, On June 12, 15 and 16. Tickets are available here. More information available at www.lostandfoundopera.com