Could circus skills help pave a spectacular new path for opera in the 21st century?

How do you connect opera and popular culture? Australian composer Chloé Charody recommends using a circus highwire. Berlin-based Charody, 27, has opened a new Circus Opera Academy in Sydney to expand a new genre of which she is a pioneer – “circus opera”.

So what is circus opera? Think Puccini meets Cirque du Soleil – performances that fuse the power of operatic voices with the spectacle of pole-dancing, fire-eating and trapeze artistry.

If this sounds like an odd marriage of artforms, it’s one that seems to hold broad appeal: Charody’s most recent circus opera The Carnival sold out when staged in London’s West End in 2011.

“Circus and opera meld together incredibly well,” she says. Charody’s business partner, violinist Sonja Schebeck, adds that “the new genre of circus opera represents a path we are exploring as a possible way to combat globally acknowledged declining classical music audiences.”

According to Charody, the aim of the Academy, which will hold classes in Paramatta and at Fox Studios, is to turn classical musicians into circus and physical theatre performers.

“As far as I can see, young opera singers are currently quite limited in their ability to extend themselves as performers. We want to spark the imagination of young opera singers and classical musicians to explore and develop new skills and performance possibilities.”

Charody believes that many young people may have the interest and vocal ability to sing opera, but the traditional setting and presentation might turn them off. 

“What we’re providing in this genre of circus opera is a new outlet, giving young artists the possibility to learn disciplines of circus and physical theatre, creating new performance possibilities, and a strong platform for experimentation and development.”

She says that apart from acquiring new skills, singers increase general strength and body awareness, developing their stage presence and confidence. Circus performers, meanwhile, can also learn to sing opera at the Academy.

The curriculum includes the kind of intensive vocal and choral training you would expect from an opera school, but also features such recondite skills as training on aerial lyra (a kind of hanging hoop), harness and tissue. Students pay $250 for an eight-week course of one 90-minutes lesson a week or $38 for a casual drop-in class.

Performers who can present both music and physical theatre combined, says Charody, have a better chance of attracting young audiences used to the heady visual spectacle of a stadium pop concert.

She points to research undertaken by Schebeck which identifies that despite more people than ever listening to classical music in their cars or at home, this is not translating to concert attendance.

Audiences are perfectly happy with classical repertoire, says Charody. It is the presentation of the music that fails to lure people away from their sound systems. 

Schebeck says that artforms do not have to be mutually exclusive – the old and new can co-exist. “We are not advocating the ‘death’ of traditional forms of opera and classical music, merely identifying the need for greater variety in presentation and greater choice for audiences in how they engage with classical music. We hope the future of opera becomes increasingly diverse and more companies experiment with new forms of presentation.”

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