We meet the writer, composer and stars of Australia’s first ever TV ‘Soap’ Opera.

You might be surprised to learn that Opera Australia’s newest production won’t be coming to your nearest opera house or concert hall. In fact, you won’t even need to leave the comfort of your own home. The company has taken a bold step with the intention of making opera more accessible than ever before by commissioning a brand new Australian work devised especially for television. 

Produced in conjunction with ABC TV Arts and independent company Princess Pictures, The Divorce is the company’s first TV-opera. It’s being billed as a modern musical ‘soap opera’, and it boasts a stellar line-up of singers from both stage and screen, plus two of Australia’s favourite creative minds. Elena Kats-Chernin, one of the country’s most successful and popular composers, has produced a dazzling musical score to a sharp and witty libretto by celebrated playwright and novelist, Joanna Murray-Smith.

This latest brainchild of OA Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini is one of the company’s most ambitious projects to date and it’s quite unlike anything they’ve done before. Granted, made-for-TV opera isn’t an entirely new concept (a few notable examples including Gian Carlo Menotti’s Christmas tale Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) and Benjamin Britten’s pacifist ghost story Owen Wingrave from 1971), but nowadays operas commissioned for television are an increasingly rare breed. 

Whether or not it’s ever really caught on, as an attempt to bridge ‘high art’ and popular culture, TV-opera is a great idea on paper. On a production level it’s a bit of a logistical nightmare, and there’s been a lot of learning on the fly for the cast and crew in this one. But OA has embraced the risk, taking the bull by the horns as it were with a new production that might well capture the imagination of the Australian public. 

The Divorce will air nationally on the ABC in four episodes, just like a television miniseries, and will be available via limited cinema release as a feature film. You’ll also be able to catch episodes online through ABC iview, so there are plenty of ways to get in on the action. Viewers can expect a good comedy, despite the serious title, with a healthy dose of drama (it is a soap opera, after all). And like any good daytime soap, this divorce has a dynamic power couple at the centre of the split. 

Jed and Iris Fielding have it all, or so you’d think. They’re what you’d call well-to-do, and have lived the high life at their magnificent home for many years. As the country’s leading art critic, Jed’s influence is felt all over the art world, a standing that has helped him build quite the empire according to musical theatre veteran John O’May, who plays Fielding in The Divorce. “Jed rules the world in which he lives,” he says. 

Playing opposite O’May, as Jed’s glamorous and charismatic wife Iris, is the remarkable Marina Pryor, who I caught up with during an eventful day on set. She describes the couple as quite “sophisticated” (spoken with a smile and a slight faux-posh drawl). 

That’s no surprise, judging by our current location. We’re at the magnificent Werribee Mansion, 30-minutes west of Melbourne. Built in the 1870s, the Italianate façade is the picture of elegance and refinement. Inside I find that the 19th-century manor has been transformed completely. Large, white, abstract sculptures line the entrance, and a range of modern art pieces and furniture are scattered throughout the rooms in order to recreate Jed’s unique aesthetic taste. 

Jed and Iris have been passionately married for years, but of late there’s been trouble in paradise, so to speak, and the pair have mutually decided to call it quits. “Both of them are sick of each other,” explains Pryor. “They’re angry at each other, and they know each other far too well.” The divorce, though, is apparently a happy one, and the Fieldings jointly decide to celebrate this most amicable of dissolutions by throwing a lavish party at their opulent home.

It’s around midday when I’m ushered inside, but you wouldn’t know as all natural light has been blocked out from impinging on the set and, judging by the ambience, I could be in a nightclub at 2am. Upbeat jazz and a sultry, smoky haze conjure a pretty seedy vibe, enhanced by a lurid mix of aquamarine and pink lighting. I’m not sure how far into the party they’re shooting, but if the energy in the next room is anything to go by then I’m guessing it’s in full swing.

“Guests include a fan dancer and a man in drag decked out in frilly white taffeta. The lascivious Don Giovanni would have been quite at home”

There’s a crowd of party guests high on excess, dancing and laughing and whooping as they take sip after sip of champagne. They sure make it look like a heap of fun, even though the champagne’s fake and they keep replaying the same song over and over. But still, this is one fancy bash, and the night promises to be full of debauchery and frivolity. More guests are sent in, including a fan dancer and a man in drag decked out in frilly white taffeta, which really gets the party going. From what I’m seeing, I think the lascivious Don Giovanni would have been quite at home. 

Librettist Joanna Murray-Smith always knew the setting would be an exuberant party. Like she did in her libretto to Paul Grabowsky’s 2002 opera Love in the Age of Therapy, the playwright and novelist clearly enjoys designing mixed-up domestic dramas.  The Divorce is another comedy of manners, with a fabulously witty plot featuring some delicious twists and turns (and naturally, each episode ends in a nail-biting, soapie-style cliffhanger). There’s also a tangled web of relationships that’d rival Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, or even The Bold and the Beautiful

You’ll find no spoilers here, but it should suffice to say that Jed and Iris haven’t exactly remained faithful. Iris’s sister Louise (Lisa McCune) is in the mix, as well as conservative young hottie William (Matt McFarlane) who’s also the object of desire of the Fieldings’ high-strung, cash-strapped personal assistant Caroline (Kate Miller-Heidke). Waiter/wannabe-artist Toby (Hugh Sheridan) is at the party hoping to get a gig, though he gets more than he bargained for when Jed uses him to get out of a messy situation. Then there’s the Fieldings’ best friends Ellen and Patrick (Melissa Madden Gray and Peter Cousens), who have their own, fairly emotional journey over the course of the night. 

Clearly this won’t be a smooth divorce. “These are well-to-do cultivated people who think they have their emotions firmly in hand and are so sophisticated that they can overcome sentiment,” says Murray-Smith. “What they discover is that they are not terribly sophisticated at all. Money doesn’t mollify envy, love, desire, loss, ambition, disappointment. So the party becomes a container for the getting of wisdom as all of the characters interact with emotional chaos and fate.”

To fulfil the brief, there’s a dynamic array of characters and situations, and if you substituted, say, a count and a countess for the Fieldings, a maid for their personal assistant and a manservant for Toby, you’d not be far away from an 18th-century opera buffa. And, as Murray-Smith explains, this was exactly what she had in mind: “I am naturally attracted to the Mozart operas,” she says, “I wanted the plot to feel timeless – as in it might belong to any historical period but happens to be now – with the understanding that human beings have and will always behave in the same way, with the same flaws and frailties as the Greeks.”

Nevertheless, Murray-Smith has managed to serve up generous helpings of both comedy and heightened drama in equal measure. There are some fabulously absurd situations and resolution scenes to rival the most farcical of operettas, but of course it can’t all be silliness. “I don’t think it can be a completely ‘happy’ divorce,” says Marina Pryor, “because otherwise nobody’s going to care. And if you don’t care, you don’t laugh. Comedy can only really be funny if there’s truth: it doesn’t matter how absurd the situation.” 

To ensure all that sentiment comes across, Murray-Smith says she had to let the music do a lot of the emotional story telling. Music, she says, “is more powerful a tool for carrying mood and feeling than the words are, and Elena is brilliant at making sophisticated composition very immediate and accessible. So I could hand over to her a lot of the power and potential I usually feel rests in the script.” 

Meanwhile, for composer Elena Kats-Chernin, being told that the opera she was going to write would be for television came as something of a surprise: “it was very unusual and exciting, something that I knew would have to be quite different to a staged production. I knew the writing would be different too, so I had to get my head around how to approach it.” 

Kats-Chernin is no stranger to opera, having written four, with the fifth (a version of Snow White) just receiving its premiere at Barrie Kosky’s Komische Oper Berlin. She’s even composed for silent film, but this is the first time she’s written an opera for the screen. “I had to imagine how everything I was writing would sound coming out of a box,” she says. 

She also says she enjoys a good challenge, and the scope of this project was a huge one. “It was very hard work – a lot of writing. I had a lot of days that went for 16 to 18 hours. There were a lot of pages of orchestration, and a lot of roles to think about.” 

Film is a naturally collaborative process, so there was always a lot of discussion. “There are many very clever minds working on this project: people who are directing, people producing, people conducting, and they all have a very clear vision. There were times where I would call up and ask if something worked or not. I liked that – it makes you feel like you’re not alone, that somebody else is also responsible.” 

There were also plenty of changes made during the process, which was something Kats-Chernin completely expected. She even describes a situation in which she made a significant rewrite to a song while on an international flight back home from Berlin. “It was just one of those crazy, crazy times,” she says.

As a composer she has drawn on a range of musical styles to infuse her score for The Divorce. There are songs, she says, that sound quite romantic and aria-like, but there are also jazzy swing numbers and moments resembling cabaret. She describes how she wrote music to reflect the individual characters: “We have one character, for example – the PA, Caroline, played by Kate Miller-Heidke. Her character is very high-strung and energetic, very on edge. I obviously had to give her that kind of music, sort of presenting her the way she thinks.”

The music is scored for a chamber ensemble made up of members of the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra, plus some non-classical additions like electric guitar. You also hear vocals supplied by the Opera Australia Chorus, though being for TV it wasn’t the usual rehearsal process

Putting a new opera on the stage has its challenges, but a made-for-TV opera is an entirely different beast. For members of the creative team accustomed to working on stage, filming The Divorce has come with a whole new set of problems to solve. Vanessa Scammell is musical director on the project. She is usually at home conducting musical theatre (and more recently for the Australian Ballet), but The Divorce has stretched her beyond her usual conducting role. “Because it is for screen,” explains Scammell, “there’s been a lot of discussion with Lyndon Terracini, Andrea Denholm (producer) and Dean Murphy (director) about how you achieve this sort of art form – how you make it work. We had to record all the vocal tracks before the filming started, for example. So we had to make really big decisions way before we knew what the characters were even really like.” 

Pre-recording caused some initial trepidation for the cast too, all of whom had to record their singing some weeks – and in some cases even months – in advance of filming. Only occasionally might a line or scene be re-recorded after the filming process. This was a very different way of working for most, but the idea was more terrifying than the reality, explains John O’May. “I forgot who did the first day,” he says, “I think it was Lisa [McCune] – she said it’s not as frightening as we thought. Though you didn’t know that until you got onto the floor and started filming.”

I’m told that on set, the cast members are basically singing along with themselves. All in the name of naturalism, a problem that even Hollywood film-musicals have gotten wrong. As Scammell says, “there’s nothing worse than watching people over-sing when a camera’s three seconds from their face.” 

Close-up filming can make an operatic performance look pretty extreme, explains Marina Pryor. “You need physical manipulation and all sorts of things that take away the naturalism.” She demonstrates her point by spontaneously bursting into song. “I don’t sit here and sing at you like THIS!” giving me a private demonstration of a sumptuous, though over-the-top vibrato. “Suddenly, I’ve lost my naturalism,” she continues. “It’s a fascinating challenge.”

As a result, much of the cast have opted for performing in a less ‘operatic’ style. Singer-songwriter Kate Miller-Heidke is classically trained, though she sports an extremely versatile voice that has allowed her career to traverse such disparate genres as opera and alternative pop. “For me,” she says, “I’m singing the music in the truest way that I can. There are a few melodramatic scenes at the end where I do sing in a more operatic style. But for most of it, it’s… well, I’m not sure what it is. I’m just trying to be truthful.”  

Each of the eight principals are known for championing particular genres – like musical theatre, television and cabaret – but glancing through the list you’ll notice a conspicuous omission: there are no professional opera singers, save for Miller-Heidke, and she’s not what you’d call full-time. It’s a pretty significant statement by the nation’s leading opera company that could turn out to be quite polarising.

“What we’re doing with this production is exploiting the medium of television, which calls for a different way of singing again”

But does an opera need to have traditional operatic voices? Contemporary operas have moved away from the grand opera tradition, which as Miller-Heidke reminds me is only a particular part of the development of music. “The idea of a textbook operatic voice, which was developed in the Romantic period to fill huge theatres – that’s excellent, but it was only a short period of classical music history. Actually, what we’re doing with this production is exploiting the medium of television, which calls for a different way of singing again.”

And like other companies, even Opera Australia has begun to open up and include musical theatre in its main seasons. John O’May, who played Captain Bracket in OA’s recent production of South Pacific, welcomes the mix of genres in The Divorce. “We have to expand the definition of what opera is,” he says. “We must discover and explore. We have to explore the possibility that what we’re doing might be a new way of calling something an ‘opera’.” 

While some might believe that marrying opera with musical theatre is nigh on abomination, there’s a strong history of opera borrowing from the popular, or so-called ‘low’ styles. Classical examples include singspiels like Mozart’s The Magic Flute. And of course Kurt Weill’s Die Dreigroschenoper (or Threepenny Opera); a ‘play with music’, was a popular hit early last century. 

For some of the cast though, it’s not just a matter of crossing boundaries, but of breaking them down entirely. Kate Miller-Heidke debuted as composer and performer in her own genre-defying opera The Rabbits earlier this year. She’s a singer who shatters genre stereotypes for a living, topping the pop charts and gracing the opera stage at Lincoln Center, New York with equal force. “There’s a stupid amount of baggage that people have about opera,” she says. “Everyone’s got this particular set of associations, and most of it’s just bullshit. I think, yes, The Divorce is an attempt to rejuvenate the art form on one level. But on another, it’s just telling a story with music. And that’s what opera should be.”

Clearly she’s not too worried about upsetting the traditionalists, and neither is Melissa Madden Gray. Another queen of crossover, Madden Gray has made her home on the cabaret stage as the sexy and quirky chanteuse Meow Meow and, as we speak, is about to perform a selection of music by Kurt Weill in a new Victorian Opera production of The Seven Deadly Sins. In The Divorce she plays Ellen, close friend to the Fieldings. “Elena Kats-Chernin’s written just the most gorgeous stuff,” says Madden Gray, “and of course has made it fit my strange voice,” which she describes as very, very low, very, very high, and with “all of its strange whistles and squeals and caterwauls.”

Madden Gray’s an absolute riot to talk to, though she did take a moment out from her various antics to express her thoughts on opera and crossover. “I’m so sick of this high art/low art debate,” she says, “and I don’t know why we have it in Australia all the time. Why do we have to keep justifying that music is part of society? Why do we have to keep having this guilt: apologising for exquisite, heightened experiences that open up emotion for people? If we keep shutting doors, we shut down emotional outlet.”

“Making everything the same on television is just excruciating, and seeing the same thing musically all the time is also deeply depressing. So having something where you’re thoroughly intrigued and not able to define it completely – that’s a great thing.” 

Whatever your operatic opinions – be they purist or more permissive – The Divorce is definitely a project that should make you sit up and think, and no doubt it’s going to startle some. This doesn’t worry Meow Meow though. “When people see what opera can be, then I think it’s rock and roll, as far as I’m concerned!” 

“And I think it’s captured the imagination of the cast and the crew,” says producer Andrea Denholm. “There’s been a lot of interest in it internationally. So it will be interesting to see how it goes. All of the cast have got ideas for the sequel,” she smiles.

So, let’s see if The Divorce leaves us wanting more, and, if so, would OA consider a second series?

The Divorce airs nationally at 9:30pm on ABC, December 7-10. It will be available online through ABC iview and as a feature film viewable at selected cinemas