The new artistic director of Opera Queensland reflects on respect for tradition and the allure of innovation.
I love an adventure. After a decade in festivals, where a spirit of adventure and risk-taking animates everything from the program to the bar menu, I was invited – alongside new General Manager Russell Mitchell – to develop a fresh design for Queensland’s 30-year-old opera company, and along the way discover the boundless landscape of this amazing part of the world. Seemed like an excellent adventure to me!
And yet, a few days after our 2013 launch I was reminded that you can’t please everyone. I’m now on a new quest: to summon the spirit of adventure in that small but staunch army of “traditional” opera lovers out there. Like the lady who phoned me to express her disappointment that Simon Phillips’ new production of Verdi’s Otello was to be set in a contemporary war zone. Her “heart sank”, she said, when she heard the battle-victorious Otello would make his first entrance by Black Hawk helicopter. On this basis she most certainly would not be subscribing.
Now I can assure readers that Otello will be one of the highlights of 2013. It has been lovingly considered from many angles with our discerning audience in mind. It features a fabulous cast starring Cheryl Barker. It will be conducted by Johannes Fritzsch, the Chief Conductor of Queensland Symphony Orchestra (QSO) and Oper Graz. The combined forces of the QSO and the Opera Queensland Chorus will raise the roof in Verdi’s monumental chorus scenes. It will be directed by one of Australia’s most celebrated directors of Shakespeare. Yet this lady’s decision not to participate came down to the fact that the costumes and settings were “modern”, not “traditional”. Now I felt my own heart sink. How many of our core audience, I wondered, would be similarly alienated by the director’s wholly justifiable choice to set Verdi’s opera in our own time?
On the bright side, she thought she might attend Cinderella because based on our brochure image (the gorgeous Fiona Campbell in a billowing dress running, barefoot, away from a castle) the production would clearly be “traditional”. How does the fact that we’re setting our Cinderella in Dickensian London automatically make it “traditional”? Surely it’s not just about the costumes being in some period other than our own?
Where’s the line? For Cinderella we intend to create a cheeky new English translation and use video and state-of-the-art stage effects that Rossini could only dream about to enhance his famous storm scene, but is racy humour and digital technology approved by the traditionalists? Surtitles and live streamed performances from the Metropolitan Opera are OK, apparently, as long as the costumes stay billowy, the sets are monumental, the voices are enormous and the wigs are voluminous. But that’s half a planet away from what we’re doing in Brisbane.
I came back to the crazy world of opera because I sensed new potential for this extraordinary 400-year-old artform to connect with new audiences, hearts and minds. Music is our centre, but today’s Opera Queensland is also a theatre company, a community resource, a regional engine, an innovation hub, a creative collaborator. We have bold, ambitious plans for the next few years and we can’t waste energy second-guessing what might, and might not, be approved of by our most conservative audience member.
After much consideration, I am optimistic that it’s possible to be a traditionalist and an adventurer, and that’s the balance I’d like to strike. I learned in festival-world that you can’t please all the people all the time, and the very best we can do is to make every Opera Queensland project a rewarding musical and theatrical experience for as many as possible. For people who have never been to opera before, and people who live and breathe it. For the staunch traditionalists too. We only ask that you summon your spirit of adventure and join us on the journey.