Richard Mills announces a new opera from Iain Grandage, a legendary Traviata and another Sondheim musical.

An adaptation of Tim Winton’s popular novel The Riders is the centerpiece of Victorian Opera’s 2014 Season which advertises itself as operatic experiences for all ages, inspired by classic and contemporary literature. The new work will take its place alongside more traditional fare and a couple of intriguing productions aimed squarely at a new generation of operagoers.

“Finding its origins from historic and modern texts, next year’s season pulls from the page-to-the-stage epic stories of love, sacrifice and the fleeting illusion of ‘happily ever after’,” said Richard Mills, Victorian Opera’ Artistic Director, who marks his second year at the helm of the company. In a typically bold statement he went on to say that, “as a company, we are unconstrained by traditional definitions of what an opera program ‘should’ be. This allows us to re-examine standard repertoire, present new Australian works, offer a varied program, engage international performers and foster developing artists locally.”

The adaptation of Winton’s The Riders will be a coproduction with Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre with music from Iain Grandage (recently heard as the composer behind Sydney Theatre’s touring production of The Secret River) and librettist Alison Croggon. "The company has a tradition of commissioning from the Australian composer and The Riders continues that tradition", says Mills.

Winton’s story of paranoia, desperation and the love between a father and his daughter focuses on Frank Scully who has made plans to emigrate from Australia to Ireland with his wife and six year old girl, Billie. Relocating ahead of his family, Scully finds himself haunted by apparitions of cloaked, bloodied and deathly looking riders on horseback. When he arrives at the airport to collect his wife and daughter, he finds only Billie – alone and traumatised. With the frequency of his visions increasing, Scully embarks on a desperate search across Europe for his missing wife.

Dimity Shepherd sings an aria from Iain Grandage's opera

The role of Frank Scully will be created by Barry Ryan (Richard Nixon in Victorian Opera’s acclaimed production of Nixon in China) while Jessica Aszodi will play Scully’s wife Jennifer, who’s character remained absent in the book, but plays an integral role in the operatic retelling. Directed by Marion Potts, the piece will be conducted by Richard Mills.

Lucy Shorrocks, Managing Director of Victorian Opera is clearly proud of the venture. “Commissioning new work is at the heart of what Victorian Opera is about”, she says. “Bringing to life an emotional and tense story like The Riders – in an unexpected way – is made all the more powerful by the fact we are telling an Australian story.”

Top of the more traditional bill of fare is an innovative take on Verdi’s La Traviata from European opera house Fondazione Pergolesi Spontini, which will see the return to Australia of soprano Jessica Pratt, fresh from a string of overseas triumphs – including recently being awarded the international La Siola d'Oro prize, making her the first Australian to receive the singing award since Dame Joan Sutherland.

This legendary production, known as the “Traviata of the Mirrors”, features a spectacular set design from legendary scenographer Josef Svoboda, which utilises a large mirror suspended above the stage to create a vivid theatrical experience. Pratt will play the role of the courtesan Violetta with Alessandro Scotto di Luzio as her lover Alfredo and José Carbó in the role of his father Giorgio Germont. “As a company, we can re-examine standard repertoire and present it in new ways”, says Richard Mills, who will conduct the production. “Bringing this unique production to Australia will give us a chance to literally ‘reflect’ on our own stories of love and loss.”

Josef Svoboda's "Traviata of the Mirrors"

Following on from the success of the recent Sunday in the Park with George, director Stuart Maunder will return to mount a new production of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, a sparkling retelling of a string of musical fairy tales in an irreverent storyline that asks what happens beyond ‘happily ever after’. Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Jack and the Bean Stalk and Rapunzel collide in a story that follows a baker and his wife, who are desperately trying to have a child. Winner of multiple Tony awards, Into the Woods holds a special place in the hearts of music theatre fans. Musical direction will come courtesy of Benjamin Northey. "There are many charming musicals that aren't often done", says Mills, citing Rogers and Hammerstein's Allegro and Kurt Weill's Lady in the Dark as good examples. "I'm not saying we'll be doing those but this is the sort of thing we will be looking at for the future".

The rest of the program includes a one-off concert performance of Bellini’s Norma with international soprano Saioa Hernández in the title role and Rosario La Spina as Pollione. Just like on the recent Bartoli recording, in a return to the composer’s original intentions, soprano Nicole Car will sing the role of Adalgisia.

Victorian Opera’s admirable focus on younger audiences will be to the fore again as their annual Youth Opera returns with an adaptation of the medieval music drama The Play of Herod, while for schools audiences there will be an operatic retelling of the classic Brothers Grimm tale Hansel and Gretel, presented in partnership with Arts Centre Melbourne.

Finally, their series of community programs and concerts will include a gala concert entitled Games of Love and Chance with Monash University, and The Big Sing – a grand-scale sing-along with combined community choirs.

Subscriptions for Victorian Opera’s 2014 Season are available from Arts Centre Melbourne.