Opera Australia’s current production of Aida, directed by Davide Livermore and featuring a digital set, has proved such a success that if the box office continues at this rate for the rest of the season it will be “the biggest selling Aida the company’s ever had”, says Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini.

It’s a vote of faith for Terracini, who believes that digital staging is one of the ways to take opera into the 21st century. Following Aida, which uses 10 large, moveable LED screens, OA’s 2019 season will include three new digital productions – Madama Butterfly directed by Graeme Murphy, Anna Bolena directed by Livermore, and the world premiere of an Australian opera about Brett Whiteley by Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming.

Damiano Michieletto’s production of Il Viaggio a Reims. All photographs courtesy of Opera Australia

The season also includes the Australian premieres of William Kentridge’s highly acclaimed production of Berg’s Wozzeck, and Damiano Michieletto’s wonderfully inventive production of Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims.

The exciting line-up of singers includes Jonas Kaufmann, Eva-Maria Westbroek, Ermonela Jaho, Joyce El-Koury, Lise Lindstrom, Ivan Magri, Andeka Gorrotxategi and Michael Fabiano among others, while conductors include Renato Palumbo, Johannes Fritzsch, Massimo Zanetto, Pinchas Steinberg, Guillaume Tourniaire, Christian Badea and Australian conductor Daniel Smith.

“The whole thing with digital technology is we’ve got a very different audience coming to Aida now,” says Terracini. “The subscribers and so on go to the first few performances. And now virtually every night that I’m there I speak to people sitting next to me, and all of them that I’ve spoken to recently, it’s the first opera that they’ve seen, which is great. And they’re a lot younger. They live in a digital world and feel really comfortable with it. In the 19th century when they built all those huge theatres throughout Europe for big 19th century opera, it was visually and musically driven. And then we ran into black boxes and all sorts of things and people just stopped coming, so [the digital staging] is really an attempt to drive the narrative, visually and musically.”

Asked how he decided which productions got a digital treatment next year Terracini says: “I suppose you want to do a classic, and we needed a new Butterfly so that was an obvious one. And a piece like Whiteley, it’s obvious to do that. And with the Anna Bolena, Davide has done Aida so it was natural to do that.”

The Madama Butterfly will be directed by Graeme Murphy working with Janet Vernon, set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell and costume designer Jennifer Irwin (his team from The Merry Widow). Two casts will be led by Karah Son and Hyeseoung Kwon as Cio-Cio San, with Massimo Zanetti conducting.

Anna Bolena will be the first of Donizetti’s Three Queen Trilogy that Livermore will stage for OA, with Maria Stuarda and Roberto Devereux following in 2020 and 2021, and also getting a digital staging. Livermore will work with the same creative team as for Aida. Albanian soprano Ermonela Jaho, who was a thrilling Violetta in OA’s 2017 staging of La Traviata, will play Anne Boleyn, with Teddy Tahu Rhodes as Henry VIII. Renato Palumbo conducts.

Opera Australia, 2019 SeasonBrett Whiteley, Self portrait in the studio 1976, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Purchased 1977
© Wendy Whiteley. Photograph © AGNSW

Whiteley is written by Elena Kats-Chernin with libretto by Justin Fleming. It will be directed by David Freeman and conducted by Tahu Matheson. Digital artist Sean Nieuwenhuis and set designer Dan Potra will incorporate Whiteley’s artworks into the larger-than-life LED screens to create an immersive world for the production.

Terracini says that OA has been developing Whiteley for a few years. “We need to be able to find contemporary operas that a lot of people want to come and see, and 99 percent of the time with contemporary opera the audiences just hate the music and they don’t want to come back [so] the form can’t survive,” he says.

“In every other form, new pieces are created so you generate new audiences. I loved Muriel’s Wedding for example. I thought it was just fabulous… I thought Simon [Phillips, the director] did it really brilliantly and obviously I was really pleased that they asked Kate [Miller-Heidke] to write the music [with Keir Nuttall]. She’d done The Rabbits for us,” says Terracini.

“We need to be finding pieces that connect to Australian culture firstly – and I think Brett Whiteley does, his life is an opera really with sex, drugs and rock and roll – and a composer who when you hear the music, you’ll like it, and Elena is that composer. We were all seduced by 12 tone music and all the rest of it but it’s been a disaster. None of those pieces have entered the repertoire. People talk about Peter Grimes – you do it once every 10 years and lose half a million dollars. Really the last one was Turandot in 1926. We need to find pieces that will be as popular as CarmenTraviata, Rigoletto and so on and if we can’t do that then the form is in really, really serious trouble. I mean it IS in serious trouble. When you can’t name one contemporary opera to Mr and Mrs Joe Public, we’ve got to find them.”

Terracini says that he has been speaking to Miller-Heidke about writing another piece and also talking to people who work in “the serious musicals world” saying that “we’re going to workshop one of them in October, though the piece they write may not be a musical. It might be an opera, but an opera that has the kind of appeal that a musical has. So, you get people from very, very different areas than we’ve done in the past.”

The Sydney summer season begins with Gale Edwards’ frequently staged production of La Bohème with Lebanese-Canadian star soprano Joyce El-Khoury making her OA debut as Mimì and Italian tenor Ivan Magri making his Australian debut as Rodolfo. Benjamin Northey conducts.

Next comes Graeme Murphy’s production of Turandot under the baton of Christian Badea. American soprano Amber Wagner, who recently played Aida in Livermore’s production, as well as Sieglinde in OA’s Ring cycle in 2016, plays Turandot with Spanish tenor Andeka Gorrotxategi as Calàf.

Opera Australia, OA, 2019William Kentridge’s production of Wozzeck

January also sees the opening of William Kentridge’s Wozzeck, a co-production between Salzburg Festival (where it premiered in 2017), OA, the Metropolitan Opera and the Canadian Opera Company, with OA the second to perform it. Kentridge’s haunting illustrations, charcoal drawings and scribbles will be projected onto OA’s new digitally-integrated sets. Filled with images of war, the production will star Australians Michael Honeyman and Lorina Gore, who both enjoyed considerable success in King Roger in 2017. Andrea Molino conducts.

“It’s by far the best production of Wozzeck I’ve ever seen. It’s really alive, it’s a really provocative and stimulating production. Visually it articulates the narrative in a really distinct way,” says Terracini, who saw it in Salzburg.

In February American tenor Michael Fabiano, recently seen as Edgardo in Lucia di Lammermoor for OA, will make his role debut as Werther in Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Massenet’s opera, not seen here for a decade. He will perform alongside Russian mezzo-soprano Elena Maximova as Charlotte, with Carlo Montanaro conducting.

Gale Edwards’ production of Richard Strauss’s Salome returns in March with American soprano Lise Lindstrom in the title role, under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch. Lindstrom dazzled OA audiences when she played Brünnhilde in the 2016 Melbourne Ring cycle.

The Melbourne autumn season begins in May with Elijah Moshinsky’s production of Rigoletto with Mongolian baritone Amartuvshin Enkhbat making his Australian debut in the title role. Australian soprano Stacey Alleaume will make her role debut as Gilda with Armenian tenor Liparti Avetisyan as the Duke of Mantua. Andrea Licata conducts.

Terracini heard Enkhbat sing in Verona last year. “It’s one of the most astonishing baritone voices you’ll ever hear. And when he sings, it’s perfect Italian but after I was trying to have a chat with him and I realised he can only speak Mongolian,” he says with a laugh.

Così Fan Tutte

Next comes Sir David McVicar’s stunning production of Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte with a cast including Jane Ede, Anna Dowsley and Taryn Fiebig, and Canadian maestra Keri-Lyn Wilson conducting. Also in May, Melbourne will see the Australian premiere of Rossini’s exultant opera Il Viaggio a Reims, a co-production between the Dutch National Opera, Royal Danish Opera and OA, directed by Damiano Michieletto. The rarely performed opera was composed for the coronation of King Charles X of France in 1825, and features 14 soloists playing European aristocrats in a hotel on their way to the coronation.

Michieletto took his cue from François Gérard’s painting Le Sacre de Charles V, setting the opera in a museum with instantly recognisable canvases by the likes of Velázquez and Picasso. The characters become the curator, museum employees, visitors and even people from the paintings. First staged in Amsterdam in 2015, it was a huge success.

The cast will include Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Giorgio Caoduro, Shanul Sharma, Lorina Gore, Julie Lea Goodwin, John Longmuir, Juan de Dios Mateos, Sian Pendry and Warwick Fyfe, with Australian conductor Daniel Smith making his OA debut. The production will be seen in Sydney in October with a slightly different cast that includes Emma Pearson and Mariangela Sicilia.

“It’s a huge cast, and they’ve all got something important to sing. The most difficult part is Libenskof for the tenor, which is so high and so much coloratura and relentless. And we’ve got this kid, Shanul Sharma [playing it]. He’s a Young Artist. He came and sang for me four years ago in Melbourne. He was singing in an Indian-Australian heavy metal band, but he had these great high notes, and I said, ‘come in and we’ll do some work’,” says Terracini.

“So, we did and we coached him and put him in the extra chorus and then he went away, came back and sang for me a couple of times and I said ‘yep, that’s all on the right track’. So, we made him a Young Artist. I made him sing the whole thing for me a couple of times recently and he can nail it.”

The Sydney winter season begins in June with the three digital productions, followed in October by McVicar’s acclaimed production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in which Australian soprano Stacey Alleaume makes her role debut as Susanna, with Italian baritone Paolo Bordogna (currently playing Selim in The Turk in Italy) reprising the role of Figaro. Then comes Il Viaggio a Reims.

Jonas Kaufmann

In August, both Sydney and Melbourne will see superstar tenor Jonas Kaufmann in one of his most celebrated roles in a concert version of Giordano’s Andrea Chénier. Dutch soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek will sing Maddalena, with French baritone Ludovic Tézier as Carla Gérard. Pinchas Steinberg conducts.

“With Jonas, we’ve got this unwritten agreement that he’ll come back every couple of years, and we talk about what we’re going to do and we’ll be doing Chenier because it’s a fantastic opera, it’s difficult to stage and he does it so wonderfully well. He certainly does it better than anyone alive,” says Terracini.

“And also to have Ludovic Tézier, he’s the greatest baritone alive. It’s been difficult to get Ludovic but I said well, ‘look, Jonas is going to do it and Pinchas is conducting and Eva-Maria is doing it’ and he said, ‘oh alright, okay’. So, I hope that it works out alright for him and he comes more often.”

The Melbourne Spring season in November/December will include Graeme Murphy’s production of Turandot with Lise Lindstrom in the title role and Christian Badea conducting, and McVicar’s Faust with Albanian tenor Saimir Pirgu (who played the Shepherd in King Roger) in the title role. Teddy Tahu Rhodes plays the devil with soprano Maria Madryak as Marguerite, under the baton of Guillaume Tourniaire.

Ghost Sonata

In September, OA will return to The Coopers Malthouse in Melbourne with Reimann’s eerie Ghost Sonata, based on August Strinberg’s play, conducted by Warwick Stengards. The production will also be seen in Sydney in September in the Opera Australia Scenery Workshop where Metamorphosis is soon to be staged.

Melbourne will also see Robert Green’s operetta Two Weddings, One Bride, loosely based on a story by Charles Lecocq and directed by Dean Bryant. As previously announced the 2019 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour will be West Side Story directed by Francesca Zambello.