Season Preview 2020

Opera buffs are in for a treat next year when Opera Australia presents new productions of two rarely seen operas, Verdi’s Attila and Halévy’s La Juive (The Jewess), neither of which have been staged by the company before.

Lyndon Terracini. Photograph courtesy of Opera Australia

At the other end of the spectrum are four musicals, which Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini hopes will act as “a bridge” to attract a broader audience to the company –  The Light in the Piazza starring renowned American soprano Renée Fleming, Fiddler on the Roof performed in Yiddish, The Secret Garden, presented with musical theatre producer John Frost, and – as announced in April – a 30th anniversary production of the world’s first Aboriginal musical Bran Nue Dae.

In between there are some perennially popular operas including La Bohème, Carmen, Aida, Madama Butterfly and Don Giovanni, and some that are not quite so familiar to Australian audiences such as Roberto Devereux, the second opera in Donizetti’s Tudor Queens trilogy, which OA is presenting over a three-year cycle.

In other highlights, much-loved Australian soprano Nicole Car and her husband, Canadian baritone Etienne Dupuis, will play passionate lovers in Eugene Onegin – the opera in which they met when cast opposite each other at Deutsche Oper Berlin in 2015. Melbourne audiences will see a new production of Wagner’s Lohengrin, and Australian star soprano Jessica Pratt will make her debut in the title role of Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia in a concert version of the opera, presented as a one-night-only event in both cities.

The season also includes Rembrandt’s Wife, a chamber opera by Australian composer Andrew Ford, with libretto by Sue Smith, which premiered in 2009. And, of course, there’s the digital Ring Cycle in Brisbane, to be helmed by Chinese-American director Shi-Zheng Chen, and a revival of the Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour production of La Traviata with Stacey Alleaume as Violetta.

Attila, which will be performed in both Sydney and Melbourne, is a co-production with La Scala. The ninth of Verdi’s 28 operas, it tells the story of the ruthless king of the Huns and his invasion of Italy in the 5th century. When the warrior maiden Odabella is captured, Attila falls in love with her, setting the scene for one of the great revenge operas. Director Davide Livermore directs the production using video projections with colossal set pieces and two horses.

Natalie Aroyan and Tjibbe. Photograph © Keith Saunders

“There’s certainly a lot more LED than there was at La Scala, but there are some sets, and two horses,” says Terracini. “It’s weird, you’re not allowed to have one horse, you’ve got to have two. Otherwise, they get spooked but if there are two of them, they’re fine.”

Armenian-Australian soprano Natalie Aroyan, who was one of OA’s Young Artists, makes her role debut as Odabella in Sydney, while Italian soprano Anna Pirozzi plays it in Melbourne. Ukrainian bass Taras Berezhansky plays Attila in both cities.

Attila may not be regarded as one of Verdi’s greatest operas but Terracini considers it “a great piece. We’ve never done it, it’s a big, revolutionary piece and it’s great to do it,” he says.

“There’s some fantastic music in it but the problem with all these pieces – and Ernani and Luisa Miller are similar –  is you need people who can really sing them because they’re so difficult. When they’re not sung well, people think ‘oh well that wasn’t very good’ where they’re fantastic pieces.”

“Those early Verdis, like Trovatore too, you’ve got to have four of the best singers in the world. Let’s face it, the plot of Trovatore is less than fabulous. The important thing with these pieces – apart from doing them so the public can hear them – is to do them really well. There’ll be another Verdi opera that we haven’t done before in 2021. We need to do [operas] like Luisa Miller and Attila and so on, they’re an important part of the repertoire.”

Nicole Car as Luisa Miller. Photograph © Prudence Upton

While Terracini is excited at the roll call of international singers performing next year, he is also thrilled that 12 alumni from the OA Young Artists Program are featured – Natalie Aroyan, Nicole Car, Stacey Alleaume, Julie Lea Goodwin, Richard Anderson, Sian Sharp, Anna Dowsley, Taryn Fiebig and Shanul Sharma.

“Natalie Aroyan is singing Aida at the Verdi Festival in Busseto this year and she’s doing Attila and La Juive. Stacey Alleaume has just played Gilda in Bregenz. She’s got some big stuff next year with La Traviata and La Juive. Shanul Sharma sang Libenskof in Il Viaggio a Reims in Melbourne this year and is doing it in Sydney for us. Now the Bolshoi have asked him to do it there and they’ve also asked him to sing Ernesto in Don Pasquale, and he’s still in our Young Artist Program,” says Terracini.

“Obviously Nicole was the first to have real success but it usually takes six or seven years for people and you have to invest in that, so it’s particularly enjoyable seeing people do well when you’ve seen them grow over a number of years.”

As well as making her role debut as Odabella in Attila, Aroyan is making her debut as Rachel in Halévy’s La Juive. The grand French opera, first staged in Paris in 1835, tells the story of a dangerous, impossible love affair between a young couple – a Christian man and a Jewish woman. Co-produced with Opéra de Lyon, French director Olivier Py has updated the setting to the 1930s. “So, you have references to the Holocaust, which makes absolute sense with the piece,” says Terracini.

“Again, the music is just fabulous but you need fantastic singers and I’m really thrilled that Natalie and Stacey Alleaume, Diego Torre, Shanul Sharma and Roberto Scandiuzzi are all in this one. Guillaume Tourniaire is conducting and he makes these sorts of pieces really beautiful musically, as he did with Thaïs [in 2017]. He’s got a great affinity with this repertoire.”

Olivier Py also directs Wagner’s Lohengrin with British heldentenor David Butt Philip in the title role and Irish soprano Jennifer Davis as the ill-fated Elsa, both making their Australian debuts under the baton of Johannes Fritzsch. Py has set the production in the ruins of Berlin in the aftermath of World War II, using a monumental revolving tiered set to depict a decaying theatre where emblems of German Romanticism gather dust.

Karah Son and Sian Sharp in Graeme Murphy’s Madama Butterfly. Photograph © Prudence Upton

Opera Australia recently began staging digital productions, using screens and LED projections. There have been four so far: Aida, directed by Davide Livermore, which returns in 2020 with seasons in Sydney and Brisbane, Donizetti’s Anna Bolena, also directed by Livermore, Graeme Murphy’s new production of Madama Butterfly which plays in Melbourne in 2020, and the new Australian opera Whiteley.

Roberto Devereux will be another digital production directed by Livermore, starring American soprano Jennifer Rowley as Elizabeth I, with Elena Maximova as her secret rival Sarah, Duchess of Nottingham, and Atalla Ayan as the ambitious Devereux.

Though there has been a mixed response to the use of LED screens in OA’s four digital productions to date, Terracini firmly believes it is the way of the future. “When we first did it with Aida, that was the first time someone had done something totally digital in an opera theatre. I think the Anna Bolena this year was much more sophisticated. I think every time we do it, we’re getting better,” he says. “It’s a really exciting area but you have to learn how to use it and we’re still learning.” The Ring Cycle to be staged in Brisbane will develop the technology still further.

Davide Livermore’s production of Aida. Photograph © Prudence Upton

“Everyone talks about finding a new audience, and then keeps doing everything the same way whereas with this, there’s no doubt younger audiences connect to it a lot more,” says Terracini. “When we did the Aida last time, we saw this whole [new, younger] audience start coming. I was there nearly every night sitting next to people that had never been before, not only tourists but people from Sydney. When you had a conversation with them, they’d heard about this tech opera and wanted to have a look at it. We’re not going to do everything digitally at the moment. We’ve still got a lot of productions I don’t want to get rid of – Moshinsky’s Traviata and Rigoletto, for example, and the McVicar Mozart/Da Ponte cycle. We’re certainly not going to get rid of those. But at the same time, you need to be looking to what you’re going to be doing in 20 years’ time and what the future is going to be about and so I’m really pleased with the way [the digital staging] been developing.”

“People need to feel that if they’re going to come to an Opera Australia show, it’s going to be ‘woah!’ as it was with Andrea Chénier even though that was in concert… We need to do that with everything including our country tours and what we do in schools. Kids need to feel, ‘wow, that was amazing!’ Otherwise when they grow up they think ‘I saw it at school, it wasn’t very good’, so we’ve got to be a lot more mindful of how we do everything.”

Programming musicals is a part of that for Terracini. The Light in the Piazza, which has music and lyrics by Adam Guettel and a book by Craig Lucas, is set in the 1950s and revolves around Margaret Johnson, a wealthy Southern woman and her daughter Clara, who has a glowing innocence due to a childhood brain injury. They spend a summer holiday in Italy and when Clara falls in love with a young Italian man, Margaret is forced to reconsider not only Clara’s future, but her own deep seated hopes and regrets.

Renée Fleming, The Light in the Piazza. Photograph courtesy of Opera Australia

The production, directed by Daniel Evans, stars Renée Fleming and Alex Jennings (who played Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady in Australia in 2016). Terracini saw it when it played in London in June this year.

“I think the music is so beautiful and it’s a really lovely story. It’s really the kind of bridge I’m looking for between opera and musicals – and really that needs to be the future of contemporary opera. This is one of those pieces where yeah, it’s a musical, but it’s not a big Broadway knock ‘em down, drag ‘em out musical. It’s a lot more sophisticated and subtle than that,” says Terracini.

“I think these pieces are providing a really important bridge for us and for our audiences to hear what is being developed in the musicals area and for us to think about what we’re doing with contemporary opera. When people just don’t want to come and see it, it’s a problem – and it’s been a problem for nearly a hundred years and we need to address it because in other art forms, when there’s a new piece, people want to see it. A new film, people want to go and see it. When there’s a new opera, they just want to run for the exit.”

“One my neighbours just went to see [a contemporary] opera and left at interval and said, ‘I just couldn’t stand it’. And I understand that, God knows I’ve sung more contemporary operas than anyone I think. You get an enormous amount of pleasure from being able to do it. But the audience don’t share that joy and we’ve got to find pieces which they do feel connected to it, and I think Piazza is one of those pieces.”

Fiddler on the Roof in New York. Photograph © Matthew Murphy

Fiddler on the Roof, performed in Yiddish, which OA will co-produce with John Frost in Sydney and Melbourne, also falls into that “bridge category”, says Terracini. Directed by Joel Grey, who is now over 80, the production had a hugely successful season at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York last year.

“When you see it in Yiddish, for some bizarre reason, all the choreography makes sense, the way they deliver the text makes sense, it’s not a weird American voice coming out with an accent. It seems a lot more real and truthful and then all the songs, they’re so Jewish anyway and suddenly it makes sense,” says Terracini. Grey will come to Australia for some of the rehearsal period. The production will be cast by Australian performers who speak Yiddish, though Terracini says that they may have to import someone to play Tevye.

The Secret Garden, based on Frances Hodgson Burnett’s famous novel, has music by Lucy Simon and book and lyrics by Marsha Norman. It was produced in Australia in 1995 with a cast headed by Philip Quast, Anthony Warlow and Marina Prior. Co-produced next year with John Frost, the original creative team of director Susan H. Schulman, choreographer Michael Lichtefeld and designer Heidi Ettinger will reunite to stage it.

And then there’s Jimmy Chi’s musical Bran Nue Dae, which is having a 30th anniversary production presented by the Opera Conference. “It’s such a joyful, uplifting, positive piece which I think we need,” says Terracini. “There are so many awful stories about what’s happening in Indigenous communities. But when Rachael Maza was advising us on The Rabbits, one of the things she felt very strongly about was that [Aboriginal people] shouldn’t be portrayed as victims and I agree with that. Bran Nue Dae doesn’t do that. Its [message is] ‘this is who I am and isn’t it great?’”

“I hope audiences respond to it. It’s a really important piece and an important one for us to do as Opera Australia with the Opera Conference for all sorts of reasons. The debate is, is it an opera? Well, frankly, I don’t care. It’s a wonderful piece that articulates a narrative through music and that’s what opera is, so this stuff about ‘why is an opera company doing it?’ It’s because it’s a good piece and we should do it.”