New opera companies don’t pop up every day, and an opera company that places social justice at the very heart of its mission is even rarer. Sydney-based The Cooperative, however, is just that, a new broom with an ambitious program of atypical fare that isn’t going to let a little thing like a global pandemic get in its way.

Martin Everett, Rebecca Moret, Joanna Dionis Ross and Jeremy Boulton in The Consul. Photo © Simon Ross & Antoine Veling

The company is the brainchild of Menila Moineaux, an Anglo-Burmese opera director and soprano, originally from the Adelaide Hills, who completed her Bachelor of Music Studies at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music in 2017. Curiously, the specific catalyst to form a company wasn’t a desire to emulate others or a sense of frustration at the current operatic status quo, but instead was the 2019 Federal election.

“I’d watched the results in dismay throughout the intervals of a performance I was singing and felt incredibly frustrated at the lack of a will to change that our society had demonstrated, even after seeing the inequalities and injustices perpetuated by those in power and rippled through our wider society over the preceding years,” admits Moineaux. “I felt that I had to channel this frustration into something more positive, to try and use my passions and my skills to create the change I wanted to see in the world around us.”

As a creative practitioner, Moineaux doesn’t just “enjoy” opera, she believes in it as a means of communication – even as a tool – that can trigger healthy emotions and has a vast potential to alter hearts and minds. “When we enter a performance, we enter a space of collective public dreaming, from which it is difficult to re-emerge without being a little changed,” she explains.

“As creators and artists, we have tremendous power and tremendous privilege, to be able to communicate and invite our audiences to explore and challenge their ideas, feelings, and perceptions of their world. It is our duty to use this power and privilege for the benefit of our wider society, and it is with this mindset that we aim to use opera to highlight, question, and confront inequalities in the world around us.”

Joanna Dionis Ross and Rebecca Moret in The Consul. Photo © Simon Ross & Antoine Veling

Along with music director Edwin Spark, Moineaux founded the company ahead of an inaugural production of The Consul. A still neglected work, Gian-Carlo Menotti’s 1950 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera is a plea for compassion amidst the desperate and seemingly endless wait for a visa that retains a timely resonance in an Australia that can seem to value border force over the human being. Auditioning and interviewing for such a substantial undertaking means they now have around 50 young artists from across the country on their roster of singers, instrumentalists and stage crew.

If proof were needed that The Cooperative doesn’t simply pay lip service to ideas of audience outreach and accessibility, they are also committed to working on a ‘pay what you can basis’, something of a challenge in an artform known for its pricey tickets and intervals where well-heeled patrons like to binge on the bubbles. “Opera need not be extravagant or expensive to stage,” says Moineaux, “and I think the immediacy of connecting with an audience is even more keenly felt when lavish production elements are removed and the sheer power of brilliant singing and acting highlighted.”

“For us, it was critical that we break down the financial barriers of opera, to increase our accessibility and extend our reach to an audience who’d never encountered the art form before, as well as seasoned opera goers. As a company of young artists, that necessitates operating on a shoestring budget, and re-imagining works originally conceived for larger forces, as well as exploring lesser performed chamber pieces.”

As for ticket prices: “I have always believed that humans are essentially generous and fair, and that pay-as-you-feel models work because they allow every audience member to contribute as much as they are able,” she says. “Overall, people will do just that.”

Rebecca Moret and Ellen Malone in the Consul. Photo © Simon Ross & Antoine Veling

The Consul was staged with zero financial backing except for the goodwill of the venue, St Stephen’s Uniting Church, and with fundraising simply to cover incurred expenses. For their 2021 season of six operas, they have secured support from the City of Sydney. “As always, our budget remains a shoestring, but one that is hopefully strong enough to carry us through a year of recovery and renewal,” says Moineaux.

Menotti’s opera with its cast of refugees and asylum seekers in many ways embodied The Cooperative’s mission statement. With the opera’s substantial orchestra reduced to an ensemble of string quartet and piano, the work was staged with an ensemble cast of 11 plus chorus and dancers. Set costs were minimised by pressing into service the nooks and levels of the performance space – and all that was achieved with a rehearsal period of just two and a half weeks. In addition, the company is determined to transcend traditional boundaries and effect positive change by marrying its productions to particular social justice causes. In the case of The Consul, that meant raising almost $2500 for the Asylum Seekers’ Centre and the Asylum Seekers’ Resource Centre.

One advantage of the hiatus caused by the pandemic was the opportunity it provided to hone their plans for the future and reflect on the whys and wherefores of making the art itself. Out of that came a season of six shows beginning this week with Holst’s rarely performed one-act opera Sāvitrī. Based on an episode in the Mahābhārata, the composer created a highly effective work for three singers, offstage female chorus and string orchestra in which the widow of the title pits her wits against Death himself for the soul of her recently departed husband, Satyavan.

Marianna Poghosyan in The Consul. Photo © Simon Ross & Antoine Veling

Sāvitrī premiered in 1916 in the middle of the global carnage that was World War I. “There is a bittersweet optimism to the work which undoubtedly would have resonated amongst its first audiences, as would the comfortingly blurred lines between life and death, as two sides of the same coin—a cycle of māyā,” explains Moineaux. “When thinking about how we could reemerge from a devastating and unprecedented year, the ideas explored in Sāvitrī captivated us; it very keenly felt like an appropriate expression of the cyclical renewal and recovery we are about to embark upon.”

Holst wrote five operas of which Sāvitrī  is probably the most effective from a dramatic standpoint, and yet it is rarely staged. A single half-hour work might be part of the problem, and the cost of an offstage female chorus may also be a factor. “I think though that the relatively unknown subject matter, from a culture and belief system outside the Eurocentric world of opera, may have proved the most challenging aspect for many audiences,” muses Moineaux. “We see a similarly disproportionate lack of interest in all Holst’s Vedic-inspired works from this era. To me, this feels rather ironic, as at its core, Sāvitrī is a universal piece, around a universal theme; making sense of life and death, and how these dichotomies interact with one another in the world around us.”

By coincidence, the opera was always intended for outdoor performance – although neither the first performance nor the professional premiere took place al fresco – another reason that might account for its inexplicable absence from operatic stages. The Cooperative will stage it in the open air in a COVID-safe manner at twilight in Observatory Hill Park, overlooking Sydney Harbour.

Rebecca Moret and Ellen Malone in the Consul. Photo © Simon Ross & Antoine Veling

As for the rest of the season, The Cooperative has bold plans that Moineaux summarises in three words – recovery, renewal, (and) revolution. In March they will present two performances of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, another work that deals with grief while attempting to make sense of life and loss. It will be staged at Fishburners, an open plan, concrete event space nestled in the heart of Sydney’s CBD. Then, in April, it’s more Gluck. The composer’s Iphigénie en Tauride raises questions about ritual, sacrifice and the cyclical nature of violence. “We hope to invite our audiences to consider how they can break those cycles in the world around them and will donate all profits to organisations working with victims of violence,” says Moineaux.

Revolution will be in the air for Puccini’s Tosca in June. Although they will be performing in church, the production promises to be unconventional. Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, again at Fishburners, is slated for July, a work that famously addresses inequality and systemic misogyny. The season concludes in August with Janáček’s Jenůfa, a work that, in Moineaux’s words, explores “inter-generational trauma, violence, and the inability to escape from systemic oppression,” in other words, another piece with clear resonances today.

And if six operas in sixth months isn’t ambitious enough, Moineaux anticipates further projects in the pipeline for later in 2021. Quite a program for a company eager to make work that will have a genuine impact on more than just opera’s in-crowd.

Sāvitrī will be performed on the 11th, 12th and 14th of February in Sydney’s Observatory Hill Park. Visit The Cooperative’s website for further details.

The Cooperative’s 2021 fundraising is managed through the Australian Cultural Fund with all donations over $2 tax-deductible:

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