State Opera South Australia has launched its 2020 season with a wide-ranging program that includes a major revival of Richard Mills’ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, a handful of star recitals, a Verdi blockbuster, a pair of musicals, a visit from Les Arts Florissants, and the odd operatic staple.
Macbeth. Photo © Robert Firth Acorn
“Step through the door, anything can happen,” says SOSA Artistic Director Stuart Maunder, quoting the proprietor of the travelling carnival in the binge-worthy HBO series Carnivàle. “At State Opera we believe we are here to give more South Australians – and whomever lights upon our glorious town – more chances to experience more opera. We can look for themes of darkness and light and redemption and love, Victorian gore, human tragedy – and all those are present – but the 2020 operas could not be more different in their scope, in their feel, in their musical styles.”
To begin at the end, in November Maunder himself will direct a new production of Verdi’s breakthrough opera Macbeth, not only the Italian composer’s first brush with the English playwright, but the only operatic version of ‘the Scottish play’ to have held the stage. “Verdi’s opera is raw, bold, and powerful,” Maunder tells Limelight. “Everything about this ‘opera senza amore’, as the Italians dubbed it, is bold and unexpected. From the otherworldly cor anglais in Lady Macbeth’s sleepwalking scene, the haunting, hollow woodwinds which accompany the appearance of the Kings in Act III as well as the hisses and snarls demanded in the vocal writing, no other Verdi opera sounds like his Macbeth. The predominant colour of the opera is one of gloom and foreboding; there is no relief in its relentless plunge into darkness.”
Conducted by Oliver Von Dohnányi, it stars James Clayton and Kate Ladner as Mr and Mrs Macbeth with Pelham Andrews as Banquo and Paul O’Neill as Macduff. Maunder promises a monumental production with quicksilver changes of setting: “The design by Roger Kirk harks back to a Victorian view of the opera, but with helpings of Game of Thrones barbarism, and lashings of theatrical horror,” he explains. “The Witches are everywhere, shape shifting allowing apparitions to appear miraculously. It is a big, black, blank canvas for spooky, theatrical storytelling.”
The Barber of Seville
Before that, in May, SOSA will present Lindy Hume’s Opera Queensland staging of The Barber of Seville, conducted by Graham Abbott and with rising star mezzo Anna Dowsley as the feisty Rosina, John Longmuir as the lovesick Count Almaviva and Morgan Pearse as the bustling barber-cum-everything else Figaro. “Rossini is of course a genius,” says Maunder. “In my view Barber can’t be bettered. It is quite simply a masterpiece: funny, compact with brilliantly drawn characterisations, and invention in every bar. Each character is finely drawn – exaggerated of course – but totally believable, and monstrous. The situations are funny, the music is funny, the whole opera is funny.”
“Lindy Humes’ version is madcap, zany, brilliant – in fact, a ‘takes no prisoners’ adventure,” he continues. “Bright, bold, it’s so colourful it fairly burns the retina. It’s been fantastically received across Queensland, Seattle and all over New Zealand. We are so proud to be presenting it.”
With only two performances in November, a revival of Richard Mills’ Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is part of the company’s commitment to Australian opera. Originally commissioned by the Victoria State Opera and premiered in October 1996 at the Playhouse in Melbourne, the work went on to be broadcast on the ABC the following Australia Day. Peter Goldsworthy’s libretto is based on Ray Lawlor’s iconic 1955 play of the same name and tells the story of two sugarcane-cutters, Barney and Roo, who head to Melbourne every year to catch up for a ‘good time’ with a pair of city girls. This year, the seventeenth, reveals the emptiness at the heart of their reunion and the futility of attempting to hold on to the past. Described as “heroic, fragile, and utterly moving,” the cast includes Dimity Shepherd and Antoinette Halloran as Pearl and Olive, with Paul O’Neill and Joshua Rowe as Barney and Roo. Richard Mills himself will lead the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra at Her Majesty’s Theatre.
Summer of the Seventeenth Doll
For those who like their opera a little bit more traditional, May will offer a one-off opportunity to catch Les Arts Florissants in a performance of Mozart’s fizzy La Finta Giardiniara – a tale of gender confusion, mistaken identities, gardening and, er, attempted murder. William Christie’s world-famous ensemble will be appearing in Adelaide for the first time in over 25 years as part of their 40th birthday celebratory world tour. Paul Agnew conducts, and Sophie Daneman’s production will feature a cast made up of the young artists of Le Jardin des Voix – the company’s highly influential baroque opera training program.
Other elements of SOSA’s program include a concert performance of Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana with the full State Opera Chorus, Young Adelaide Voices and the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, all conducted by Benjamin Northey. And then there are a pair of celebrity recitals. In April, Teddy Tahu Rhodes will entertain with songs originally made famous by the Adelaide-born, early-20th -century popular vocalist Peter Dawson (The Floral Dance, The Road to Mandalay, The Yeomen of England etc.). Then, in October, Maltese tenor and international opera star Joseph Calleja will be joined for one night only by soprano Amelia Farrugia and Australia’s favourite pianist Piers Lane for a classic ‘Night at the Opera’.
And then there are the musicals – two to be precise. Maunder’s staging of Stephen Sondheim’s grisly Sweeney Todd was a 2015 hit for Victorian Opera and is scheduled for an Adelaide run next October. “Sweeney Todd has now entered the repertoire of all the great opera houses of the world – from Covent Garden to the Chatelet in Paris,” says Maunder, whose staging has been seen across New Zealand and most recently in a sell-out season in Perth. “The State Opera season will star the same Todd we had in Perth, Ben Mingay, and the extraordinary Helpmann-nominated Mrs Lovett of Antoinette Halloran. This pairing was the great joy of that season, the revenge, obsession and lust, the power battle, the sensuality, the sexuality. It’s an extraordinary relationship, not dissimilar to that of the Macbeths.”
Sweeney Todd. Photo © James Rogers for West Australian Opera
The other musical is Bran Nue Dae, Jimmy Chi and Kuckles’ rock-and-roll-meets-gospel-meets-country-and-blues tale of a crazy 1960s romantic road trip through Western Australia that appropriately will be making its own way around Australia in 2010. Maunder was responsible for Australia’s national day at the 2010 Shanghai Expo and proudly included excepts from this first ever Aboriginal musical in the celebrations. “I have loved the piece ever since,” he says. “It’s an inclusive, joyous piece and I was delighted when Opera Conference, with State Opera as a partner, put up its hand to produce the work in 2020. At State Opera we believe we must give opportunities for people to enjoy as many different styles of music driven work, let’s call it ‘opera’, as we can produce. It is important we embrace the great breadth of work out there and in our little corner of the world especially.”
“We believe we must perform the great canon of operas, and we don’t shy away from that great challenge, but we also don’t shy away from the equally important challenge of producing works of our time and place,” says Maunder who is currently working with Brink Productions to develop a new Australian opera. “Part of our mission is to produce something that is new, that is Australian and has an Australian voice.”
At the end of the day, Maunder – a theatre animal from way back – sees little to distinguish between an opera and a musical. “The thing that unites them is that they are all complete masterpieces,” he concludes. “We love them all, we are simply asking people to give ‘em a try. To love opera, you have to experience it. We give people no excuse not to try us.”
State Opera’s 2020 subscriptions (three or more shows) are on sale from 9am on September 5. Individual tickets can be purchased from September 23