Left Bauer and The Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus’ reduced scale production still maintains the drama.

St Kilda Town Hall, part of the Midsumma Festival
February 7, 2015

St Kilda Town Hall filled with an enthusiastic audience on Saturday night, each member eager for the Australian premiere of Harvey Milk – the Opera, in a concert performance, part of Melbourne’s annual gay and lesbian festival, Midsumma. Harvey Milk was a gay rights activist and (after several years’ perseverance) the first openly gay man elected to public office in America when he won a seat on San Francsico Board of Supervisors. He was tragically murdered by a fellow City Supervisor, Dan White in an apparent hate crime. Milk’s life was the right alchemy of inspiration and tragedy, a perfect basis for a contemporary opera. This pared down, semi-staged performance was the result of a collaboration between Left Bauer Productions and the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus. Conductor and Artistic Director of the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus, Kathleen McGuire led an intimate ensemble of percussion and piano (a significant reduction from the opera’s original orchestral scoring), and spoke eloquently before the performance. She articulated the importance of Milk’s life and the story of full opera, of which extracts from each act would be performed due to time restraints.  

This production demonstrated how a limited budget doesn’t necessary equate to a hampered performance. This opera, even as an incomplete concert performance, was a moving and thought-provoking piece. Artistic Director Cameron Lukey cleverly used spotlights and coloured washed lighting in the dimly lit hall. The chorus, who started in a choir formation, moved around the stage at different points as human props for the lead characters. This simple, but effective manoeuvre helped to create a dramatically charged atmosphere in the simple space and created cohesion in the narrative of the extracts.

Harvey Milk is a musically interesting and engaging work. Composer Stuart Wallace’s language is expectedly American, and you can hear his references to Copland, Adams and even a touch of contemporary Broadway. The tessitura of many of the male characters was extremely challenging, calling for long stretches of high, sustained singing. Tod Strike was well cast as Harvey Milk, with an uncanny resemblance and a strong, strident tenor. Strike showed his versatility, as he was equally comfortable with the quiet, interior moments. Librettist Michael Korie created vivid, 3D characters with his text. Dan White could have easily been portrayed as an evil caricature, but his psyche was carefully examined through several solo arias. Jacob Caine embodied White and showed the journey from selfish fireman to desperate murderer. Nigel Huckle (Scott Smith, Milk’s boyfriend) had a lighter, musical theatre voice and some of the most demanding vocal music. He and Strike had wonderful chemistry and their first duet was a piece of lyrical beauty and emotional intensity.

Dimity Shepherd portrayed several smaller female characters and Anne Kronenburg, Milk’s campaign manager. She was a strong presence on the stage, matched by her commanding mezzo. Jerzy Kozlowski entertained with his turn as Mayor George Moscone, the Mayor of San Francisco. An accomplished performer, he elicited the most laughs. 

Some early entries and lack of precision in the larger ensemble singing did mar a pleasing musical performance. McGuire was a fearless leader, who quickly straightened her ship. Despite these scrappier moments, the chorus shone in equal measure, with some most interesting and engaging musical ideas written for the large chorus. Opera, both in Australia and abroad, is currently reassessing its own importance as an art form. Harvey Milk – the Opera was an example of how this medium can still tell important stories, wrestle with contemporary issues and deliver them to a modern audience. 

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