Take an internationally acclaimed chanteuse and the resources of Australia’s most innovative mainstream opera company and produce a show about prostitutes and prostitution. Well, such a proposal is, dare I say, pregnant with possibility.

‘Tis Pity, a collaboration between Australian-born cabaret performer, Meow Meow and Victorian Opera with music by VO Artistic Director, Richard Mills and directed by Cameron Menzies is a musical history of the world’s oldest profession and its practitioners from the primeval swamp to the Internet age, told in ten contrasting vignettes. Amongst many things, it is an interesting exploration of how opera intersects with cabaret, even though the c-word is never mentioned in the work’s subtitle.

Kanen Breen and Meow Meow, photos by Pia Johnson

As usual, VO does an admirable job in telling the story with minimal resources. Meow is joined by tenor, Kanen Breen and three dancers, backed by Orchestra Victoria. The stage at Elisabeth Murdoch Hall at the Melbourne Recital Centre is reminiscent of the faded grandeur of pre-war Europe; bedecked with velvet curtains. The gentlemen of Orchestra Victoria are accoutred in white-tie and tails. In a nod to Bertolt Brecht, two gilded screens act as signposts throughout the show. Risers set at either side of the stage together with a set of moveable stairs offer various platforms for the performers. Lighting by Eduard Inglés is both evocative and functional.

Meow Meow, from her first entrance as an Erté-style goddess is captivating. Here is a performer who relishes the entire gamut of human emotions and is not afraid to confront the messy, tragic, funny and downright confusing aspects of life, love and death. There is a touching humanity to her performance that undergirds the entire show.

Kanen Breen is an excellent co-star, bringing an extraordinary flexibility in his singing, acting and dancing to the wide-ranging demands of the work, and like Meow is a consummate communicator.

Tom Johansson, Meow Meow, Kanen Breen, Alex Bryce and Patrick Weir

An important element of the show is the work of the three dancers (Alexander Bryce, Thomas Johansson and Patrick Weir) who appear in a variety of guises, but primarily as 1930s-style brilliantined matinee idols with pencil-line moustaches.

Cameron Menzies’ production allows the five performers to interact well together, especially casting Breen as a puppeteer who controls Meow and the other dancers, pointing to the patriarchal control of sex workers throughout the centuries.

Richard Mills’ clever score predominantly pays homage to the Hollywood and Broadway tradition of the first half of last century with its post-romantic German roots, while embracing French Impressionism and other historical styles along the way as the plot suggests. He also uses the spooky-sounding ondes martenot to good effect. Musical settings are well varied, reflecting the generally fast pacing of the show. Among the memorable musical moments are The Syphilis Song (presumably with a hat-tip to Tom Lehrer) and The Semitone Song, a sad, reflective number which acknowledges the immutability of the human condition, especially when it comes to sex.

Given the vast subject and the almost limitless possibilities in treating it, ‘Tis Pity is certainly most enjoyable romp through some of the main periods of human sexuality. It makes some valuable points along the way, reminding us, for example, of the insatiability of human desire that leads to the same tragi-comic situations throughout history, the casting of women as sinners by men whose exploitation of them makes the males of the species far more culpable, the similarities between prostitutes and performers whose skin and teeth are valuable assets in their respective trades, and so on.

All this is very good, so far as it goes, and provides a good night’s entertainment; but there is a feeling that ‘Tis Pity with its settings of literary texts from various periods never quite leaves the history lesson behind. Given that it was written “at breakneck speed” last November, I hope there might be a time in the future when the same creative team could take the show and engage in a further period of creative intercourse to produce something edgier and raunchier that explores at an even deeper level the traditions of opera, cabaret and musical theatre that it seeks to celebrate.

Victorian Opera’s ‘Tis Pity is at the Melbourne Recital Centre till February 8


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