The last four months have seen artists struggling to come to terms with a world where live performance has been largely out of the question and creatives have been going stir crazy in lockdown with ideas to spare but little in the way of an outlet. Credit to West Australian Opera then who have come up with something that’s both more substantial than the run-of-the-mill “living room recital” and is entirely on the money in these socially distanced times.
Chelsea Burns as Lucy and Lachlann Lawton as Ben
Gian Carlo Menotti (1911 – 2007) was once very popular indeed thanks to a series of engaging and frequently quirky pieces of musical theatre that tapped into a popular American sensibility at a time when much of 20th-century opera seemed to be veering into the realms of atonality. One-acters like The Medium and The Telephone enjoyed outings on Broadway, his first full-length opera, The Consul (1950), won him his first of two Pulitzer Prizes, and his Christmas opera Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951) was the first American opera to be written for television and went on to become an annual festive prime-time event. On the back of that kind of success, Menotti founded the Festival dei Due Mondi in Spoleto in 1958, its American counterpart Spoleto Festival USA in 1977, and in 1986 he attempted to replicate it a third time with a Melbourne Spoleto Festival, which sadly only lasted three years.
Chelsea Burns as Lucy
The Telephone, or L’Amour à Trois was a two-hander written in 1947 as half of a double bill (the other half was the more dramatically substantial The Medium) and was sufficiently successful to spawn a 1968 German film version starring Anja Silja and Eberhard Wächter. It’s easy to see how an opera about a woman with an unhealthy addiction to the telephone makes sense in an era dominated by social media, and especially at the current moment when those of us trapped in our locked down apartments rely on the lifelines offered by WhatsApp, Zoom and Skype. In other words, WA Opera’s digital adaptation makes timely and total sense.
The story is simple. Tongue-tied Ben visits Lucy at her apartment aiming to propose before he goes away on a trip. She, however, becomes engaged in a series of mind-numbingly trivial phone calls with friends – here played out online. Ben gets so frustrated that at one point he even tries to cut the phone cord – here he tries to trash her iPad – but in the end he leaves, ringing back later and managing to get his proposal in over the phone. At the end of their final exchange, Lucy insists that Ben remember her phone number while he’s away (a rather illogical denouement since clearly he’s just rung her on it).
Lachlann Lawton as Ben
As a story about the ways technology can both help and hinder social intimacy and the fine art of communication the opera remains relevant, so it’s a pity that the music and libretto aren’t stronger. Menotti wrote his own texts, but it’s hardly deathless prose. The best literary moment comes when Ben lets fly at his enemy, the telephone: “I’d rather contend with lover, husband or in-laws than this two-headed monster who comes unasked and devours my day,” he rails. “It has hundreds of lives and miles of umbilical cord.” Otherwise it’s a pretty slight affair married to a patchwork score of not especially memorable melodies suggestive of early 20th-century salon music or parlour songs. At under half an hour, it doesn’t outstay its welcome, but nor does it ever rise to heights of greatness.
Director Katt Osborne has come up with a visually dynamic realisation that relies on expressionistic tics to break what could easily feel static. Allied with Sean Finney’s astute film direction, they create clever representations of Lucy’s online world of Zoom meetings and video calls, the frame cutting from apartment to iPad screen and back again complete with ringtones, user memes, and impaired streaming images hampered by dodgy broadband. There’s a lovely moment when the screen gradually subdivides to create a three-by three Zoom grid, with the two voices multiplying accordingly.
Lachlann Lawton and Chelsea Burns
At other times it can also feel overly obtuse. Lucy lives in a giant blue cardboard box held together with packing tape, her furniture covered in dust sheets. Osborne refers to the “under construction” aspect of the set – skilfully realised by Tyler Hill, who also designed the costumes – explaining that it captures “some of what we, the creatives, feel about making work in a very strange time,” but that is of little relevance to the humble viewer who may simply feel left on the outside. Because the device only happens once, the moment when Lucy’s friend Pamela appears next to her on sofa when she is meant to be talking to on her iPad feels inconsistent, and if Ben is in such a hurry to catch a train, why is he dressed in a silver baker’s outfit endlessly whisking up ingredients for a giant wedding cake?
If that doesn’t bother you – and perhaps if it had all been taken further it would have bothered me less – there’s plenty to enjoy, since both Chelsea Burns as Lucy – a clean, bright soprano – and baritone Lachlann Lawton as an engagingly frustrated Ben cope elegantly with the demands of the filmic medium while musical director Chris van Tuinen provides flawless and perky accompaniments on solo piano (the original is scored for chamber orchestra).
As I said at the outset, it’s great to see an opera company embracing the zeitgeist and finding something relevant to say. Let’s hope this is the first of many productions where opera is encouraged to think outside the box.
You can watch WA Opera’s film of The Telephone until December 31 here.