Opera remains a significant tradition in western culture because it is all about love and life. It reflects the classical maturity of our society, while expressing its contemporary attitudes and philosophies, fashions and passions
If we are looking at examples of how you can make a past art form like Opera appeal to people of the present we need to look no further than the amazing Sydney based Pinchgut Opera, a small company that presents one major work annually.
Over the past decade it has championed early works and instead of spending precious funds on elaborate costumes, fripperies and over embellished sets that can detract from a performance, or worse still hide mediocrity, they have invested their funds in splendid voices.
Designers produce simple settings of great impact to highlight the historical musical scores in a contemporary way. ‘Authentic instruments’ also help audiences engage with the performance, because they re-create the sound as it was composed, mellow, beautifully round and rich and, so gloriously sensuous.
The reviews were so good they ensured that its first production or two were noticed. But here’s the thing. Pinchgut Opera,’s audiences, which have built steadily over that decade wait now with baited breath for the next performance and are ready to ‘book’ it out.
This is because they have learned to appreciate the choice of music presented, and the incredible standard of excellence achieved. People keep coming back because they want more. They are also bringing others along to experience an art form many have not known.
There is no ‘high brow’ atmosphere, just friendly banter, happy chatter and enthusiastic applause. The stories presented are about human frailty, which means everyone connects to them emotionally. It’s truly awesome, brilliant stuff. And they have done it without any government funding, just with funds from supporters and ticket sales. The applause after each performance has been deafening.
Long may they grow and prosper.
Having said all of that Opera is not only just about people gathering in a theatre any more to access it. This is a style of music truly millions of people love, but have found difficult to access one on one. There are many reasons for this, least of all is cost. Many people will spend hundreds of dollars to attend a rock concert, despite having to stand all night to be part of a huge crowd that often has to hoist people up on their shoulders to see. One of the reasons they don’t come to opera is because they feel intimidated by ‘opera regular’s.
They are the members of the ‘club’ Artistic Director of Opera Australia Lyndon Terracini recently referred to in his Peggy Glanville Hicks Address 2011.
Now whether this is intentional or not, it is how people feel. And how they feel today is what counts. No longer can Opera remain part of an exclusive ‘club’ of just a few people comparatively to the rest of the population. Opera Companies receive huge grants of government funding i.e. money from the people.
That means they need to showcase wonderful voices by presenting songs from opera along with other great songs that suit such voices, to millions of people not just thousands. For a reason that I find personally hard to fathom. many people believe some ‘art forms’ like some ‘people’, are quite beyond their reach, whether intellectually or socially. But that is not how it should work in a true democracy. Everyone should be able to access its own culture and its art forms.
No one person is better than any other; although we do recognise as individuals, that we have different skill sets, strengths and weaknesses. And, if we are being honest, many fragile moments. It’s about getting us to play or sing in tune that is the challenge.
The beliefs many people have, interestingly enough these days, doesn’t have so much to do with paintings, sculpture and objects as ‘art’ like when I was a child. This is because increasingly since World War II the majority of people in society, including kids from school, have been able to access those produced through history by going to their State or National Art gallery, which has free admission to permanent collections and free guides to tell you all about it.
Collections have grown for the last two hundred years all over the world to include ceramics, textiles, glass, precious metal and other objects. As a general rule this means people don’t feel nearly as intimidated by going to the art gallery or to the museum, as they do about going to listen to the opera in a theatre.
So they go in their droves, coming from all walks of life and all backgrounds. Just look at the record breaking crowds the Treasures of Tutankhamun recorded at Melbourne recently. At a State art gallery or museum people can choose what they would like to see and access further education if they want. It’s their choice.
The world of Opera however has developed as a ‘separate ‘art form’ much like the Ballet and different styles of Orchestras. This has happened around those who want a passive, more restrained and elegant experience (in house at the theatre) as against those who want a participating experience (out there along with everyone else), moving along to the music.
They have created around them a culturally diverse society that can be ruled by one class of people. The theory of a ‘cultural hegomony’ is about how one group of people manipulates societal culture (beliefs, explanations, perceptions and values) so its view is perceived as a societal norm that is beneficial to all society, while in reality it only benefits the ruling class.
Today this is not an idea to be tolerated. It is not about what is right or wrong or what is appropriate. but it is about sharing the music around. This has happened to a degree in the last few years with initiatives like Opera in the Vineyard, Opera in the Paddock and Opera at the Cinema, presented on a big screen near you.
At Brisbane the ‘Operapoltian’ Team of singers launched the initiative of bringing works from the La Scala Opera House at Milan for Birch Carroll & Coyle. But it’s still not a first hand experience unless delivered in ‘real time’ – live. Perhaps that’s something Opera Australia could do with their opening nights (which are always booked out anyway). What fun to dress up and share the experience of first night at a reasonable cost.
With a colleague from Theme and Variations Piano Services, who sponsored the fabulous Steinway Grand piano, a team of people under the banner Operapolitan between 2006 and 2008 offered free concerts at Brisbane. We started with wonderful opera arias and operatic style songs in acoustically wonderful buildings on Eagle Street in the heart of the CBD. These great buildings housed five to seven thousand people working every day. The team performed three concerts in the Riverside Centre each day for three days and then moved on to Riparian Plaza, where we performed three more for a further three days.
Both buildings were designed by Sydney architect Harry Seidler. Because the acoustics were so excellent we were able to present them cost effectively, without having to involve sound people or technology, just using the architectural acoustic to bounce the sound around. It resonated beautifully.
We presented the wonderful voices of Liza Beamish (coloratura), Kathleen Proctor-Moore (mezzo), Andrew Pryor (tenor) and Shaun Brown (baritone) who were accompanied by Christian Gante (pianist) on the fabulous Steinway grand piano.
The voices bounced because Harry Seidler had a great love of proportion and the golden mean ratio in mathematics, which is directly related to musical harmony.
They entertained with such songs, arias and duets as O Mio Bambino Caro, Nessun Dorma, La Donna Mobile and The Flower Duet from Lakmé.
The owners of the biggest venue, Riverside Plaza were very chuffed and flew from Sydney to attend. The workers in the building attended, as did passers-by lured in by the sound and the scene.
The courier boy on his rounds stopped resting his back on the wall to shut his eyes and grab a few moments for himself, as did many executives and office workers.
A consultant producer of musical and community events to Brisbane City Council 2006 – 2010, my accepted brief was to take opera to the people, not have them come to it. The Operapolitan program went on to hold a further twenty-seven concerts at three Westfield Shopping Malls and twelve concerts at Retail First Shopping Centres.
Before we started we went and spoke to the principals of the Conservatorium of Music and Opera Qld asking if they would like to feature some of their emerging artists as well. The lovely student soprano Milica Ilic, who will be a new principal artist for Opera Australia in 2012, sang brilliantly as did sopranos Alicia Jane Lee who also formed the Ten Divas. Then there was Elizabeth McBride from Opera Queensland, who was both an experienced pediatric speech pathologist and successful opera singer. A rare combination
We kicked them all off with another three concerts in the Queen Street Mall at Brisbane, where we were overwhelmed by the crowds that formed. The hurdles we had to jump included not using the Mall stage as the people who worked the stage each day wanted us to. But we didn’t decide how to arrange the stage for our performers until after we had been in the Queen Street Mall to meet up with the Stage Manager to discuss arrangements.
Unbeknown to any of my staging team it was the day Queensland Opera was offering a free publicity performance to launch their new season. The Mall stage manager said he had deliberately invited us for that time because he wanted us to see how it was done ‘properly’! You can understand we were not amused that he patronised us all so pointedly.
We gathered patiently to watch the company set up in the usual way preferred by Stage staff. Facing down the mall where people sat neatly in rows on chairs as in a theatre. Control was the key. The opera company then, to our minds did a curious thing. They put their own ‘stage’ onto the existing stage.
This way they raised the singers up above stage level on one side and ground level on the other. They turned their back to the third side, where people could stand, placing a black backdrop curtain ensuring they couldn’t see.
A professional interior designer and design history lecturer of some considerable experience, I was very disappointed, because I knew that in design raising people or objects up translated to instilling a notion they are the best or above everyone else.
It’s a deliberate technique architects use to great effect and did so very effectively during the so-called Baroque style period in Europe during the seventeenth century, at a time when opera became part of Louis XIV’s grand entertainments at the Chatéau at Versailles.
Just look at the Chateau Vaux le Vicomte outside Paris in the countryside.
This is the original palace of the first ‘Sun King’ Nicolas Fouquet (1615-1680). There it stands so splendidly on its platform set among stunning gardens and accessed by a great sweep of stone stairs.
It is a divine building in a divine garden setting. It cost a fortune, even in its day and subsequently it’s owner ended up in gaol after the King threw a hissy fit as Fouquet was his Minister for Finances.
The point is that it was deliberately designed to intimidate the approaching visitor and instill the notion the occupant was both wealthy and powerful. It works well even today. Any visitor having a one on one experience at Vaux cannot help be overwhelmed by it all. It added to my enjoyment of the place when visiting that I knew a great deal about its design. Knowledge allows you not to hopefully be ‘tricked’ by such clever devices.
It is telling too in that the architect Louis le Vau, designer Charles Le Brun and gardener Andre Le Notre, were all seconded from Fouquet by that same jealous young King Louis IV to renovate and extend his father’s old hunting lodge at Versailles into a chatéau, which provides a similar experience. Fouquet ended his days in prison and his family have been trying to clear his name since.
We would have to say Vaux is like a great, and very Grand Opera Diva on display.
Contemporary photographer’s also use the design ‘intimidation’ technique by kneeling down and shooting a photo looking up at someone, especially when they are deliberately trying to make that person look elitist or to raise them up ‘above’ everyone else.
This style of ‘grand manner’ is an image Opera, to remain relevant in Australia has to leave behind. Opera is music of the people, about the people and for the people. All of them. And, as we can see design matters.
Back at Brisbane in the Queen Street Mall we watched as the State Opera Company achieved a small audience and complete lack of participation or interaction with the public. There wasn’t any connection between what was happening on the stage and the audience at all.
Age can be a blessing in disguise sometimes, because I could not help remember an example of making music accessible to many. It was a scene in the first ‘talking’ movie ever made that caused millions to embrace cinema – The Jazz Singer. This was the story of Al Jolson (1886 – 1950) an American singer, comedian and actor who in his day was dubbed “The World’s Greatest Entertainer”. Played by Larry Parkes on screen Jolson’s story was a phenomenon in more ways than one. In the movie he declares to his manager that he hates being behind blinding lights on stage, because they stop him seeing the people in his audience’s faces.
The people he is singing to and for. This was important to him and his performance. The stage hands all think he’s mad, but he insists and has them build a runway into the audience, so that he could run along it, shake hands and kneel down and sing to people one on one. He was also resisting all those who wanted to put him on a pedestal to suit their own agendas.
Recently designers of the X Factor television show built a runway that went around behind the judges so the winning vocalist, Reece Mastin and his colleague Kylie Minogue, when singing a duet together could venture into the crowds too, receiving a great one on one reaction.
In the Queen Street Mall one very experienced stage worker re-invented the way the sound worked on the stage for the Operapolitan Team, because he was so excited to be involved in us changing how it worked.
By putting performers directly onto the stage surface and facing the audience another way, we opened up the arena so that people could surround the performers on three sides and offer them a far more intimate experience.
Despite being in the open the audience felt as if they were up close and personal and they responded accordingly by cheering wildly, calling out and, in some instances singing along.
Enjoyment of music today is about is ‘being there’. About being able to ‘express self’ by singing along, waving your arms about, jumping up and down and in some instances, screaming. This is what happens at most pop concerts. You don’t have to worry what anyone else thinks, because they are all doing the same thing. That makes contemporary music a ‘real’ experience.
We held three performances that day and most people stood while some older people, or people with babies in prams chilled out on the few benches available. We put out a few rows of chairs in the usual spot, which was now to one side and left plenty of room for people to gather behind them.
There were grandparents, mums and dads with children in hand or in strollers. There were teenagers galore, some with coloured hair, rings in their noses, ears or lips, as well as heaven forbid, even a few Goths who are known to flee classical music scenes. There were also a lot of hand holding romantics and lots of young parents with small children, who wonderfully held them up to listen. Everyone was relaxed and happy.
The clothes we asked them to wear were meant to be what they might wear on a first date.
Throughout the series the diversity of cultures listening was palatable. One family of Italians brought their grandfather because he had never seen opera live before.
In the mall and in the shopping centres where the Operapolitan Team performed people cheered and clapped spontaneously and loudly.
After the performances they politely crowded the singers to grab autographs, to shake their hands and to say thank you. Many couples and some whole families also became groupies following us everywhere as the team performed.
The best thing for the team was that people came to tell us all their stories. They told us how they loved opera but couldn’t afford high prices, or to buy the posh dresses they felt they needed to wear when they went. And it kept them away.
It was not that they did not like the music, which is a conclusion some people conveniently come to. They did and they do. However they felt (feelings are important) they were not wanted or accepted by their peers. How awful.
It seemed that over time Opera had got away from being about the music of the people, and the music of love and life. It had become a backdrop to a stage on which others performed for their own benefit.
That hopefully is set to change. Bless you Lyndon Terracini of Opera Australia for standing up and leading the change needed to make opera far more accessible from 2012 to those who want to enjoy its richness and wonderful music.
It will surely add to their lives and to the thousands more who will be introduced to its magic for the very first time.
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2011
* developed by Antonio Gramsci