Verdi to the Divinyls

See, they say ‘Get to your homes ASAP, stay inside, stay protected, don’t drive unless absolutely necessary and stay away from waterways’ and I hear ‘Hop in your Holden and get on down to sing an opera set in the desert on a floating pontoon with no sides or roof, on the biggest body of water in the immediate vicinity in a sleeveless chiffon dress.’ Cos that’s just how I roll, bitches!

– Jacqueline Dark, mezzo-soprano, preparing for a Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour performance of Aida on April 22 (April 21 performance were cancelled due to “unprecedented weather conditions” and the big wet was by no means over).

IF you’re not regularly checking in on Jacqui Dark’s larger-than-life life as chronicled on her Facebook page you are doing yourself a grave disservice. Irreverent, smart, exceptionally funny and greatly gifted, Dark is a cherishable original.

Tonight she gives her final performance as the vengeful Princess Amneris in Aida for HOSH, the last of 13 shows for her cast (it alternated with another). Early afternoon precipitation flagged a potential Singin’ in the Rain show as it was on Tuesday (interval Facebook post: “Our dressing room smells like wet dog …”), although things were looking brighter by mid-afternoon. But rain or no, the performance was expected to go ahead. [NOTE: Aida was indeed performed, although social media photos of Daria Masierio, in the title role, wearing a cape in the second half over her sleeveless gown suggested conditions were chilly.] Opera singers are not quite the precious, cossetted creatures of (lazy) general opinion. In fact, says Dark, difficult conditions can warm create camaraderie between audience and singers. “It’s like we’re all in this together, let’s make this something special. They appreciate us continuing and we appreciate them sitting there.”

Keeping an eye on things ... Jacqueline Dark as Amnesia is Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour's Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

Keeping an eye on things … Jacqueline Dark as Amneris in Opera Australia’s Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour’s Aida. Photo: Hamilton Lund

It’s been a testing schedule (Amneris is a big sing to tackle every second night) but there’s no time for rest after tonight. On Wednesday Dark will be onstage at Sydney club The Vanguard in corset and fishnets singing Brecht, Weill, Amanda Palmer, Rickie Lee Jones and some of her own material in Strange Bedfellows: Under the Covers. By her side will be Kanen Breen, fellow opera star, multiple Helpmann Award winner (as is Dark) and gay co-parent although not biological father of her son Alexander, nearly three. It goes without saying he’s an original too (well, I mean Breen, but it sounds as if Alexander is proving to be rather an individual himself).

Not all opera singers can successfully make the transition from Verdi to the Divinyls – also on the Under the Covers songlist – or indeed to other forms of music considered less challenging than opera. It’s trickier than it may seem to conquer an entirely different vocal technique and musical style, as the, ahem, unidiomatic Kiri Te Kanawa-Jose Carreras foray into West Side Story amply demonstrates. But Dark was singing cabaret and musicals right from the start, about 20 years ago, and although Breen came later to the cause, he proved at the first Under the Covers performances late last year he could have been born in a smoky bôite. (Read my review for The Australian of the December show here.)

So yes, Dark and Breen can certainly do it, despite preconceptions some might have about opera singers straying from their usual realm. It’s early days but interest has been keen. Dark and Breen have successfully taken their show to Melbourne’s Butterfly Club and will appear at this year’s Queensland and Adelaide cabaret festivals. There is a DVD in the making, a venture in Melbourne late this year that can’t yet be discussed and some thoughts about perhaps taking Strange Bedfellows offshore next year. The two are also throwing around ideas for a new show to succeed Under the Covers – perhaps something with a dark, Grimm’s fairtytale kind of theme. “We’ve got enough repertoire, even in a narrowed down list, to have enough stuff for three or four shows,” says Dark. “Plus we keep hearing things and say, ‘we have to sing that’.”

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

Strange Bedfellows Dark and Breen. Photo: Kurt Sneddon

“We have to sing that” is undoubtedly the key to the passion project that is Strange Bedfellows – that and the bond forged between Breen and Dark together 20 years ago when they sang in the chorus of the now-defunct Victoria State Opera’s production of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Ruddigore. It’s safe to say the production was something of a disaster (I saw it) but at least Breen and Dark got their deep connection out of it. A further result: actor, satirist, writer and director Jonathan Biggins was also in the cast and has offered to advise the Strange Bedfellows.

They’d welcome that, because at the moment the two are multi-tasking with a vengeance. For this aspect of their working life they are their own writer, wardrobe designer, manager, agent, entertainment lawyer and public relations specialist. They’ve worked their contacts and social media, had some crucial help from friends and work with Daryl Wallis as music director, but essentially Strange Bedfellows is a two-person outfit. They’ve made the pitches to venues and festivals, they sort out their own contracts, and if something goes wrong with lighting or sound they have to take charge. (Dark says something about learning how to do a lighting rig and I’m not sure she’s joking. She could probably do it – she is quite the brainiac with a degree in physics.)

They even arranged a series of celebrity endorsements that may be seen on YouTube. I heartily recommend that of beloved Australian soprano Emma Matthews; others offering their thoughts are Lou Diamond Phillips, Stuart Skelton, Cheryl Barker and Kate Miller-Heidke. Those contacts are fairly speccy.

It is, however, a far cry from the world of a big company like Opera Australia, where until recently the two were permanent ensemble members with everything on tap. Becoming a freelance artist has brought its uncertainties but also its rewards. Chief among them was the opportunity to bring Strange Bedfellows to life. It’s an idea they’ve been throwing around for about 15 years. They even wrote some material, including a version of Cole Porter’s Let’s Do It that Breen sings for me, with Dark joining in. Let’s just say time hasn’t diluted any of its deliciously subversive taste.

The desire to challenge and provoke remains today, with Exhibit A a pedophile-inspired medley in Under the Covers and Exhibit B a song involving a dog – not a real one, as a complainant seemed to think – and unusual sexual practices. A later show might include something about violence against women. They don’t want to be preachy, they say, but along with being entertaining they do want to make audiences consider some unsettling issues. “If people go away questioning themselves, that’s a start,’’ says Dark.

“I’ve always wanted to do a cabaret show. I absolutely love it, the intimacy of it. Kanen and I had been on salary [with OA] – me for 10 years, Kanen for 15 years. If you’re full-time you have a very heavy workload and we never had time to do it before. It’s incredibly exciting to create your own work – terrifying, but incredibly exciting. And it’s great to push yourself to do, but you feel so vulnerable. Excited and scared, as Sondheim would say.”

While Strange Bedfellows might be fulfilling, the amount of behind-the-scenes organisation it takes is “laborious and exhausting”, says Dark. Not to mention not exactly lucrative at this point. Happily, however, Dark and Breen are far from disappearing from the operatic sphere. Dark is covering the role of Eboli in Opera Australia’s Don Carlos and sings the role of Marcellina in the new David McVicar production of The Marriage of Figaro. Breen appears in the Melbourne season of Miller-Heidke and Lally Katz’s The Rabbits for Opera Australia and is Beadle Bamford in Victorian Opera’s Sweeney Todd, among other engagements.

That work is their bedrock and helps keep the bank manager happy, but in their new situation they have also to make their own opportunities “and not sit on our bums and wait for work to come to us and assume it’s going to”, says Dark. “You’ve really got to get out there. The more we’ve done that the more we’ve loved that.”

They are incredibly disarming in their modesty about what they’re doing and their roll-up-the-sleeves attitude to getting the job done. Says Breen: “We’re not saying we’re experts at cabaret or that we’re particularly gifted, but what we do have is a preparedness to give it a red hot go and immerse ourselves in the style and emotion of the music, which is what we both get out of our opera work as well.

“It’s very rewarding to us as performers to be able to explore different avenues of that expression and delivery that isn’t always afforded on the operatic stage.”

Cabaret:

The Vanguard, Sydney, April 29 and May 3; Adelaide Cabaret Festival, June 5-7; Queensland Cabaret Festival, June 14; Melbourne Cabaret Festival June 19-20.

 Opera:

Don Carlos, Opera Australia, Melbourne May 20-29; Sydney July 14-August 15; Sweeney Todd, Victorian Opera, Melbourne, July 18-25; The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Australia, Sydney, August 6-29; The Rabbits, Opera Australia, Melbourne, October 9-13

Circus in Sydney

WHATEVER you call it – circus, burlesque, cabaret, vaudeville, physical theatre, variety, magic – Sydney apparently can’t get enough of it. In January more than a dozen shows falling somewhere within these porous borders have fetched up, most as part of a mini-festival within the Sydney Festival or from other presenters keen to mine this rich vein of entertainment.

Festival director Lieven Bertels sensibly embraced the reality that Sydney in summer isn’t the most cerebral time of year and directed a lot of attention towards the enlarged Festival Village in Hyde Park. He put the Stonehenge-inspired bouncy castle Sacrilege just outside the village perimeter and inside put not one but two tents.

There is, of course, a Spiegeltent, without which it seems no Australian festival is complete. That venue is complemented by the smaller Circus Ronaldo Tent, allowing an impressive flow of circus and music events. (There’s a second Spiegeltent in town at the Entertainment Quarter in Moore Park, housing the circus show Empire, a non-festival event.)

Tents are a pragmatic solution to the need for extra venues but they also add a frisson to proceedings. Amanda Palmer’s cabaret show would always have been immaculate, but it didn’t hurt to have a bit of Spiegeltent magic to top things. There was something very right about seeing her very intimate, confessional, conversational show here. Palmer’s diatribe against Vegemite and song about, ahem, maps of Tasmania, were right at home.

LIMBO"s swaingpoles routine. Photo: Prudence Upton

Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine in LIMBO. Photo: Prudence Upton

It’s a different world inside the tent walls as performers defy normal physical limits, frequently show lots of flesh and encourage patrons to drop their inhibitions – up to a point. Patrons have to understand who is in charge and performers have to be very good at handling the over-excited or over-refreshed. Even if there isn’t audience participation in the strict sense, the atmosphere of shared experience between performer and paying customer is exceptionally strong. This type of theatre celebrates crossed boundaries and thrilling, fleeting intimacy. Then the circus moves on and we all go back to our daily lives.

It’s fascinating to see how avidly people put themselves forward to be part of the show. Some have a yen to shine a little too brightly, as Tom Flanagan discovered in his lovely show Kaput one afternoon. A woman selected to join him on stage got a bit over-theatrical so Flanagan fireman-lifted her back to her seat and moved on to another volunteer. All part of the risk.

In Kaput, Flanagan channelled silent-movie clowns as he fought a losing battle with inanimate objects. Everything that could go wrong would go wrong, and indeed even more mishaps than were in the script assailed him in the performance I saw, a situation he handled with enormous skill and charm. Also at the family end of things, Circus Ronaldo, gave a masterclass in classic physical comedy in La Cucina dell’Arte.

A late-night act, Scotch and Soda, which runs until the end of the festival, offers a relaxed, down-and-dirty show distinguished by great music and exuberant routines.

The Scotch and Soda team

The Scotch and Soda team

The best of the best, though, is LIMBO, which is packing out the Spiegeltent and also runs until January 27. Director Scott Maidment has ensured there’s tight connection within the cast rather than just a series of disparate acts, the music is blood-pumpingly good and the circus skills are off the chart.

Choreographed as intensely as a dance work, LIMBO nevertheless feels spontaneous and dangerous. It doesn’t hurt that the international cast is drop-dead gorgeous and very come-hither. The exemplar is American Heather Holliday, a sword-swallower and fire-eater with the glossy glamour of a 1950s movie pin-up, but they are all divine. I particularly loved Mikael Bres’s breath-taking Chinese pole turn, which is entrancingly dance-like;  Evelyne Allard’s dynamic aerial hoop routine; and the trio of men weaving and swooping on long swaying poles. Boy, are these blokes ripped.

LIMBO is now the gold standard, helped immeasurably by the quality of the music. Created and directed by Sxip Shirey, the score has rough energy and great sophistication. It’s a show you could see again and again.

Empire claims to have the “sexiest, most daring” artists but the show tries a bit too hard to be transgressive. LIMBO, on the other hand, has sexual energy to burn without being vulgar. There’s no shortage of skill in Empire; it’s just that it doesn’t feel particularly well integrated into a total piece of theatre and much of the music is recorded. Empire does have two particularly strong acts in the foot juggling of Black Flintstone and Big Mac Boy, and the intensely demanding Branch Balance from Memet Bilgin, who builds a huge, airy leaf-shaped sculpture from palm branches so delicately poised that a breath can dismantle it.

As part of Summer at the House, the Sydney Opera House programmed a clutch of magic, circus and cabaret shows, the first of which was The Illusionists 2.0 (it has just moved on to Brisbane). The separate nature of its constituent parts means The Illusionists could continue following the death in Sydney of hypnotist Scott Lewis, but his loss robs the show of its closest contact with the audience.

Overall the show is Las Vegas slick, with lots of loud music, pulsing lights and writhing backing dancers, although there are moments of quiet with Yu Ho-Jin’s truly magical card tricks and the old-fashioned and charming shadow puppetry from Raymond Crowe, billed as The Unusualist.

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Raymond Crowe in The Illusionists 2.0. Photo: Daniel Boud

Also at the Opera House, Flying Fruit Fly Circus’s Circus Under My Bed has the country’s next generation of circus performers linking impressive acts with a warm story about having to pack up toys and move house. The gambolling, tumbling sheep are an inspired touch, and the circus skills are exciting – although at the performance I saw the biggest reaction came when a performer got a cake pushed into their face. The old ones clearly never lose their charm.

It was interesting to see a young man nail a difficult trick that eluded poor Tom Flanagan, although to be fair, Flanagan had some sore trials to contend with during his show. (A water bottle thrown in the air is impaled on the spike of an umbrella, releasing water and thus giving the impression of rain. The kid took three goes when I saw it and got it first time up when a friend was there; Flanagan gave up after about half a dozen but we loved him anyway.)

And of course it would scarcely be summer in Sydney without Ursula Martinez and her nude-with-handkerchief  turn, Hanky Panky, in La Soiree, which has returned to the Opera House for a long run.

It is cheerful, bawdy burlesque whose oddity acts give it a wacky, distinctive personality.  Asher Treleaven’s Mills & Boon reading was worth the price of admission on opening night, but he was a late substitution for another act and isn’t on every night unfortunately. He’s a real winner. The Chooky Dancers, reduced to a company of three for the tiny round stage in the Studio, do Zorba the Greek, naturally.

The acts come through in a fast and furious manner and while the physical acts are superb, La Soiree depends very much for its punch on perverse comedy. Apart from Hanky Panky there is Miss Behave doing unusual things with scissors, gloves and skewers, Martinez putting on a spangly barely-there costume and setting her bits and pieces on fire, and various acts of physical daring.  It’s all extremely good-humoured, as long as you don’t mind your humour on the rough side.

And that’s only a sample of what’s around in this genre. Circus Oz has also been around, and finishes its regular Sydney summer season weekend.Also on the festival roster are, were or will be Ockham’s Razor, Lady Rizo, Band of Magicians and Bullet Catch. The latter two have had brilliant reviews and I was sorry to miss them.

The Sydney Festival ends January 27. Flying Fruit Fly Circus ends January 25, Empire ends March 2, La Soiree ends March 14. The Illusionists 2.0, Brisbane, from Sunday to January 27.