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

Opera and musical theatre in 2014

MUSICAL theatre in Sydney got a boost in 2014 with the arrival of Hayes Theatre Co. When Darlinghurst Theatre Company won the residency at the lovely new Eternity Playhouse, a group of music-theatre producers collectively known as Independent Music Theatre took over the Darlinghurst’s former premises, a small theatre in Greenknowe Avenue, Potts Point. They named their venture after legend Nancye Hayes and got off to a cracking start with Sweet Charity in February.

Indie group Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre was originally part of the group, but quietly withdrew during the year and recently staged its Sondheim on Sondheim at the Reginald, the Seymour Centre’s smallest theatre space – and an endearing one too. Squabbalogic will be seen there again in 2015.

Regular work from both groups gives Sydney a strong alternative to the handful of mega-musicals that hog the city’s pitiful number of big houses for long runs.

On the opera front a three-tier system (albeit a lop-sided one) is settling in. Brilliant young outfit Sydney Chamber Opera, which concentrates on new work and Australian premieres of small-scale operas, now has a residency at Carriageworks. That should give it some extra security. Since 2002 Pinchgut Opera has performed works rarely heard in Australia, often from the baroque period. This year it staged two operas for the first time since its inception and will do so again in 2015. Last month Pinchgut and Opera Australia announced that Pinchgut would be given office space at OA’s Opera Centre in Surry Hills. OA has in the past helped with rehearsal space, costumes and props but in a show of solidarity has increased its commitment. Pinchgut made it clear it would be retaining its independence.

At the big end of the market is Opera Australia, obviously, but let’s not forget Sydney Symphony Orchestra. It presents only one semi-staged production a year but the scale of the music-making is tremendous and unmissable. For OA it hasn’t been the happiest of years, with the organisation regularly and severely criticised. I’ll talk about some of those things in a later blog on the year’s arts issues. For now, let’s look at what I loved in 2014. As with theatre, my favourites are presented in order of transmission. They include operas and musicals seen in New York and London.

OPERA

His Music Burns, Sydney Chamber Opera at the Sydney Festival (January): This was an entrancing double bill of rarities, both Australian premieres. György Kurtág’s … pas à pas – nulle part… and George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill were seen in elegant, spare productions and performed with musicianship of the highest order. Really special

Anna Netrebko in L’Elisir d’amore, Metropolitan Opera, New York (February): What to say about Netrebko except that she is deservedly a huge, huge star. Apart from having a voice of dark beauty, electrifying power and easy flexibility, Netrebko’s was a divinely acted Adina: strong, funny and touching. The sexy bass-baritone Erwin Shrott played Doctor Dulcamara as a very naughty boy indeed and with a voice to die for. Apparently the separation late last year of Shrott and Netrebko after a long personal partnership hasn’t affected their work. They seemed very jolly together on stage. A fabulous night.

Anthony Minghella’s production of Madama Butterfly, Metropolitan Opera (February): I’d longed to see this for years and I wasn’t disappointed. The setting is little more than a dark, glossy void that subtly reflects the action. Within are simple white screens that move to create a space or camouflage the removal of things or people. It could be seen as a giant lacquer box with white compartments, which seems an excellent place to put Butterfly, and Butterfly. It’s not an intimate setting, but the high artifice – for me at least – heightened the emotional content. The crowning effect is the use of Bunraku puppetry, most fascinatingly and powerfully to represent Butterfly’s little boy. I heard Cio-Cio-San sung by South African Amanda Eschalez. When this production comes to Perth International Arts Festival in February it will feature the soprano who originated the role for Minghella, Mary Plazas.

Christine Goerke’s Elektra, Sydney Symphony Orchestra (February): Goerke’s soprano is a huge instrument, full, plush and radiant with no sense of strain despite having to soar over the mighty forces of David Robertson and the SSO in the Concert Hall. Elektra’s is a magnificent obsession despite the madness underpinning it. Goerke gloried in the woman’s unwavering pursuit of justice and gave it a terrible beauty. She was incandescent in a production that really was very close to being fully staged. The SSO produces music dramas on a scale impossible in the Joan Sutherland Theatre – the last time Elektra was heard in Sydney was in 2000 as part of the Sydney Festival, in a production at the Capital Theatre with Deborah Polaski as Elektra and Simone Young conducting the SSO.

Eugene Onegin, Opera Australia (March): It was somewhat disheartening to see that OA believed – and I imagine it was correct – it could sell only eight performances of Eugene Onegin. It is such a ravishing piece. One could quibble about aspects of Kaspar Holten’s production – a co-production with the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden and Fondazione Teatro Regio, Turin – but there was no quibbling where Nicole Car is concerned. She was greeted at the curtain with stamps and cheers after a glorious Tatyana and deserved every accolade she has received. The young singer – she is not yet 30 – is in full bloom. Her soprano is richly coloured, lyrical in quality and gorgeously produced from top to bottom, and Car looks a dream on stage.

Madama Butterfly, Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour (March): Japanese soprano Hiromi Omura was all-conquering in the production designed and directed by La Fura dels Baus. Her desperate realisation that she was being abandoned and her son removed saw her racing across the mighty outdoor stage in frantic anguish. It was devastating.

Robert Carsen’s production of Poulenc’s Dialogues of the Carmelites, Royal Opera, London (May): Carsen’s 2002 version, staged for the first time at Covent Garden this year, was exceptionally spare and beautiful. The set was almost non-existent, with the drama created by the women singing the doomed nuns and a vast force of chorus members, extra chorus and actors who formed a chilling, menacing mob. Simon Rattle conducted and Sally Matthews was a luminous Blanche. A special night.

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Mayakovsky, by Michael Smetanin and Alison Croggon (July): Yes, SCO bobs up again. Seeing and hearing their work is as bracing as it gets. New music, new libretto, intelligent production, cracking performances. What’s not to like?

Don Giovanni, Opera Australia (July): Who knew the Joan Sutherland Theatre stage could look this big? Designer Robert Jones worked all sorts of magic for David McVicar’s Gothic-tinged production of Mozart’s dramma giocoso, strewing bones and skulls about and putting centre-stage an imposing stairway that was never going to lead to heaven. Our anti-hero was a dead man walking among the undead.

Iphigénie en Tauride, Pinchgut Opera (December): Pinchgut knocked it out of the park again. Lindy Hume’s direction, Tony Assness’s set, Alistair Trung’s costumes and Matthew Marshall’s lighting were perfectly judged to make virtues of the City Recital Hall’s strict limitations for dramatic presentation. There’s nothing limited about the hall’s acoustic, in which the opera glowed. Caitllin Hulcup (Iphigénie) and Grant Doyle (Oreste) were on fire and the women of choir Cantillation, Pinchgut’s chorus of choice, were particularly outstanding. Under Antony Walker, the Orchestra of the Antipodes honoured Gluck’s ravishing music with a performance that made the senses reel and the heart sing.

MUSICAL THEATRE

A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder, Broadway (February): If you’ve seen the 1949 film Kind Hearts and Coronets you know the story (the source material is a book by Roy Horniman). Impoverished Monty Navarro discovers he comes from aristocratic stock. Only eight members of the D’Ysquith family stand between him and a title. Alec Guinness memorably played all members of that august family (called the D’Ascoynes in the movie); in this witty, sweet and beautifully staged musical that particular gauntlet was taken up by Jefferson Mays, who was pure delight. Steven Lutvak (music and lyrics) and Robert L. Freedman (book and lyrics) wrote extremely jolly songs with a light music-hall touch that feels authentic. Monty’s love interests, Sibella Hallward and Phoebe D’Ysquith, are high soprano roles and the clear, silvery sound is a million miles away from the big power-ballad sound so often heard in contemporary musicals. Alexander Dodge’s set design put a dear little stage within the stage, complete with a swooshing red curtain that falls to hide the next scene change. And there were many, all executed with much flair.

What’s It All About? Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop (February): The stage was decked out with a jumble of old sofas, a tower of guitars with a few other objects thrown in, rugs on the walls and many glowing lamps. It looked like an explosion in a student bedsit, only more welcoming. The show was devoted, obviously, to the songs of Burt Bacharach and his main-man lyricist Hal David (plus some others). The music issued in a continuous stream to suggest – nothing more – a scenario of love and loss and the songs stood up brilliantly to loving reinterpretation. What’s It All About? presumably introduced this imperishable repertoire to a generation not terribly familiar with it, but for someone of my age it was 90 minutes of bliss during which one smiled foolishly, mouthed the words, and thought of days now long gone.

Sweet Charity, Hayes Theatre Co (February): It was down-sized, dirtied up and worked a treat. So much so that it’s soon embarking on a return season in rather bigger venues. Dean Bryant’s conception of the piece showed how powerful it can be to have to think small. In large-scale productions, when Charity sings I’m a Brass Band you’re likely to get just that. On a stage roughly the size of two dozen hankies, it was less easy to pretend that Charity Hope Valentine, a dancer stuck in a crumby dive, is just a sweet little goofball whose romantic mishaps pass as quickly and painlessly as summer rain.

The Drowsy Chaperone, Squabbalogic Independent Music Theatre at Hayes Theatre Co (March): This was one for the music-theatre nerds, and what a beauty. The Drowsy Chaperone purports to be the reflections of an everyman who just wants to take away from the theatre a tune he can hum, having enjoyed some pretty costumes, an amusingly tangled plot, a happy ending and definitely no audience participation. The show will preferably be short. On comes the musical within a musical, also called The Drowsy Chaperone. It is silly and formulaic, thus allowing The Drowsy Chaperone (the host musical) to shamelessly have it both ways. Creators Bob Martin and Don McKellar (book) and Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison (music and lyrics) pay genuine homage to good old-fashioned entertainment while sending it up mercilessly. Our everyman, Man in Chair, yearns for the wit and glamour of Cole Porter but there is only the flimsiest facsimile of it in The Drowsy Chaperone. There’s a reason they don’t make ‘em like that any more, but also why there’s nostalgia for earlier, more graceful times.

Miss Saigon, Cameron Mackintosh, London (May): Producer Cameron Mackintosh says it is the musical he was most asked to revive, so he did it. This Vietnam-war era version of Madama Butterfly has been given a terrific new production and its poignancies still resonate as vividly as they did when the show first opened in 1989.

Les Miserables, Cameron Mackintosh, Melbourne (July): The musical is still selling its socks off so this is a revival of something that never went away. It’s not subtle theatre or intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart; a big story told in bold strokes. The new version, which opened in Melbourne and is Sydney-bound, is very, very well done indeed.

Britney Spears: The Cabaret, starring Christie Whelan-Browne (August): I’d seen this before but it certainly bore repeating. Under the direction of Dean Bryant, who also wrote the show – him again! He’s everywhere! – Whelan-Browne channeled the pop star and her music to demonstrate the corrosive effect of fame on a kid who became the family bread-winner way, way too early. This wasn’t satire; it was tragedy. Whelan-Browne has performed Britney off and on for some years and it looks, sadly, as if it’s had its last outing.

Miracle City, Hayes Theatre Co (October): Nick Enright and Max Lambert’s 1996 musical finally got the revival so many music-theatre lovers wanted, and it was good. Barnstorming Christianity and a lust for worldly achievement combined to explode spectacularly within the 90-minute span of a Sunday morning televangelism show. Echoes of A Doll’s House were loud in Blazey Best’s terrific performance as an obedient wife who’d been married far too young.

The Legend of King O’Malley, Don’t Look Away (December): The rollicking Michael Boddy-Bob Ellis political musical got a rough-and-tumble revival that honoured the spirit of the piece and – ouch! – did not feel at all like a period piece.

On Monday: Dance