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

Three for the road

The King and I, Princess Theatre, July 22; Into the Woods, Playhouse, Arts Centre Melbourne, July 22; Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s, Melbourne

COME October next year Les Miserables will have been running for 30 years in London, longer than any other musical. Well, I suppose it’s possible Cameron Mackintosh will close the show before then, just as it is possible I will win a large amount of money in the lottery, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Thirty years! Who would have thought it? Certainly not the critics who failed to see its merits when it opened at the Barbican in a Royal Shakespeare Company production staged by Trevor Nunn and John Caird. It was described by Michael Ratcliffe in The Observer as “a witless and synthetic entertainment” and by Francis King in The Sunday Telegraph as “a lurid Victorian melodrama produced with Victorian lavishness”.

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

Hayden Tee as Javert in Les Miserables. Photo: Matt Murphy

As Lyn Gardner – who was one of the nay-sayers in 1985 – suggested in The Guardian in 2010 on the occasion of the show’s 25th anniversary, Les Mis succeeds precisely because it is a Victorian melodrama, a story that deals in big emotions and wears its heart on its sleeve. There is no ambiguity in this version of Victor Hugo’s sprawling 1862 novel. Against a roiling background of social injustice, a good man is hounded by a self-righteous one. The nobility of self-sacrifice, the pain of unrequited love, the pathos of early death, the rapacity of opportunists, the gallantry of young idealists – these qualities are deliberately drawn in bold strokes.

So no, this isn’t subtle theatre nor is it intellectual theatre. It is the theatre of the direct hit to the heart. If this is synthetic entertainment, so be it. The more than 65 million people who have seen it love it to bits and its creators are crying all the way to the bank.

The staging that opened in Melbourne this month hasn’t supplanted the original version – Mackintosh claims the West End production may have another decade of life in it – but is in the interesting position of being a revival of something that never went away. Thirty years is a long time in theatre technology and this version takes advantage of them. The staging has the fluidity of a dream, emphasised by darkly romantic atmospherics created by projected backgrounds (Matt Kinley’s designs were inspired by Hugo’s paintings). The stage picture is often startlingly beautiful and always theatrically effective.

At the matinee I saw Simon Gleeson (Jean Valjean) and Hayden Tee (Javert) were riveting antagonists and both in superb voice. Gleeson sang Bring Him Home with touching grace and crowned it with streams of pure gold in falsetto; Tee was equally persuasive in creating character through timbre and phrasing, dark and aggressive. As Fantine Patrice Tipoki brought fresh insights to I Dreamed a Dream, starting simply and almost conversationally, while Kerrie Anne Greenland, making her professional music theatre debut as Eponine, is a huge find. The vile but perversely life-affirming Thenadiers were in the effortlessly scene-stealing hands of Trevor Ashley and Octavia Barron Martin, the latter substituting brilliantly for injured Lara Mulcahy. Light-voiced Euan Doidge (Marius) was a little under-powered in this company but gave a sensitive reading of Empty Chairs at Empty Tables.

Is Les Miserables a better musical than Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods? No, it’s not. There can be no argument that the Les Mis music, while exceptionally tuneful and stirring, can draw too often on bombast for effect and some of the lyrics land with a thud. Sondheim is, as we all know, a genius. But there was no doubt that Les Mis offered much more pleasure than did Victorian Opera’s production of Into the Woods. And yes, I’m taking into account the great differential in budget between the two. Obviously one has to cut one’s cloth according to one’s purse, but I have seen many cash-strapped theatre productions that have found better solutions to staging issues than did VO for Into the Woods. The main set element, cut-outs of trees that slid back and forth, failed rather dismally in its task of creating a sense of place and atmosphere.

Queenie van de Zandt was in killer voice as the Witch, Lucy Maunder was a lovely Cinderella, Rowan Witt was an appealing Jack and in the pivotal roles of Baker and Baker’s Wife David Harris and Christina O’Neill each had fine moments. Overall, though, there was a decided air of the production having been put on too quickly and without the best solutions found to stretching finite funds. (Not that the tickets were cheap – mine was $100 and that wasn’t top price.) The people involved were all highly experienced and Orchestra Victoria sounded just fine in the pit, but I couldn’t help but think a concert version may have been the way to go.

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

Lisa McCune and Lou Diamond Phillips in The King and I. Photo: Oliver Toth

I took advantage of being in Melbourne to see Lou Diamond Phillips in the Opera Australia/John Frost production of The King and I. When the show opened in Brisbane Teddy Tahu Rhodes played the King and will do so again in Sydney. (He is currently appearing for OA in the title role in Don Giovanni.)

Phillips appeared in this production of The King and I when it went to Broadway in 1996 after premiering in Adelaide in 1991. He was nominated for a Tony award so he has good form in the role, and, as he is partly Filipino in heritage, has the advantage of looking a credible King of Siam. He’s a charismatic, forceful one too and has excellent chemistry with Lisa McCune’s pitch-perfect Anna. I enjoyed his performance greatly.

So, three musicals in the space of 36 hours and I had not exhausted Melbourne’s music-theatre possibilities. See what can happen if you don’t pull down all your theatres?

Les Miserables, Her Majesty’s Theatre, Melbourne. Then Perth in January and Sydney in March 2015. The King and I, Princess Theatre, Melbourne, until August 17. Sydney, September 7-November 1.