‘Opera Means Work: saving the artform from itself’, by Dominica Duckworth


Photo by Isabella Andronos.

Constantine Costi’s new opera is funded “by the memory of the smell of an oily rag.”

It’s a one act tragedy by Giacomo Puccini called Il Tabarro (The Cloak), telling the story of a failing marriage and financial difficulties on a barge in 1910 Paris. It calls for eight professional singers plus orchestra and a choir of at least twelve.

“We’re performing in a warehouse space in Newtown,” Costi says. “There are six people in the cast, and the set is a van, so it’s very stripped back. The narrative of this opera, it cuts deep. It’s so relatable, it’s people who have to work, who have to put up with life, with time beating them down.”

“We’ve updated it because, superficially, there is something accessible about seeing people in dress that you see people in everyday, and pragmatically, I don’t have the budget to do it on the Seine. That being said, if I did have the budget, I wouldn’t, because that’s not important. What’s important are the characters. This opera poses a lot of intimate domestic conundrums. How do you say to someone ‘I don’t love you’? Or even worse, say ‘I love you,’ and don’t mean it? That’s the heart of this opera. They could be accountants.”

Nick Fry, lighting director of the production, says, “The traditional opera is a very very expensive process, but you can still get spectacle and beauty and rawness with a lot less.” We have to hope so, because otherwise no one my age would ever experience spectacle, beauty or rawness.

Millennials have been blamed for the end of all kinds of things, including the film industry, the European Union and golf.

Opera, traditionally for elderly toffs in expensive suits, should be the kind of thing millennials are casually murdering, with the same nonchalance we bring to the demise of dating and home ownership.

Instead, opera is being quietly, cleverly, lovingly, revived by young Australian artists who don’t want to see the form collapse under its own weight.

Il Tabarro opens in Sydney on the 6th of October and tickets are $25 to $30. The warehouse is walking distance from Newtown station. “This opera allows people who wouldn’t normally pay $150 to see Carmen on the harbour to come and see something beautiful,” says Fry.

“It’s a niche artform that’s so hard to pull off… opera takes a certain level of skill, and so it falls into the hands of experts, and expertise can block you,” says Costi, who was awarded the Berlin New Music Opera Award last year, a scholarship that has allowed him to work as an assistant director on major productions both in Australia and Germany. This is an entirely independent work.

Fry says, “There’s an element of scale opera can fall into the trap of. You need an orchestra, you need professional singers, and they have to be absolute professionals. There’s a stigma of the spectacle.”

Costi replies, “There’s nothing wrong with spectacle in itself – I was a co-assistant director on [Sydney Opera’s] Turandot, and that was so much fun, it’s just about attitude. If you re-focus on story-telling, the universality of the story, the emotional experience – that’s where it should be. If there’s problems in opera, I blame the practitioners, I don’t blame the form, the composers. I think it’s our fault, we need to pull ourselves up and make it count, make it matter.”

Clemmie Williams, who trained in voice at the Sydney Conservatorium as well as a graduate of NIDA’s directing program, is putting on a satirical operatic pastiche in the ladies bathroom at the Queen Victoria Building. The Chamberpot Opera will open at the end of October, and tickets will be between $10 and $30.

“When I was at the Con, I was told that for women, there are three roles – witches, britches or bitches. We’re taking that and turning it on its head, de-contextualising it. Traditionally, there’s one or two female roles in an opera. We’re taking songs out of different pieces, giving them to three female performers. A women’s bathroom, which is a sort of a sacred space, is free of the male gaze. It’s putting opera in a world where men aren’t allowed.”

“I’ve been classically trained as a singer since I was twelve. I moved away from classical singing because it became about reproducing, not creating.”

“But the music can be interpreted beyond the meaning of the words, and opera can give you this important thing, this otherworldliness. That the audience looks at opera and says, wow, I can’t do that. But without the audience, there’s no point to the work.”

Declan Greene, Melbourne theatre maker and co-founder of independent company Sisters Grimm, describes opera as “the olympics of performing arts. These singers are extreme athletes – the level of training they have to go through, and the demands they make of their body, are astonishing.”

“But that’s one of the reasons I dislike the obsession with scale and grandeur and pomp and ceremony in mainstream opera, because it diminishes and normalises the performers’ level of accomplishment. Like, those voices are just barely in scale to the sets the singers are performing on.”

In September last year, Greene directed a deconstructed La Traviata downstairs at the Belvoir, which seats eighty. Their cast was only four, along with some seven-foot tall inflatable swans. “We found it so exciting to listen to Michael Lewis—one of Australia’s most incredible baritone singers— perform ‘Teneste La Promessa’ only a couple of metres away, in this tiny, tiny theatre. His voice was so powerful, if you were sitting close enough you could feel it vibrate through your body.”

La Traviata (The Fallen Woman) was, in 1853, Guiseppe Verdi’s controversial attack on Christian moral hypocrisy and Romantic idealism, “a piece of near-social-realism – at a time where opera was obsessed with castles and dragons and Nordic myths and orientalist fantasies… But the radical, disruptive spirit of the work is ignored in most contemporary stagings, and instead you get a procession of huge period gowns and chandeliers and a glamorous singer dying beautifully in a full face of make-up.”

“So we wanted to create an experience of La Traviata that sort-of dismantled the popular stagings of this opera, but also dismantled the experience of attending opera. To get past the idea of scale or grandeur, we staged it in the smallest theatre in Sydney. And with a cast of four, we devised a splintered, fractured version of the La Traviata story that sort-of used the performers biographies—and the compromises they’ve made to pursue their art—as a point of parallel with Violetta’s sacrifices. And at the end we invited in the audience—held a series of conversations with them, about their own sacrifices and ideals—as a way of breaking down the performer-audience divide that is so strict and staunch in mainstream opera.”

This resulted in a production that simultaneously explained everything that is wrong with opera, and everything that makes it valuable.

Of course opera is inaccessible. It’s in foreign languages, full of overblown classical nonsense, set somewhere far off and, usually, prohibitively expensive to see.

Greene writes, “In the popular imagination opera is most elite of the elite art forms. And the art itself is indivisible from the experience of attending it. So, it’s stuffy, it’s formal, it’s for rich people. It’s pretty hard to argue with this when you have tickets to Opera Australia’s Ring Cycle going for $1,000 minimum in Melbourne.”

Full disclosure: I’ve been going to opera my entire life, because I am very very lucky.

My mum, who owns her own house, and went to university for free under Whitlam, has a subscription to Opera Australia. “I started subscribing about 30 years ago,” she says. “I usually see six operas a year. The reason is, simply, I love the art form, the music, the productions and the talent that is ever present with the Opera Australia company.”

The productions and talent are heavily subsidised by the state. NSW Arts Minister Troy Grant stated in August that “Opera Australia receives the most amount of annual funding from the NSW government as well as additional venue support to help them operate out of the Opera House.”

According to mum, “The ticket prices vary a little depending on the opera but they are around $130 a seat and I buy two seats each performance so annual subscription is about $1,600 or more depending on whether I order extra tickets.”

The Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House seats 1,507. Official averages are closer to $150 a seat. This should net Opera Australia in excess of $22,000 a night, if the sell out, but a single run can cost something like $10,000, not taking into consideration insurance, costumes, salaries for the orchestra and choir, craft services and big name singers flown in from Europe. Opera Australia needs to perform each production at least fifteen times to break even.

Why does the state prop up a loss-making industry? Why can tickets for a sixteen-hour, two-hundred-year-old German epic about an incestuous family go for as much as $2,400—not including dinner—and require support from taxpayers who will probably never see it?

There are two arguments.

One: it’s stunning. I’ve watched Ring Cycle—on DVD, for $12, over the course of several days—and it may be one of the most impressive pieces of art I’ve ever experienced. The music is overwhelming, the performances were engaging, the set was brilliant – the story was, admittedly, ridiculous, but not much more ridiculous than Star Wars. I’ve cried in many operas, despite the fact that I am very aware of the artifice of it, and have read how it would end in the program. There is no other art form like opera, because when it’s done right, spectacle, skill and story crack the audience’s heart open and something truly sublime happens.

Two: it’s safe. Australia is still embarrassed about not being Europe, so we built a special fancy house for opera, and sell about 35% of tickets to international tourists, because we think we need the cultural capital of the most establishment art form in the Western world to justify ourselves. We have to perform the same eight operas year in, year out, because they’re bankable, and canonical, and safe.

“We’re not willing to embrace home grown talent and aesthetic and artists,” says Williams. “We’re not interested in taking risks.”

Greene says, “It drives me crazy the way many big, enormously-funded companies like Opera Australia have this ‘all or nothing’ attitude to the production of new work. The idea that new operas aren’t worth commissioning because they might not enter the canon; they might not sell 2,000 tickets a night; they might not last in repertoire in 50 years time; they might not justify the multi-million-dollar price-tag that seems to be a prerequisite for entry onto the stage.”

Giacomo Puccini, who died in 1924, is probably best known for his operas which have been adapted into modern musicals – La bohème and Madama Butterfly, which have become Rent and Miss Saigon respectively. The ease of adaptation is at least partially due to the fact that he wanted to make art “with no overblown proportions, no elaborate spectacle.” His work is all about individuals struggling with real social issues. He spent his youth impoverished and pawning his family’s heirlooms.

Il Tabarro could, as Costi says, “be set anytime between when it was written and now. Because people will always be trapped.”

The problem at the core of Il Tabarro—this small and perfectly formed opera which is being staged in a warehouse next to a train line—is the problem of all opera. Where do we find the space, the money to express ourselves freely? How does art survive, when it’s being choked?

“People are interested in breaking down opera because it’s so unsustainable,” Clemmie Williams shrugs. “Try and put on indie productions, support smaller companies like Sydney Chamber Orchestra and Pinchgut, as they’re acting as a sort of counter-culture. It’ll die out if it doesn’t do something to change, but it can change, and it can be made to work, if we make it work.”

“Just commission smaller fucking shows!” says Declan Greene. “They could be embryonic versions of works that might later be scaled up. Or they might just be smaller-scale ideas that don’t require a chorus of 300 people in real diamonds and a live camel. Major opera companies should be invested in creating new work, but they should also be invested in creating more sustainable models for production that can better absorb the risks presented by new work.”

“There’s no use in laying down rules – don’t do repertoire, only do repertoire, don’t do new work, only do new work, this will save opera, that will save opera.” Constantine Costi lays these options on the table as imaginary cards, and sweeps them away with one hand. “What will save opera are great productions that are dramatically engaging. What we’re doing, what a couple of smaller companies are doing, is scaling it back. It’s people singing in a space – it’s already an emotional fast track. If we refresh ourselves, go back to basics, the audience will find it more accessible and the practitioners will find new joy in it.”

“My goal for the show,” says Costi, “is when it’s over for the audience to have to go for a long walk in silence. To take it home with them. To be moved.”

Dominica Duckworth is a writer, comedian and high school English teacher who has a lot of opinions about Brecht.

Il Tabarro runs in Sydney from the 6th to 9th of October, and Chamberpot Opera opens in the QVB bathroom on the 31st of October.