See how rehearsals for our triple bill featuring Rameau's Anacréon & Pigmalion are coming together and insights from Artistic Director Erin Helyard, Director Crystal Manich and star soprano Taryn Fiebig.
As rehearsals begin for our Triple Bill featuring Rameau's Anacréon and Pigmalion, we sat down for a chat with costume designer Melanie Leirtz.
After graduating from The Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Creative Arts, Mel was resident costume designer at the Ballarat Arts Academy (now Federation Uni) from 2008 to 2013. Mel designs and makes costumes for both theatre and film and has worked with many leading arts organsations including Bell Shakespeare, Legs on the Wall, BighART, Malthouse Theatre, Australian Ballet and Victorian Opera.
Mel recently received a Sydney Theatre Award nomination for her costume design for Sport for Jove’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (see picture below).
When discussing Mel's process and approach to designing costumes for opera, here's what we discovered.
Have you ever costumed an opera before? If so, which operas?
This will be the first time I have designed for opera. I have spent many years making costumes for Melbourne Opera, Victorian Opera and more recently Sydney Chamber Opera with Notes from Underground.
Have you listened to, or experienced much opera?
I come from a musical family so I was introduced to opera very young. I have been lucky to have seen many operas in Sydney and Melbourne and also in Munich where my family is from. Whether it is a lavish, traditionally presented Verdi or Mozart, stark modern interpretations or Monteverdi presented with puppets and singers, the opera has always been a part of my cultural diet. I find the combination of music and theatre intoxicating.
What was your inspiration for the costume design?
The inspiration came from needing to tell a story. In our case the story that weaves the three operas together and allows the audience to experience them as a whole journey. We have set the evening in an art gallery and given the performers archetypes or characteristics that fit within that world. The aesthetics of the operas can therefore spring directly from works of art. The classic masterpieces depicting Bacchus and ancient greek revelry for Anacreon or the intricate decorative opulence of baroque paintings of pairs of lovers for Pigmalion for example.
What’s the design process?
The design process has been very collaborative. Alicia (set designer) and I have been talking with Crystal over Skype for months deciding the best way to present these three pieces. It was decided very early that it was important the operas sat within a bigger picture, allowing them to become greater than a sum of their parts. We have created a whole world that the performers inhabit but there are restrictions in this also. It needs to be completely feasible that our characters slip from one opera to the next. Our job is to give them the tools to do so.
Are there any practical considerations when working with singers?
All performers have their own specific needs and this - and the needs of the production - are taken into consideration at every step. Whether it is as simple as a mask that might cover too much of the face and muffle sound or a costume that restricts movement in a particular way, all choices have to serve both the production and the performer. I feel that opera is becoming increasingly theatrical and more is being expected of the performers in terms of interesting or different presentation styles and movement. I have found that good communication is vital in the early stages of the production and most performers are willing to try anything!
Are you busier than usual with three operas to costume?
Yes! Because we are creating a whole world, we need to create a base character costume that rings true to this world but also all the elements that the performers add to create the characters for each of the three operas. It is an ensemble piece where all the performers and the chorus create the shifts between the scenes and the operas onstage in full view of the audience. The magic is seeing the magic be created.
Are there any common elements between the costumes / characters played by various singers?
I have given a distinctive pallet to each of the operas that help define the characters that the performers inhabit for each opera. This helps us create the mood of each opera but also makes it easy for the audience to see the different characters even if they are being performed by the same singer.
To read more about Mel and her work, visit https://www.theloop.com.au/melanieliertz/portfolio
Liz Nielsen is now Pinchgut Opera’s Life Patron, we’re delighted that she’s still part of the family, cheering us on in this capacity. Below she shares some reminiscences with us...
Hearing Les Arts Florissant in Sydney recently was a great joy, and reminded me of how many interesting connections Pinchgut has made over the years, and all around the world. To hear Paul Agnew’s beautifully shaped tenor voice again, just as it was when he sang the role of Dardanus for Pinchgut in 2005, and delighting in seeing him now as Musical Director and Associate Conductor of LAF. And to see Miriam Allan as a member of the group, who has also sung for Pinchgut so many glorious times, remembering that Paul first heard Miriam’s beautiful voice in Dardanus and then contacted her about joining LAF. It was a reminder of how many singers have grown into roles with Pinchgut and overseas. Miriam sang with us in Semele first and we’ve since brought her back from her home in London to sing in Griselda and Giasone.
It’s the connections with all the wonderful singers and orchestra players, and the excellence they have displayed in their performances over 15 years that has meant Pinchgut has grown. And it’s the friendships with all these musicians that has been very special to me personally. Working with a team of people who have, mostly, been there since the beginning has been very exciting, as we have all had the same commitment to Pinchgut.
Seeing the creation of a production from the director’s and conductor’s initial concepts, through to rehearsals and then to performances has been a privilege. Connecting with the audience and seeing their joy and appreciation has been a pure delight and is the best reason to have formed Pinchgut Opera.
In my role as Life Patron I will love keeping those connections with the friends of Pinchgut. But enough reminiscence! It is the future that is important. I am happy to hand that over to a very competent team lead by Sarah and a strong Board and now let myself just enjoy the music. Here’s to the next fifteen years!
We warmly invite you to send your thoughts, reminiscences, and thanks to Liz for her astonishing 15 years with Pinchgut. Please email email@example.com
Or post to:
PO Box 291
Strawberry Hills NSW 2012
“I guess this is why I love opera so much!”
Pinchgut Artistic Director Erin Helyard explains his choice of three works for our Winter season this year.
In all my reading, research, and casual forays into 18th-century culture, I’m continually fascinated by the fact that people then were very much like people today; fussy, easily bored, passionate, clever, and highly adaptable creatures. Nowhere is this similarity more apparent than in entertainment culture.
Eighteenth century arias are about the length of modern pop songs – the poetry expressed in both neatly captures and dramatises just one tiny sliver of the messy human condition. I guess this is why I love early opera so much. Not only was it the distillation of every facet of
the entertainment industry (much like movies today), but audiences were just as voracious, just as easily distracted, and just as vociferous in critique or adulation then as they are now.
The idea of recreating a night’s entertainment “18th-century style” has long fascinated me. Even though we can’t ever try to reclaim or recreate the wonderfully noisy and informal audience behaviour that characterised mid-century opera, I thought that it might be worth trying out the highly contrasting entertainments that were a feature of the French opera house in the mid-century. Serious and moralistic Lully operas were interspersed with Italian comedy, complete with fart jokes. Just like we change the channel on the TV when we are bored, or leave a website to look at another on our computers, so too did 18th-century audience seek alternative sources of stimulation when their attention was exhausted or their palate needed cleansing. It’s in this spirit – in which highly contrasting genres are placed closely to one another – that I decided to revive the 18th-century practice of including an Italian intermezzo in between the acts of a French opera.
This year in our Winter season, to highlight the pleasure of the “degustation” or “tasting menu”, we have chosen two single actes du ballets and an Italian intermezzo. It’s a celebration of difference, diversity, contrast, and topsy-turvydom. We relish the shorter dramatic forms and we enjoy the sounds of different national traditions and languages, and it’s really shaping up to be one riotous evening.
I chose these works because I think Rameau’s Pigmalion and Anacréon are the best examples of the acte du ballet genre: witty, short, melodious, and packed with contrast. The Vinci intermezzo is full of all the jokes that made it a hit in its day – rather than presenting gods, kings and princes we have instead a rich hypochondriac and a scheming maid. These kinds of stories were instantly relevant to an audience hungering for realism. I’m sure you’ll enjoy what the marvellous Pinchgut creative team will give you in our first ever triptych!
Rameau Anacréon (libretto by Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard)
Rameau Pigmalion (libretto by Ballot de Sauvot)
Vinci Erighetta e Don Chilone (libretto by Vinci)
Thu 15 Jun, 7pm
Sat 17 Jun 2pm
Sun 18 Jun 5pm
Tue 20 Jun 7pm
City Recital Hall, Sydney. For tickets: (02) 8256 2222 click on the box below
The music of Rameau, and French baroque opera more broadly, was virtually unknown in Sydney until Pinchgut started uncovering some jewels.
The colours, textures, and particularly the glorious harmonies of music from this time and place was a particular interest of Antony Walker, our Conductor Emeritus. In 2005, even though we were still in our earliest years, Dardanus was reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘Musically, Pinchgut’s best effort yet. It is a credit to Walker and the Pinchgut philosophy that [this]… production is sustained by diverting the eye and ear with something rich, varied, nuanced and voluptuous.’We then returned to the French Baroque in 2012 with Castor & Pollux, a tale of two star-crossed brothers. This season saw our biggest audiences to date, and was wonderfully received by the critics. Harriet Cunningham in the Herald said
‘For a start, Rameau’s score is a revelation and, ever true to its promise to put the music first, every part of the Pinchgut ensemble contributes to making it soar.’ Nicholas Routley, writing for Australian Stage, was more to the point: ‘Altogether another triumph. Go to see it if you haven’t already.’
Guests sipped cocktails and enjoyed Friday evening conversation to celebrate the launch of Pinchgut's 2017 Season. Chic Sydney bar Eau de Vie was transformed into an 18th century-style salon with an intimate performance by the divine soprano Alex Oomens and our artistic director Erin Helyard on harpsicord. The video below gives you a snippet of this wonderful evening.
With less than two weeks to go until opening night we wanted to introduce you to the final members and men of the principal cast. Bass Andrew Collis, Countertenor Christopher Lowrey and Tenor Ed Lyon.
The trio took some time out of their busy rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions about their character's roles, how the rehearsal process has been so far and the beauty of Handel's repertoire.
THIS IS YOUR PINCHGUT DEBUT. HOW HAS THE REHEARSAL PROCESS BEEN SO FAR?
The atmosphere in rehearsals is very positive and focused. Theodora is a very beautiful yet dark piece and so it is also important to lighten the mood as much as possible. We have set the whole opera and are now fine tuning the narrative. We have another week on the rehearsal stage and then we move to City Recital Hall.
TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER VALENS. WHY DO YOU THINK HE APPROACHES THE WORLD IN SUCH AN EVIL MANNER?
Valens is an authority figure with great ambition and a determination to bring actual or perceived opposition into line. He is more than prepared to enforce his will by any means necessary, but he is also a pragmatic politician who will show forbearance if his demands are met. In this case, he is quite prepared to leave Theodora and the Christians alone if they observe to formalities of Roman sacrifice, but he will pursue them and punish them if they refuse to comply. In the end, he sentences them in order to protect his own authority and that of the Empire.
YOU SPENT MANY YEARS LIVING IN WORKING IN GERMANY. HOW DO THE OPERA HOUSE OF EUROPE DIFFER FROM AUSTRALIA?
Opera is an institutional presence in Germany, with every city of any size having a theatre. As a part of the city or state government, the profile of the theatre is very high. There will often be a drama company as well as a ballet and they will employ a large number of full time artists who will have a public servant status.
The range of theatres reflects the size of the city with very big houses in the cities such as Munich, Hamburg or Berlin and smaller operas in regional centres. This means that you are never more than a 100km from the nearest opera house and that the variety of repertoire on offer is huge – though the favourites by Mozart, Puccini and Verdi are every bit as popular there as here.
To me, the main difference between Germany and Australia is the centrality of the art form to every day life. In Germany, the profession is just that – a profession. In Australia, though the standard is very good, opera is a niche market that struggles to keep its head above water. That is why companies such as Pinchgut are so important in Australia's cultural landscape.
WHAT DO YOU MOST ENJOY WHEN PERFORMING BAROQUE REPERTOIRE?
For me, what’s most exciting is the balance of vocal beauty and dramatic effects, a merger of newer Enlightenment ideals of rationality, symmetry, and balance with something more excessive, protean, and from our deep human past. One of my great loves is choral music of the Renaissance, an unaccompanied form that allows the directness of the voice to shine through. The best composers of baroque music borrow these insights about vocalism and marry them to incredible instrumental colours. In Theodora, I’m struck by the full range of Handel’s genius, from the simple plaintive counterpoint of the duets to the invention of his endlessly adorned disquisition arias, to the gut-punching immediacy of his accompanied recitative. There is something new to be discovered and relished every single time.
YOUR CHARACTER DIDYMUS FACES AN INTERNAL STRUGGLE BETWEEN HIS FAITH AND SERVICE. HOW HAVE YOU APPROACHED PERFORMING THIS ROLE?
Peter Sellars - whose famous staging of Theodora for the Glyndebourne Festival lingers in our collective consciousness - continues to assert that the arts are inseparable from the realm of politics. Never has that view seemed more undeniable than in our current moment. In preparing this role, the personal continues to bleed into the universal. My attention is focused intensely on the state of affairs of the world and indeed my home and adopted countries. How can we balance our outrage with our compassion? How can we stand up for what we believe in without alienating friends and loved ones who disagree so passionately with us? I think Theodora is helping me to see that one path forward for me is to live out my principles with even more conviction and to be a bright example for others.
YOU HAVE MADE THE TRIP TO AUSTRALIA QUITE A FEW TIMES NOW (WE'RE EXCITED TO SEE YOU AGAIN NEXT YEAR FOR THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL'S SAUL TOO!) WHAT DO YOU MOST ENJOY ABOUT PERFORMING IN AUSTRALIA?
I love Australia, and I’m beyond tickled that Australia seems to love me back. The people, the weather, the food (so much brunch!). The Aussies can be a bit hard on themselves, I think unfairly, endlessly comparing what's happening here with Europe. Curiously though, this impulse seems to enliven the scene here. It encourages a wonderfully outward perspective, and an openness to fresh and untested approaches. Your festival system ensures that amazing projects like Faramondo at Brisbane Baroque and Saul at Adelaide Festival will be within reach of so many within a single country who would otherwise miss these masterpieces. And the relative scale of companies like Pinchgut mean that every company member is fully invested in their work and relates to each other and guest artists like a family.
WELCOME BACK TO PINCHGUT! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO SINCE PERFORMING IN L'AMANT JALOUX?
I've had a super busy year. Firstly Ariodante with Scottish Opera (with the lovely Caitlin in the title role) then in spring I sang Walther von der Vogelweider (great name) in Tannhäuser at Covent Garden. Summer was totally absorbed by the world premiere of a new opera by Thomas Adès called the Exterminating Angel in the Salzburg festival, and I headed straight from there to Copenhagen for a production of The Fairy Queen by Purcell. Then I came here! I've done some exciting concerts too, and recorded the John Passion arias with the choir of Kings College, Cambridge. It's been full on! I've also moved cities, bought a new house, and got engaged. So in spite of Brexit, it has been a wonderful year.
A CAREER IN OPERA IS QUTE A DEMANDING PROFESSION. WHAT DO YOU DO TO ENSURE THAT YOUR VOICE REMAINS FRESH AND HEALTHY?
To be honest, I don't have any special secrets or rituals. The voice is connected to the rest of the body, so essentially I believe you treat the body holistically to care for the voice. I always find a gym when I'm travelling - singing is a physical activity, and I believe the fitter you are, the better you function - and try to eat well. Sleep is the main factor in vocal health in my opinion, and by that I mean quality sleep and regular patterns. Though having said that, when I arrived here I was vocally fresh as I've ever been, even after 31 hours in transit. That's the problem - you never know. The voice is a capricious mistress.
CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER SEPTIMIUS?
Septimius is, I think, dramatically possibly the most interesting tenor role in all Handel. As well as having some truly great music (there are very few 'filler' arias in Theodora), he has a remarkably interesting dramatic arc and function. I believe he represents the secular enlightenment. He accepts the state religion out of respect for his ancestors, but believes fundamentally in tolerance and the respect for choice. He doesn't see Christianity as being at odds with Roman moral values. Indeed, towards the end he sees such virtue in Theodora that he encourages the Romans around him to defy the president and is perfectly willing to turn accept Didymus's Christianity. What is astonishing about this piece is its prescience. It deals directly with the same moral, religious and civic dilemmas which are so much part of political discourse at the moment. Absolutism, demagoguery, religious intolerance, the use of majority beliefs to persecute, detain and even kill dissenters, irrespective of the passivity and peacefulness of their behaviour and beliefs - this is a world we live in today. And Septimius, for me, is the moderate, the liberal, the guy caught in the middle. He is, in some respects, the Everyman of the audience.
30 November - 6 December
City Recital Hall
Images by Robert Catto.
Did you know that many of the singers and players in Cantillation and Orchestra of the Antipodes do very interesting things in their ‘other’ lives?
Many have been with us since our first production of Semele in 2002. You may have seen them perform with Opera Australia, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Halcyon, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the Song Company, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and many others.
Four members of Cantillation for Theodora sang in our very first production of Handel’s Semele in 2002: Lindy Montgomery, Alison Morgan, Josie Ryan (sopranos) and Natalie Shea (mezzo).
From Orchestra of the Antipodes we have eight players who played in both Semele and Theodora - Matt Bruce and Stephen Freeman (violins), Danny Yeadon (cello), Simon Rickard (bassoon), Darryl Poulsen and Lisa Wynne-Allen (horns), Neal Peres Da Costa and our very own Erin Helyard on keyboards.
Double Bassist Kirsty McCahon has played in every opera except one since The Fairy Queen in 2003, most often on bass, but occasionally on violone. Theodora will be her 16th show with Pinchgut.
Simon Rickard (principal bassoon) is a justly renowned gardener in his other life. His credits include Head Gardener at the Digger’s Club and the Garden of St Erth, He has published several books on the subject, including Heirloom Vegetables with another in the works for Heirloom Fruits.
Dominic Glynn (violin) is the Senior Scientist at Pixar Studios. He is an imaging specialist, mathematician and colour scientist, and plays baroque violin as well.
John Pitman (tenor) is the CEO of Krunchbox, a business using point of sale data for wholesale companies. John also had a life as a professional bassoon player, and was one of the architects of our commissioning the contrabassoon for Theodora.
We’re delighted to welcome Valda Wilson to the Pinchgut family. Valda has had a tremendous career in Europe and we can’t wait to share her stunning lyric soprano voice with you this December in Theodora.
THIS WILL BE YOUR PINCHGUT OPERA DEBUT. HOW DID YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH PINCHGUT OPERA COME ABOUT?
I have always been keenly interested in Pinchgut’s work. I love my opera to be slightly on the grittier side of things – perhaps that’s why I’ve found my way so well in the houses of Germany, where the productions are on the whole less ‘grand opera’ in style and you’re more likely to find yourself singing upside-down in jeans and a T-shirt.
Pinchgut is renowned for its presentation of works and composers that are left field, and I love that. There is so much beautiful music out there and people deserve the chance to hear and see it.
My engagement with Pinchgut simply came from an audition I gave for Erin and Antony a couple of years ago on one of my annual visits back home. I am thrilled to be cast as Theodora!
YOU’RE SYDNEY BORN AND BRED BUT YOU HAVE LIVED AWAY FROM AUSTRALIA FOR SOME TIME NOW. WHAT DO YOU LIKE THE MOST ABOUT LIVING AND PERFORMING IN GERMANY?
Yes, I’ve been in Germany for six years now – primarily Dresden and Oldenburg. There is such a density of performance opportunities here that we cannot imagine in Australia. I’m at my best when I’m performing frequently... so ‘Fest’ jobs in an ensemble have been wonderful for me to develop a wide repertoire and to be constantly busy. In just two seasons here I have made ten role debuts, ranging from Countess Almaviva through to Handel’s Romilda and Iole, bel canto such as La Dame Blanche, classic operetta like The Merry Widow and more modern repertoire including Philip Glass and Britten! Such a full-time ensemble position is unique to this part of the world, and I do love it.The challenge is balancing that with enough freedom to pursue concerts, festivals and guest jobs outside of one’s full-time position.
Opera in Germany is part of the fabric of society: Little children always know what I mean when I talk about The Magic Flute and will sing me the ‘Pa pa pa’ duet... that’s pretty special. No one suggests that I should go on X Factor! The theatres are quite heavily subsidised by the State which makes ticket prices affordable and keeps this amazing art form accessible to the general public.
THEODORA IS KNOWN AS HANDEL’S FAVOURITE ORATORIO. HOW ARE YOU PREPARING TO PERFORM SUCH A FAMOUS AND EMOTIONALLY MOVING ROLE?
As a lyric soprano I’ve sung a lot of highly-strung characters in stressful situations... the thing is, the music still needs to be able to soar, in spite of the character’s desperation. When I’m working on roles like Theodora, I like to work extremely technically on the musical side of things, but keep the emotions out of it until I’ve really got a solid foundation. I think about the drama quite separately and only really allow the two to begin to merge when we then start to stage it. If one tries too early in the preparation process to embrace all the angst, all the bodice-ripping emotions of the character, one runs the risk of sacrificing the beauty of the music.
It is definitely a balancing act! At the end of it all, you want to have done enough technical work behind the scenes such that you can step out on stage and forget it all. That’s our job.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE CHARACTER OF THEODORA?
Theodora is fascinating. Profoundly committed to her faith in the face of tyranny, she cuts a strong figure. But she is not only a noble, virtuous pillar: Her moments of self-questioning are deeply human and extremely affecting. She must also be an extraordinarily charismatic woman... In contrast with Handel’s often florid style, his music for Theodora has a serene simplicity and a spiritual radiance that is breathtaking. She is strong yet vulnerable.
THEODORA WILL BE PERFORMED IN ENGLISH. IS THERE A DIFFERENCE WHEN PREPARING FOR ROLES WITH ENGLISH DIALOGUE WHEN COMPARED TO PERFORMING IN GERMAN OR ITALIAN?
Yes, absolutely! It’s wonderful to sing in a language in which you are truly fluent. There is then an immediacy there that I have to work much harder to achieve in say French or Czech. Young singers: Get stuck into learning foreign languages, it’s never too early!
On the more technical side of things, singing in English does have its pitfalls – in contrast with Italian, English syllables are generally closed meaning you have to work harder to maintain the long legato lines essential to beautiful singing. But that’s a small challenge balanced against the joy of singing in your native tongue!
YOU’RE QUITE THE SAVVY SOCIAL MEDIA SOPRANO! WHY DO YOU THINK IT IS IMPORTANT TO KEEP ENGAGED WITH YOUR AUDIENCE VIA SOCIAL MEDIA TODAY?
I think that opera is a deeply human art form, not something to be put up on an untouchable pedestal. For me what makes an operatic performance really touching is the palpable humanity behind the art... at its best moments, there is a real exchange of energy between the stage and those seated in front of it. It should be visceral and thrilling.
It’s important for me to feel a connection with my audience and I love that social media makes this possible – even when I’m not on stage.
We’re incredibly excited to welcome back Lindy Hume to the Pinchgut stage after directing our tremendously successful production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in 2014. Here Lindy shares her powerful vision for our December production of Theodora.
We have approached this telling of Theodora as both a poetic interpretation of a true past world and a foreshadowing of a very possible and chilling future world.
It’s not hard for us, in 2016, to imagine the kind of society in which the action takes place, a place where religious and philosophical freedoms are suppressed and the human rights of minorities are ravaged by the dominant culture. These societies have existed all over the world from ancient times to our own and the tendrils of cultural myopia are creeping ever closer. For spectacular triumphalism, boorishness and vilification of other races and religions, and for his celebration of wealth above all else, Donald Trump is Valens’ soul mate. Trump may or may not be President of the United States by the time this production is on stage, but his spirit and shadow have influenced our approach to the staging and characters in Handel’s Theodora.
Religious freedom, absolute power, human rights and the death penalty are some of the great themes of Theodora - and these must be explored. The political and philosophical biosphere of Antioch is populated with five characters placed on the power spectrum from the highest (Valens the dictator and his followers) to the lowest (Irene, the leader of an oppressed minority, in this case the Christians). In between are Theodora and the two Presidential guards Didymus and Septimius whose moral conflict drives the action. Their thoughts are expressed through some of the most ravishing music ever written.
There are no “goodies” and “baddies” in this society. Strength or weakness depends on your perspective. With so much wonderful choral writing to explore it’s inevitable that this production will focus on the individual and collective psychology of these two opposing groups: the Christians and Heathens. I love the idea that the entire Cantillation chorus play both and alternate between the two before our eyes, allowing us to contemplate their journey from one mindset to the other. The Theodora chorus, as autonomous individuals and as a group, reminds us that people are people. No matter how strong our convictions, each of us is flawed, we can be led to acts of folly or protest or greatness, make mistakes and be uncertain of our convictions. What’s truly in peoples’ hearts is unknowable.
It’s impossible to stage Theodora without paying huge respect to the exquisite Peter Sellars 1996 production for Glyndebourne, which I was lucky enough to see live. A revelation for so many artists and audiences, even twenty years later it’s impossible not to be inspired by the depth of Sellars’ conviction of the human potency of the Theodora experience. “It's a huge question: when we take people's lives as a society; when and how we justify killing”.
The last word is from Pope Francis, describing perfectly how Theodora resonates with me:
“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others.
Who built this instrument?
The contrabassoon was made by the Guntram Wolf workshop in Kronach, Germany, in conjunction with Stefan Pantzier. More info at http://www.guntramwolf.de.
Is this instrument modeled on any particular historical instrument?
Yes. It is modelled on an original by Andreas Eichentopf, dated 1714.
Where is the original instrument?
The original contrabassoon is now in the Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig.
What is the instrument made of?
The contra is made from maple, stained to the darker colour.
How long is in the instrument?
It is 2.7 metres.
How much does it weigh?
It weighs 5.7kg. By contrast, a modern contraforte from the same maker's workshop weighs 10kg.
Does it come apart into pieces?
Yes. The original has four pieces (left in the pic), but the Wolf workshop has cleverly broken it down further to make it more manageable (right in the pic).
How many keys does it have?
It has five brass keys - Bb, D, Eb, F, G#.
How long is that crook?
The crook is 72cm long.
Can it be used for other music?
We had this instrument made to play in both A=415 (‘Baroque’ pitch) and A=430 (‘Classical’ era pitch) so that we would be able to use it in a number of different contexts.
How does it play in both A=415 and A=430?
The instrument comes with two different crooks – one for each pitch. And the reeds and fingering are slightly different between the two.
How much of an angle are the tone holes on so that they can be both reached by the fingers yet pierce the bore in the acoustically correct position?
Well spotted - the holes are drilled at an extremely acute angle, much more so than an ordinary bassoon. As such, the contra has an extended wing on the tenor joint, which extends all the way down to meet the butt section. These obliquely drilled finger holes, called 'chimneys', are a feature of all bassoons, and contribute to the bassoon's characteristic sound.
Who designed and made the nifty stand?
The stand is very elegantly designed and constructed by the Guntram Wolf workshop in conjunction with Stefan Pantzier.
What sized reed does this contra use?
Here’s a pic of the reed, with a normal baroque bassoon reed next to it for comparison.
What repertoire was written for this instrument?
Some of the most famous pieces of the 18th century specifically call for a contrabassoon - Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) and l’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740), JS Bach’s St John Passion (1724) and Haydn’s Creation (1798). The baroque contrabassoon might have been used to double the bass line more frequently than these specific cases suggest, in the way that the double bass is used to double the bass line of the string ensemble.
Is it hard to blow?
It’s not difficult to blow but it does take a lot of air. It makes the player’s whole body vibrate when playing it!
Exciting news – we now have the contrabassoon! Guntram Wolf, the makers of our new contrabassoon, have been working away and the really excellent news is that they have managed to find a way to accommodate our wish to be able to use the instrument at both A=415 (Baroque pitch) and A=430 (Classical pitch). Initially Peter Wolf (the maker of our instrument) thought that this would be impossible, so we are delighted that he has been able to find a way to do this. As you probably know the contrabassoon only truly came into its own in the Classical period as a featured part of the orchestra (Haydn’s Creation is the most famous example of the use of contrabassoon from that period). By commissioning a 415 only instrument we were restricting the possible uses of the contra, so we really wanted to explore ways in which it could be used as a 430 instrument as well, as it will be the only period contrabassoon in the southern hemisphere (that we know about). The difference in pitch is achieved by adapting the bocal (what we would call the crook) and the reed to bring the instrument up to 430 (about a quarter of a tone above baroque pitch). As the bore of the instrument (the length of the tube inside the contra) is very long the fingerholes don’t need to be repositioned between the two pitches, which is what makes this possible. Peter Wolf has worked with Stefan Pantzier, a leading expert in period bassoons and contrabassoons in Germany, on this and they have found a way to do this. Hooray!
Our contrabassoon is based on a model known as the Eichentopf contrabassoon, after a maker Andreas Eichentopf (c. 1670-1721) who was resident in Nordhausen, contemporaneous with J S Bach. The oldest surviving contra is from 1714 in Leipzig and is inscribed with Eichentopf’s mark. A pair of contras survive from this period and have extremely well worn fingerholes suggesting that they were in great use from the time – which is very interesting, as we tend to think about the contra as a specialist instrument, which it probably was not.
John Pitman, Pinchgut Board member, tenor in Cantillation, and contrabassoon donor made the trip to Kronenberg in Germany (while in Europe), where the Guntram Wolf workshop is based, and collected the contra mid August. It came back with John well packed and in the hold of the aircraft, and it’s been handed over to us. From the Pinchgut office it will go to Simon Rickard, who is our principal bassoon, and Brock Imison, who will be the contra player for Theodora. They will be making adjustments, adapting finger holes, cutting new reeds according the ones supplied with the instrument and generally playing it in before Theodora begins. As it is a new instrument it will require considerable working on and getting used to before it is ready to play in the orchestra. It’s very large! We would say look out for it at the Theodora performances, but you won’t be able to miss it!
We recently held a function to celebrate the arrival of the instrument with our donors. See photos below.
30 November - 6 December, City Recital Hall
THE LAST TIME THAT WE SAW YOU PERFORM ON THE CITY RECITAL HALL STAGE YOU WERE PERFORMING THE FIERY ROLE OF IPHIGÉNIE IN OUR 2014 PRODUCTION OF GLUCK'S IPHIGÉNIE EN TAURIDE. WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO SINCE?
I went straight from there into another of Gluck’s great roles; Orfeo in Orfeo ed Euridice with Scottish Opera at the start of 2015. That was followed by Octavian, Der Rosenkavalier for NCPA Beijing, mezzo solos in Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn with SSO at the Sydney Opera House, and the role of Aristeus in Rossi’s Orpheus for Royal Opera Covent Garden. This year it has been the ‘trouser roles’ of Handel’s Ariodante and Idamante in Mozart’s Idomeneo that have kept me busy and I recently had the good fortune to return again to Sydney for Mahler 2 with SSO and their chief conductor David Robertson at the Sydney Town Hall; they just about took the roof off it, I believe.
CAN YOU TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER OF IRENE IN HANDEL'S THEODORA?
Irene is described in the score as being ‘a Christian’, and she’s clearly a close friend to Theodora. She acts also as a leading spiritual voice for a small group of Christians taking shelter from hostile Romans, who are described in the score as ‘the Heathens’. The story in a nutshell, is of one faith determined to stamp out or control another. This kind of story is everywhere in today’s news headlines, so it won’t be a reach to make this relevant for the audience. The power of Handel’s music and the depth of these themes ensure it will be quite a journey.
HOW HAVE YOU BEEN PREPARING FOR THE ROLE OF IRENE?
I’m working away at absorbing the materials, memorising and singing my part as well as learning the way these arias fit into the bigger picture of the opera.
YOU WORKED WITH DIRECTOR LINDY HUME FOR IPHIGÉNIE. IS IT COMFORTING TO WORK WITH DIRECTORS MULTIPLE TIMES? HOW DOES THE RELATIONSHIP DEVELOP?
I can’t wait to hear Lindy’s ideas for this piece. I guess I will find out how things develop, but I know I trust in her way of working completely and I’m genuinely excited to get to that rehearsal floor. Having established a fruitful relationship already, I know we’re going to be able to get down to work without hesitation.
YOU'RE CURRENTLY BASED IN VIENNA. TELL US WHAT YOU LIKE THE MOST ABOUT RETURNING HOME TO PERFORM IN AUSTRALIA?
It’s a very special feeling whenever I’m able to return to perform in Australia and I’m excited to be invited back to perform for Pinchgut Opera this year. Clearly, the company know how to bring this special art form and repertoire to life, creating productions from a place of real passion from everyone involved. They’ve hit the mark again and again for their audiences, and I imagine readers might want to get in early for tickets to Theodora.
30 November - 6 December, City Recital Hall
It gives me enormous pleasure to inaugurate the 2017 Pinchgut season for you, our audience.
Our fifteenth year marks an important one—I’m delighted to be taking Pinchgut into a new era as sole artistic director.
2017 features two of the greatest opera composers of all time: Monteverdi, the prime innovator of the genre itself, and Rameau, who came to opera late in his life but left an indelible influence. The practice of giving several disparate works was central to the programming of the Académie Royale de Musique (simply called “the Opéra”) in Paris in the mid eighteenth century. Accordingly, our winter season features two exquisite acte de ballets by Rameau together with a contrasting Italian intermezzo by Vinci. This was a common occurrence, to have a contrasting Italian work performed between acte de ballets. Anacréon and Pigmalion have been long recognised as some of Rameau’s best work. They certainly contain some of his most memorable and tuneful ariettes! It was a famous performance of an Italian intermezzo in 1752 at the Opéra that sparked an intense debate about the relative merits of Italian and French music. We revive the intermezzo tradition in the best traditions of the genre of the acte de ballets themselves: which were sparkling, diverting, lyrical genres centred on a short story that revolve around the theme of love and pleasure.
The same theme of love is pursued in our summer season with one of the greatest operas of all time: Monteverdi’s Coronation of Poppea. A towering masterpiece of superbly crafted characterisation, biting satire, and heartbreaking beauty, Poppea will be performed by Pinchgut in the original format first used at the original performance, in which various characters doubled roles. I am looking forward to re-visiting the colours, poetry, and melodies of the seventeenth century – a sound world we haven’t revisited since the enormous critical success of Giasone in 2013. Subscribe now and get ready for rediscovered opera as you've never heard it before!
Wow, what a towering masterpiece for us to end the year with and we couldn’t be more excited to bring this to life for you. Director Mark Gaal and Conductor Erin Helyard collaborate on their third production together, and lead an exemplary cast headed by Helen Sherman and Kangmin Justin Kim. Here Mark shares some of his insights into the work for you.
THE CORONATION OF POPPEA WILL BE YOUR SEVENTH PINCHGUT PRODUCTION IN THE DIRECTOR’S CHAIR. WHAT ARE THE CHALLENGES WHEN DIRECTING A NEW PINCHGUT PRODUCTION?
Audiences expect a lot from Pinchgut – great musicianship, inventive design, involving storytelling and an unforgettable experience overall – these are terrific challenges to meet!
TELL ME A BIT ABOUT THE STORY OF POPPEA, WHAT DREW YOU TO DIRECT SUCH A MASTERPIECE?
The story takes place in Ancient Rome. Emperor Nero casts aside his wife Ottavia in favour of Poppea Sabina, whose lover Ottone is left in shock. As Nero and Poppea continue to make their own luck, those around them are drawn deeper and deeper into a disturbing world that makes use of some of the most ravishing music you’ll ever hear. Having directed L’Orfeo, a work Monteverdi wrote 35 years before Poppea, I am curious to see how Monteverdi and the world around him have evolved.
TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT YOUR VISION FOR POPPEA. WHAT SHOULD OUR AUDIENCE EXPECT?
The story itself is contextualised via a prologue: 3 gods – Fortune, Virtue and Amour debate which of them has the greatest impact on humankind. This investigation of competing forces is the springboard for the opera. So while we will deliver the story of Poppea, what will be equally as interesting for the audience is an experience of the complexities that surround aspects of human behaviour such as desire, honour, and ambition.
2017 MARKS THE 450TH BIRTHDAY OF MONTEVERDI. WHY DO YOU THINK THE CORONATION OF POPPEA AND HIS OTHER FAMOUS OPERAS SPEAK TO CONTEMPORARY AUDIENCES?
Poppea speaks through its exquisite music – a great counterpoint to murky goings on, and through the goings on themselves – we are remarkable in our ability to make the same kinds of mistakes over and over.
POLITICAL DRAMAS SUCH AS HOUSE OF CARDS HAVE BECOME HUGELY SUCCESSFUL OVER THE PAST FEW YEARS. DO YOU THKN THAT THERE ARE PARALLELS BETWEEN THESE FILM AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS AND THE ANCIENT TALE OF POPPEA?
House of Cards is great television and the uncompromising bond between its protagonists parallels that in Poppea. But I have to say: Frank and Claire vs Nero and Poppea – there’s no contest!
Our cast and creatives of Armida have been busy working away post Armida. Here’s a little taste of what they have been getting up to since their last performance on the City Recital Hall stage.
Leading soprano Rachelle Durkin has reprised her much loved role of Adina in L’elisir d’amore for Western Australian Opera before returning home to New York for some much needed time with her gorgeous young bub.
Breakout star Janet Todd will be singing all the praises about our beloved Sydney Opera House in her role in Opera Australia’s upcoming Sydney Opera House – The Opera.
Melbourne based Brenton Spiteri has called Sydney home once more to perform with Sydney Chamber Opera in their upcoming production of Notes from the Underground.
Swedish tenor Leif Aruhn-Solén has returned home to perform the Tenor solo in Mozart’s Requiem and Jacob Lawrence will be embarking on a new adventure when he starts postgraduate studies at the Schola Cantorum Basiliensis in Basel, Switzerland later this year.
Christopher Richardson will continue teaching in Sydney whilst performing with Sydney Philharmonia Choirs and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra later in the year.
Set Designer Alicia Clements has recently designed the set for Ensemble Theatre’s upcoming production of Barefoot in the Park and Matthew Marshall our lighting designer has just completed a run of The Barber of Seville for Opera Queensland.
We’re incredibly proud of our fantastic Armida cast and creatives and we can’t wait to work with them again.
We are so chuffed that Taryn will join us again in 2017 for a riotous evening of fabulous French opera. We know you love Taryn and she will bring the sparkle and brilliance that the evening demands. We will all be in for a treat! Here she speaks with Jessica BIrd about her approach to the work and to Pinchgut.
HOW DID YOUR ASSOCIATION WITH PINCHGUT OPERA COME ABOUT?
My association with Pinchgut came about seven years ago when I sang in L'Ormindo, it was a dramatic and satisfying experience, so I'm really thrilled to be working with them again.
They really are such a wonderful band of committed artists making music where no one else is.
YOU'VE COME FROM A MUSIC BACKGROUND HAVING PLAYED CELLO, HOW DO YOU THINK THAT INFLUENCES YOUR APPROACH TO SINGING?
It's true, I have come from a instrumental back ground. Has it affected the way I sing? Yes, I think so. Playing the cello has always given me the sense I'm in a duet with myself. I always think about myself in relation to the orchestra, what is the instrumentation saying to me, am I in conversation with it or is it supporting my text?
I think also early on I sounded more instrumental in my delivery, vibrato wasn't a big thing in my technique. Now I have become more diverse in my sound so I can switch it on and off.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE TO HOW YOU APPROACH PREPARING FOR BAROQUE OPERAS WHEN COMPARING TO YOUR OTHER DIVERSE ROLES SUCH AS ELIZA DOOLITTLE AND THE MUCH-LOVE PAMINA IN THE MAGIC FLUTE?
Do I alter the way I approach a role, whether is be Eliza in 'My Fair Lady' or Pamina in 'The Magic Flute'? No, I am always text based so, I always start with the text.
If it's in another language I translate it, I then look for any hidden meaning, (there's often symbolism in different eras of music) and finally, I find how the music supports the text for further insight into how best to deliver the line. Once all that's worked out I apply the same vocal technique to all the genres.
THERE ARE QUITE A FEW MONTHS TO GO BEFORE REHEARSALS OFFICIALLY BEGIN FOR OUR RAMEAU TRIPLE BILL. HOW WILL YOU BE FILLING THE TIME BEFORE RETURNING TO THE PINCHGUT STAGE?
It's a while before I join the Pinchgut family again, but in the meantime I've met the Director Crystal Manich, whom I'm very much looking forward to working with. I have an idea of what she's wanting, so I'll start learning the score soonish with her ideas in mind. In the meantime my head is in Cosí fan tutte land as the wonderous, naughty, ultimately flawed, manipulative maid, come landlord, Despina in Sir David McVicar's and OA's production, then onto Gutrune in Wagner's Ring cycle followed by Musetta La Boheme then to Adelaide to perform in Handel's Opera Saul , and in between that a couple of recitals in Australia and New Zealand, other than that I'm pretty bored!
THE STORY OF ARMIDA INVOLVES A NUMBER OF DIFFERENT LOCATIONS AND TIMES. HOW DID YOU SOLVE THIS CHALLENGE IN YOUR DESIGN?
Armida has such an epic fairytale quality to the story. There was a need for a certain amount of scale to the design and the practical requirement of height: the ability for our warring heroes to scale some kind of perilous ascent to Armida and Idreno’s tower. We have taken a romantic and abstracted approach to this design, creating a set that conjures the feeling of a gothic ruin, surrounded by a barren, charred forest. I have always had a love of ruined spaces and it was a lot of fun to create this sweeping, but dilapidated staircase with its mysterious window at the top. By creating a multi-leveled set we have the ability to isolate characters within different spaces: i.e. a throne room or boudoir, a mountainside, or a soldiers’ camp. We have also tried to create as much darkness as possible within the lower half of the design to create more possibilities for transformation through lighting.
WHAT WERE THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES AND WHAT ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF IN THIS PARTICULAR BUILD?
The biggest challenge is actually the venue itself as it is a non-traditional theatre space. Recital halls always have a distinct design and colour scheme of their own and while theatre designers are used to working on top of a black backdrop, the City Recital Hall is very bright with white, gold and blonde-wood architecture. It also has an incredibly high ceiling which is both wonderful and challenging to make good use of. As a designer it’s extremely rewarding to transform the recital hall so dramatically, but you also have to be conscious of your set being a good “fit” within the space and not clashing horribly. I hope that is what we have been able to achieve with this rather ambitious design – the colour scheme, for example, which evokes a sense of sense of charcoal and ash, intentionally graduates to a paler shade of grey so as to blend more harmoniously with the surrounding architecture of the recital hall.
TELL US A LITTLE ABOUT WORKING WITH DIRECTOR CRYSTAL MANICH AND COSTUME DESIGNER CHRISTIE MILTON? HOW COLLABORATIVE IS THE PROCESS? HOW DO YOU WORK TOGETHER TO CREATE THIS WORLD OF ARMIDA?
Crystal, Christie and I all worked extremely collaboratively from the very first meeting. We sometimes even crossed over into each other’s areas, sending each other costume and set inspiration that we thought might be helpful or resonate with an idea that the other was exploring. Crystal was based in New York City for the entire process which could have been quite challenging, but she was an incredible long-distance communicator with a unique ability to comprehend and process 2D photographic material I would send her. Christie and I would also touch base regularly to make sure our design visions remained aligned or to ask advice on solving certain problems. The huge advantage of splitting the design of a show between a separate set and costume designer is that you have an additional creative mind to bounce ideas off and offer support.
I also sent Crystal a miniature (1:50 scale) model of the set so she could work on it in 3D from abroad. I then had the opportunity to meet Crystal in New York before the rehearsal process began and work through the entire piece from beginning to end with the aid of our mini model!
WHAT EXCITES YOU ABOUT THE CREATIVE PROCESS AND WORKING IN THE THEATRE/OPERA WORLDS? WHY DID YOU DECIDE TO PURSUE THIS PARTICULAR CAREER?
Live performance offers unique creative opportunities for a designer, working within an intimate collaborative team. Design for theatre and opera does not have to be literal and can offer audiences the chance to connect with stories, characters and themes on a number of different poetic and metaphorical levels. I work predominantly in text-based theatre but I have found the few operas I have tackled so far have pushed my boundaries more than I had anticipated. Opera story-telling is far less straight-forward and requires rigorous investigation, experimentation and support from the director and design team to create a cohesive production that resonates on both a musical and narrative level.
Theatre and live performance design is rewarding and challenging on so many levels, it’s hard for me to imagine working in any other field at this stage!