Menu Sian Prior

Writer, Broadcaster, Singer, MC & Teacher

Culture Club Reviews March 22nd [March 23]

I’ve been to a couple of operas in the last week but to be honest, it’s hard to believe these shows belong in the same cultural category or musical genre, they were SO different.

The first is an opera by the Russian composer Igor Stravinsky called ‘The Rake’s Progress’, a Victorian Opera production on at the Arts Centre and directed by John Bell, from the Bell Shakespeare Company. It was first performed back in 1951 and has a libretto written by the famous English poet W H Auden, so it involves a collaboration between a couple of mighty innovators in their fields.

The story is, not surprisingly, about a rake, a young man called Tom Rakewell who is tempted by the Devil (disguised as a guy called Nick Shadow) to leave the love of his life, Anne Trulove, for a life of wealth and debauchery down in the big smoke of London. Tom has all sorts of adventures, including marrying a bearded lady called Baba the Turk, but ends up going mad and dying, in spite of Anne’s best efforts to save him. I guess the moral of the story is, if you betray those you love and choose a life of selfish sensual pleasure, you will eventually play the price.

This opera isn’t performed all that often, it’s not as popular as some of the older, more traditional Puccini or Verdi operas, and the music is a bit more challenging. so it’s a real treat to get a chance to see it performed in Melbourne.

And this is a very good production. It has excellent singers, led by Tiffany Speight as Anne Trulove and Benjamin Namdarian as Tom Rakewell, who are also really good actors – very necessary here because the text is quite poetic and at times a bit abstract, so it’s important to get the story across.

Another stand-out is the tenor John Bodey, a very talented singing character actor, who plays an auctioneer who sells off all Tom’s belongings including – almost – his bearded wife Baba the Turk. Anyone who’s been to an auction will recognize the hard-sell type here…

John Bell has had a lot of fun with this show. There’s a lot of sauciness in the costumes and direction, including some cross-dressing and quite a camp aesthetic at times. Tom is led around a brothel at one point by a transvestite with a dog leash…

The production is conducted by Richard Gill, and there is some fantastic ensemble playing in the score for different section of Orchestra Victoria. I was leaning forward in my seat half the night to make sure I could hear every detail. The orchestra won a special award at the Green Room Awards ceremony on the weekend for ongoing excellence and this production is a great example of why.

Highly recommended: ‘The Rake’s Progress’, on at the Arts Centre till March 27th.

The second production I want to mention is a world premiere of a new work called ‘The Box’ commissioned and performed by Chambermade Opera, which specializes in cutting edge contemporary music. Chambermade has been commissioning a whole series of new works to be performed in living rooms. They find benefactors with deep pockets and large lounge rooms willing to sponsor and host a work.

It’s a brilliant idea – you could call it value-adding to the opera experience – because not only do you get to see a show, but you also get the voyeuristic pleasure of sticky-beaking into someone else’s house (as people often do before auctions, don’t they?) and they’re usually very beautiful houses. You also get to go to a new and different venue each time, rather than the ‘same old same old’ theatre, and at the end of the performance they give you a glass of wine and a box of sweets, and invite you to stick around and talk about the show with other audience members and with the cast! Someone described it as ‘more house party than grand opera’ and that’s very true.

I’ve been to several now, in all sorts of different homes and suburbs, from high-rise apartments to Victorian mansions in the leafy suburbs. But this one absolutely takes the cake for venue. ‘The Box’ is composed by Fritz Hauser (Switzerland), who is renowned for his explorations of sound and space, in collaboration with architect Boa Baumann
, and it is performed in the living room of one of Melbourne’s most architecturally-significant private homes, a modernist house called The Iris designed by Australian architect and writer Robin Boyd. It is down on the banks of the Yarra River in Kew.

Let me set the scene for you: the audience members descend through what looks like a big hole in the floor down a staircase and into a large curved room where we sit looking out through a bank of huge high windows into bushland, right there beside the Yarra River. You can see giant gum trees, birds flitting amongst them, the sun going down filtered through the leaves, and outside the window is a woman with a wiping cloth, cleaning the windows and making all sorts of very strange sounds. Sometimes she sounds like she’s singing, sometimes like a chirruping bird, sometimes like a cat – real vocal acrobatics.

Inside the room, in front of the audience, is a big green box on legs and from inside the box come strange rhythmic scraping sounds. And that’s just the start of the show. It gets more and more strange as the woman comes inside and speaks some very poetic text about being stuck inside these white rooms – rooms ‘the colour of angels and eggs’, she says – with other women sipping tea and ‘showing their white smiles’. The text seems to be about women trapped in domesticity. Then she start to interact with the box, talking to it, cooing to it like we coo to little children or perhaps to lovers. I won’t say too much more because you need to see it to experience the mystery of this show.

The singer is Deborah Kayser, one of the country’s most accomplished singers of contemporary music. She has an incredible vocal range, from very low to ear-piercingly high The percussion, if that’s what we can call the sounds coming from the box, is composed by Eugene Ughetti.

This is cutting edge musical composition – you shouldn’t go to this production if you want a clear story-line and hum-able tunes – the pleasure is in trying to figure out what’s going on. Afterwards people had many different theories: was her dead husband inside the box? Was she in love with a box? Had the box taken the place of a lover who’d left her? Who knows. See it and make up your own mind.

‘The Box’ is on until March 24th.