Jonathan Pell, Summer of Opera, Part 26

by Megan Meister

The Sydney Opera House on Bennelong Point in Sydney Harbor

Yesterday was a long, but exciting day, beginning with a tour of Opera Australia’s Opera Centre, which is comparable in some ways to our Karayanis Rehearsal Center, but on a much more elaborate scale.  Sue Olden, their Technical Director, showed me around their scene, prop and costume shops, the individual coaching rooms, the large staging rooms (where they can rehearse as many as three productions at a time) as well as their executive offices, which are also on site.  Opera Australia has nearly 400 full time employees (including orchestra and chorus) and is an amazing operation.

Adrian Collette, the CEO, explained to me over lunch that the company is truly the Australian national opera company, and in addition to full seasons in Sydney and Melbourne, there are performances that tour all over Australia.  30 per cent of their annual budget comes from federal and state government, which helps, of course, but with such a large permanent staff, their fixed costs are enormous.

Every opera company has their own set of challenges!

The afternoon was filled with auditions arranged by the two largest Australian artists management firms, and ran the gamut from talented young singers just getting started to established artists who are well known to Australian opera goers, but perhaps not yet familiar on the international circuit.

There was one extraordinary 24 year old soprano who was worth the entire trip.  She has only recently joined the company here, but has already sung several leading roles, including “Michaela” and “Mimi” and will sing “Pamina” next season.  A remarkable singer and one I will certainly be keeping an eye (and an ear) on.

I had just enough time for a hurried dinner in an Indian restaurant to get me in the proper mood, and then went to the Opera House for the 7:30 performance of LAKME. This opera, which I have always loved, is rarely performed, and I was trying to remember the last time I saw it staged.   It must be more than twenty years ago.  The Dallas Opera has only done it once, and that was more than thirty years ago, with Ruth Welting and Alfredo Kraus.

Delibes’ music is infused with a 19th century romantic exoticism that suits the opera’s setting in India during the British occupation.  The production was very colorful and can be best described as a cross between the BBC’s JEWEL IN THE CROWN series and a “Bollywood” musical.

The production was obviously mounted as a showcase for Emma Matthews, one of Australia’s leading sopranos, and she was lovely in the title role.  The “Bell Song” in the second act received a tumultuous ovation from the audience.

In spite of the exquisite music, however, the hokey plot of a Brahmin priestess’s illicit love for a British army officer, will no doubt keep this opera from ever regaining great popularity again.  The characters are “stock” and the libretto offers no opportunity for even the finest artists to provide a moment where the audience can come to care about them.

The music, however, is beautiful!

Tonight is a performance of Opera Australia’s new production of LA BOHEME.

Poster for LAKME

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