By Greg Gould
It’s the double-bill that promises heartache and big laughs, all delivered with the power of a rock show.
“We’ll start with the laughs and then break your heart,” says Kate Millett, the Melbourne-based director helming the local production.
Featuring two of opera’s most famous one-act pieces — the comedic Gianni Schicchi by Puccini followed by the tragic Cavalleria Rusticana by Mascagni — Canberra Opera’s major 2019 outing will display the full range the larger-than-life art form can afford.
“Both operas have at their core a timeless premise,” says Millett.
“Gianni is about class warfare and the haves versus the have-nots, while also being one of the very few grand comic operas out there. And being a Puccini, it also has stunning music and arias. Cavalleria, at its heart, is about unrequited love, but also about how cultures tend to self-police and keep morals and the culture of a society intact.”
Despite the timeless appeal of each piece, Millett isn’t afraid to relocate the stories in time to examine them through new historic lenses.
“There are enough people out there doing traditional stuff, so I tend to bring my own flair,” she says.
For Gianni Schicchi, originally set in thirteenth-century Florence, Millett has glammed up the production for the late 80s/early 90s.
“I wanted to give it the feeling of one of those 80s ski lodge movies where the haves and the have-nots battle it out to save the recreation centre. “I thought this would play up the class warfare aspect. Plus, you get lots of bright, colourful costumes and fun hair, which is lots of fun.”
Meanwhile, Cavalleria Rusticana, usually set in the late 1800s, has been deposited in the late 1950s, allowing it to leverage the backdrop of the period’s emerging sexual revolution.
“It’s set in rural Italy – so you’ve got these little villages that have kind of ossified. This lets me play up the destructive element of the Turiddu character. He sleeps with women and doesn’t marry them. He encourages women to cheat on their husbands. He’s bringing into the village this outside influence – this sexual revolution that’s happening all over the world. It’s about new morals versus the old — a clash of cultures.”
The show, which features local leads Colin Milner as Gianni in Gianni Schicchi and Anna Greenwood as Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana, will be backed by a 12-piece chamber orchestra conducted by Lewis Sharpe.
Coleen Rae-Gerrard and Michael Poletti will handle musical direction.
Despite working in an artform notorious for its excess, Millett, who runs her own opera production company in Melbourne, is known for bringing a black-box approach to opera.
Inspired by the opera scenes developing in New York and Berlin, this means minimal props and simple sets, more emphasis on the emotionality of the singers, and bringing a visceral reality to the form.
“For me, it’s all about the emotions and the music,” she says. “Opera doesn’t have to be a gigantic visual feast. I mean, it can be, and I love that stuff. But it can also be small and intense,” she says.
This pared back approach also reinforces Millett’s belief that quality opera can be produced on a small budget and with an amateur cast.
“A lot of people think amateur opera is not worth going to and will only go to the professionals. But this is where you see tomorrow’s stars. This is where you discover new talent.”
This, she says, also highlights the important role smaller opera companies like Canberra Opera have in bringing the traditionally rarefied art form to a wider, younger, and more diverse audience.
“Opera in Australia has an audience problem. There is an audience, but it’s aging and will one day, therefore, die out. So, it’s really important to get young people and a wider community involved.”
As for venues like the Belconnen Community Centre, Millett believes there is no better way to experience opera than in the confines of a small, intimate space.
“A lot of people watch opera online these days, which is great because you get exposed to the big opera houses around the world. At the same time, I think it’s important to see it live and to feel the interaction between the orchestra and the signers, between the conductor and the performers, to see the electricity and the live music aspect of it.”
“[Opera] is loud, live music. Some opera singers are louder than a jackhammer — you can feel the music move through your chest as you would at a rock concert. People need to feel and to hear the power that the human voice can produce. It’s amazing.”