For a while I worked at a cinema which would screen the latest season of the Met Opera out of New York. The audience – who skewed towards upper middle age on average – would book their seats months in advance. It was hugely popular and would regularly sell out, which meant that alongside the indie murder flicks and latest Wes Anderson, I had to learn how to sum up the plot of that month’s opera in a few simple sentences. So I would sit down and read through the guide, cover to cover, in order to best answer customer questions:
‘Oh that one? It’s kind of like The Little Mermaid except that instead of a mermaid she’s a Russian demon of death.’
‘Okay, so two men are arguing over whether or not women can be faithful so they decide to tell their fiancées that they’ve been sent to war. They pretend to leave, but then come back in disguise to see if they can seduce each others’ beloved. Hijinks ensue.’
‘This one is from the 1920s, but based off a story from the 1800s. It centres around the adventures of a disembodied nose. Yes, nose.’
Once upon a time I thought that it was a truth universally acknowledged that opera was boring. This theory is, unfortunately, backed up by the images that leak their way into the collective consciousness; of crowds of people in opulent olde-timey costumes, of songs sung in pitches of the highest highs and the lowest lows, of lyrics that are impossible to understand even if you speak the language. As far as I could guess the plots were dull and convoluted; broken hearts and war, but with emphatic facial expressions and group sings instead of action sequences and showdowns.
In the end, like with lots of assumptions, I was wrong. Not about the basics – the costumes are still bespoke and the lyrics largely impenetrable – but in terms of storyline and plot, it turns out opera isn’t boring at all – actually, it’s deliciously weird.
The costumes are still bespoke and the lyrics largely impenetrable – but in terms of storyline and plot, it turns out opera is deliciously weird.
Opera, like film, like literature, is a broad church. There are dramas, tragedies, comedies and the blatantly absurd. They draw upon all kinds of source material – legends, fairy tales, short stories and history are all fair game.
I spent years watching crowds of people flood into their assigned seats, emerge a few hours later to devour sandwiches, then return to the cinema. Beyond seeing the opening few minutes and reading up on the plot, however, I couldn’t really grasp exactly what it was that could keep a crowd transfixed – in one instance, for up to six hours. So earlier this year, when an offer of heavily-discounted Victorian Opera tickets for under-30s appeared on my news feed, I thought it time to make like a disembodied nose and get adventurous.
Thirty does seem like a strange cut off – it’s not as though you leave your twenties and are suddenly granted extra disposable income. But that’s not what the program is for – it exists to give younger audiences opportunity and incentive to attend live performances. To take a risk. For me, and perhaps for the smattering of other under-30s in the audience, this program has allowed me to test the waters in a way – to see whether or not opera is something I’ll like.
Despite growing up in Australia I somehow managed to make it all the way through childhood without reading, seeing or generally even knowing more than the title of The Magic Pudding. So when it was announced as Victorian Opera’s first show of the season, I assumed that was a normal choice. A restaging of Calvin Bowman’s 2013 production, following its performances at the Arts Centre the opera also toured regional Victoria to celebrate the centenary of Norman Lindsay’s original book. My experience at the cinema had helped me move past the idea that opera was all dull period dramas and overly earnest plots; I was on board for eccentric storylines. But even so, I hadn’t expected to find myself in a beautiful, plush theatre, surrounded mostly by excited pre-teens and their parents, watching a troupe of skilled singer-actors serenade an angry pudding puppet.
As an adult looking back on the kinds of stories we were read as children, it sometimes comes as a shock how blatantly murdery and dark so many of them are. At the time it all seems perfectly normal – we don’t think about the unfairness of an entire castle of servants being turned into furniture; it’s totally cool that a random man decides to kiss an ostensibly dead girl back into the world of the living. When you see things for the first time as an adult, though, you don’t have that cushion of unquestioning familiarity. So, while everyone else nodded along and laughed as the group of friends on stage merrily ate their grumpy pudding companion (who, to be fair, did seem to be enjoying it), the more that was scooped out of the pudding man’s head, the more questions entered into mine. How did this pudding man first discover that being devoured wouldn’t kill him? Why was being eaten the only thing that brought him joy? If he is self-replenishing, why does the plot centre around his friends hoarding all his pudding goodness to themselves? And what moral are the children taking away from all of this? It was dark. It was weird. And I loved every minute.
When Hansel and Gretel rolled around in June, I felt like I’d begun to get the feel of what to expect for the season ahead; live orchestra, a small core cast, and a new perspective on a beloved children’s story – though this time, with the lyrics being in German there was the added feature of surtitles at side of stage. Overall just good, family-friendly weirdness.
Like most of these kinds of stories, there are different versions and twinges of truth amidst all the fiction – which means there’s a lot of source material to draw upon.
I hadn’t actually looked at the program in any great detail, so when I saw that Rossini’s William Tell was next, I expected more of the same: a 55-minute version of a children’s story. My friend and I discussed whether to eat before the show – neither of us really knew much about the story, beyond the fact that it has that tune that’s in all the ads, and involves an apple being shot off someone’s head – which surely wouldn’t last longer than ten minutes. Then I looked closer. It was going to be at The Palais. Freshly adapted by Rodula Gaitanou, it was going to be on a grander scale. And it was going to be three hours long.
William Tell is a Swiss folk legend, the story of a skilled archer who is forced to shoot the aforementioned apple off his son’s head. Like most of these kinds of stories, like Arthur of Camelot or Robin Hood, there are different versions and twinges of truth amidst all the fiction – which means there’s a lot of source material to draw upon.
The opera opens on an idyllic Swiss hillside as villagers sing of both their joy and their fear. As I watch, I think: oh no, this is going to be the boring opera, the one I thought all of them were like. Then the dystopian army shows up, complete with futuristic headwear and capes, and all hell breaks loose. Suddenly there’s murder! Betrayal! A possible sex scene? A battle! And an (off stage) shipwreck! The three hours flew by.
There are three more shows left in the Victorian Opera season – Bellini’s The Capulets and the Montagues, Debussy’s Pelleas and Melisande, and the new Australian ‘cabaret-opera’ Lorelei – and, despite myself, I have to keep fighting my instincts to try and put opera into a box. Part of this, I think, is down to exposure and accessibility. I’ve had television and books around me all my life – so I know that while each medium has its own rules and constraints, there is also space for personality and variety. Saying that something is ‘television’ tells us nothing more than the way we can view it – the same goes for opera. It seems like an obvious conclusion, but I can count the number of operas I’ve seen on the fingers of one hand, while to do the same for television would require me to become some kind of Lovecraftian phlange monster. I don’t have the anecdotal evidence to draw upon – so it’s harder to believe in the variety of something that I’ve not seen a lot of.
Saying that something is ‘television’ tells us nothing more than the way we can view it – the same goes for opera.
And seeing a lot of opera is not easy for a lot of people. Ticket pricing for live performance is a fraught issue, and one that I’m still struggling to find a solid stance on. It’s tricky – artists deserve to be fairly paid; and it makes sense that, on a purely mathematical level, it would cost more to attend a live performance than a recorded one. A film, once completed, can be screened indefinitely – once you’ve made back the cost of production, everything is profit. Live performance, however, has a cost every time it is put on – and ticket pricing is, in a lot of ways, a conservative gamble, based on betting how many people can or will attend. But when you factor in things like government grants and subsidies (of which opera tends to do comparatively well), that throws out the balance. And having a built-in price barrier to art is an ugly reality. Art should be for everyone, not just who can afford it.
Concessions go some way to addressing this, but it’s still not an ideal solution. Beyond the kinds of concessions we see at most places however (based on age, on pension, on having a student card), the under 30s discount is something that applies across a lot of live performance in Victoria. It’s great, and it’s allowed me to attend more plays (and now opera) than I otherwise would have – $35 is an easier amount to justify spending on a cultural experiment. But $94? If I’m not basically 100 per cent sure it’s going to be worth it, it’s a hard sell.
What I’ve seen of the opera, however, I’ve liked – maybe even loved. Like theatre (and, grudgingly, I guess sport too) there is something magical about having so many people converge in one place at one time to create something that, while repeatable, is still unique. Is opera for me? I don’t know for sure – but I guess only time will(iam) tell.
Victorian Opera’s next production, The Capulets and the Montagues, will be staged at Hamer Hall on 14 September.