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Four Questions for Director Imara Savage

Four Questions for director imara savage

Awakening Shadows Director talks about making innovative stage work.

 1. How do you approach conceiving a staging for a production consisting of works by two composers where none of the material is conventionally operatic or dramatic?

We made the decision quite early on that we wouldn’t try to turn this into an ‘opera’ in a more conventional sense, by which I mean a “story” with “characters”.

Benjamin Britten’s five Canticles were not intended to be staged together in that way, and what was clear to me was that the themes, ideas and poetry are what create the dramatic arc of the work. As a creative team, we leaned into the historical form of the ‘Canticle’, and committed to an exploration of belief, passion and ritual. We talked a lot about Britten’s own relationship to faith and how that evolved through his music over his life – and from that we developed a loose arc of storytelling.

We then turned to the material that Luke Styles has composed to intersect Britten’s Canticles. Whilst Luke’s work is a direct response, it operates on a different textural plane. We were most struck by Luke’s exploration of the themes of light and dark, and the failure of language to communicate. Luke’s work uses all three singers from the Canticles and adds a soprano (Jane Sheldon), so we talked about the idea of a ‘chorus’ and how that might operate.

Whilst all this material is not conventionally dramatic in the way an ‘opera’ is (with stories and characters etc), there are indeed characters that emerge in the Britten even if only for the duration of one canticle (Abraham/Isaac/God/Narcissus/The Magi) – and you can’t really ignore them because they’re so recognisable!


On top of this, there is a kind of narrator (the tenor Brenton Spiteri) who leads us through the work, as well as the ‘chorus’ in Luke’s responses. From these ingredients and through research into Britten’s own evolving relationship with faith we then figured out what each piece was and how it fitted into the whole.

2. What thematic threads do you trace throughout the Britten Canticles and how do you go about realising these visually?

When first approaching the Britten, we listened to and read the text (poetry) again and again. We talked about the distilled quality of the works, how they felt like perfectly conceived miniatures reduced to their most potent form. There was no fat on any of them. What was also impossible to get away from was the religious imagery, and these Biblical/mythical characters or stories that have emerged from the Western canon. Sculpture was, in fact, the form we talked about being closest to representing Britten’s music, because it has the feeling of being a suspended moment captured in time. This led us, in turn, to the film technique of photogrammetry that filmmaker Mike Daly has used to create the visual language of the video work.

The arc of the whole derived mainly from interrogating the text for themes and charting Britten’s complicated relationship with faith over the course of his music and life, as he grappled with his Church’s stance on homosexuality, as well as on war and state- sanctioned violence. Very present in Britten’s art was the male body: love between men, violence and men, and binaries or certainties that moved towards a questioning of both self and belief. Coupled with this is a kind of simultaneous death, or annihilation of old systems and a re-birth to make way for something new – such as represented by the Magi in Canticle IV.

Canticle V, ‘The Death of Saint Narcissus’ always felt so radically different to the other works in tone, and had a kind of anarchic abandon. So we knew that was the end point of the work and that it felt very physically embodied and more performative than the other Canticles for our tenor, Brenton Spiteri. We knew he ended up as a flower in this Canticle – and our end point was the pool of Narcissus, so we reverse- engineered the rest from that point.

Still from Awakening Shadow film work by Mike Daly

"Very present in Britten's art was the male body: love between men, violence and men, and binaries or certainties that moved towards a questioning of both self and belief. Coupled with this is a kind of simultaneous death, or annihilation of old systems and a re-birth to make way for something new..."

3. What is the process of collaboration with set/costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby, filmmaker Mike Daly and lighting designer Alex Berlage? How do their aesthetics feed into your own vision?

I work very closely with my collaborators and these artists in particular- they all bring ideas to the table and we kick them around for a very long time (even longer this time because this production was delayed by Covid). Over time the ideas seem to evolve of their own accord and finally land somewhat organically – I think because of the sheer amount of discussions that have taken place. Mike Daly and Alex Berlage are both successful directors in their own right so they think about the work very holistically – as does Elizabeth Gadsby. Elizabeth and I in particular would have countless conversations (over a period of years in this case) and by the end I couldn’t honestly say whose idea was whose. The roles of director and designer feel almost arbitrary at this point. I think we just keep interrogating the work and challenging each other’s thinking until we are both satisfied that we have landed on the right idea.

I will also add that the other very significant part of the collaboration is the one that happens in the room with the performers and Jack Symonds the music director – they are also collaborators, because the rehearsal room always yields big discoveries. I’m lucky enough to work with a company, creatives and a group of performers who thrive on that kind of ongoing exploration in the room and are not afraid to make big changes to accommodate the work.

4. How does this production fit into the progression and evolution of your own work?

I do love a good story but much of the work that I have done with Sydney Chamber Opera hasn’t fallen into this category, meaning it’s not plot or character driven. This then requires a different kind of dramaturgy. There is more invention in this kind of work because it could literally take place anywhere and sometimes not even the ‘characters’ are defined.

It then becomes all about who they are and where they are at any given moment – and also how you go about creating meaning! I suppose much of the work I am doing with Sydney Chamber Opera could be categorised as ‘post dramatic’, where story and character aren’t centralised the way they might be in a traditional story.
In post- dramatic work there is more imposition from the creative team, it’s more auteur- driven and less ‘writer- driven’.

Consequently, there is a lot of work done with the creative team in the pre-production phase where we sit and talk about what holds the storytelling at any given moment: is it light, gesture, performers, video? I find it much harder working in this way – it’s more exposing because everything is an act of invention, and it’s hard to tell whether it will work until tech week. However, I find this kind of work pretty exciting!

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Four Questions for composer Luke Styles

Four Questions for Composer Luke Styles

How do you compose responses to Britten’s Canticles?

 1. As a composer, what is your relationship to the music of Britten?

I feel very close to Britten’s operatic and vocal music. I find his word setting superb and would hold Britten up alongside Purcell as the two composers in English whose word setting feels both completely natural and a seamless part of their original compositional voices.

In both his operas and vocal music Britten’s sense of drama and pacing are exemplary and are aspects of his music I am regularly learning from. He is a composer who understands the theatre.

I do wonder what would have developed out of his musical imagination had he studied with Alban Berg as was his plan at one stage. Would he have developed more radical harmonic and rhythmic aspects to his music? There are flashes of this potential Britten in works like Phaedra and the opera Death in Venice, but perhaps it is in his contemporary Tippett that the rhythmic and harmonic elements of music are more strikingly modern.

2. How did you approach the task of creating a work that both responds to Britten’s as well as standing on its own musically?

This was the biggest challenge of the commission and underpins the whole dramatic concept of the opera. In Awakening Shadow I took the decision that my scenes would create a separate musical world to the Britten, they would offer a clear musical break and hence make the scene structure of the work very clear. My scenes use non-pitched vocal sounds, they are at a different tempo from the Canticles that precede each scene, they are scored differently and (especially in the first three of my scenes) their melodic lines are fragmented.

What links my scenes to Britten’s Canticles are snippets of melody, rhythm and harmony which are snatched, out of context, and transformed in my scenes, simultaneously creating a musical link to the Britten but finding a new context for this material. The biggest link though between myself and Britten’s Canticles is through the adoption of the dramatic/conceptual themes in the Canticles and giving these my own treatment. These themes range from lightness and darkness, religion and faith, the environment and mutability. I play with these themes (which are within the Canticles) to transition between each Canticle and to change the perspective on the themes from how Britten explores them.

Still from Awakening Shadow film work by Mike Daly

"The biggest link though between myself and Britten’s Canticles is through the adoption of the dramatic/conceptual themes in the Canticles and giving these my own treatment. These themes range from lightness and darkness, religion and faith, the environment and mutability."

3. You’ve added a soprano and a violin to Britten’s total instrumentation. How have you treated the resulting vocal/ instrumental octet? 

The total ensemble moves in an arch away from and back to its full grouping. Along the way the voices come together in duos and solos with one voice in particular, the Soprano, having a heightened dramatic role in my scenes, brought about by its absence in the Britten Canticles. This reaches its apex in the scene of mine titled Nova Stella.

The violin is the only instrument that doesn’t get a solo in the opera, but I have tried to insert soloistic moments for the violin into a number of my scenes, most predominantly in the very opening scene of the opera. It is my gesture towards balancing the violin’s absence in the Britten and to give it a dramatic capacity to suggest something different, or something new in my scenes, just like the soprano voice.

4. How does this piece sit in your own development as a composer? What was it like returning to it in quite a radical revision from its original conception?

This is my most recent opera to be performed (I currently have new opera projects in development, which are again quite different from this opera) and it is my only opera that has its starting point in one of my earliest operas, Wakening Shadow. Because of this, it represents very current musical interests of mine in how I am writing for voices and the creation of abstract drama in an operatic space. Most of my other operas are more traditional in their narrative function whereas throughout my career I have been creating dance, circus and movement works that are more abstract theatre. Awakening Shadow is an expression of this more abstract form of storytelling within the frame of an opera.

I felt a real freedom to approach Awakening Shadow in this way because it involved going back to my earlier opera Wakening Shadow as a departure point, rather than starting completely afresh. I looked at the earlier opera and decided I needed to be more radical in my relationship to the Britten Canticles and exploration of themes and I needed to both find new text and a new musical approach to allow me to do this.

It feels right to have created an opera that sits in almost the same orchestration as the Britten Canticles and by doing this my scenes and the Canticles feel like they have been created in the same spirit as they fuse together on their own dramatic/musical journey.

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Creative Residency 2022

Imara Savage, Mike Daly & Elizabeth Gadsby during filming of La Passion de Simone (2019)

creative residency
2022

Sydney Chamber Opera is thrilled to announce a Creative Residency for the theatre team of Director Imara Savage, Designer Elizabeth Gadsby, Lighting Designer/Director Alexander Berlage and Filmmaker Mike Daly to create two new productions during the 2022.

The first is the world premiere of Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright’s Antarctica, presented by SCO and leading Dutch new music ensemble Asko|Schönberg in the 2022 Holland Festival. (June, Muziekgebouw aan’t IJ, Amsterdam). This will be SCO’s European debut and a major international co-production.

The second is an Australian-first staging of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles, interwoven with the Australian premiere of Sydney-born composer Luke Styles’s response to them, Awakening Shadow (September-October, Carriageworks, Sydney). This work forms the latest instalment of SCO’s ongoing residency at Carriageworks, and is a co-presentation with Carriageworks.

This award-winning creative team last collaborated in 2019 for the SCO/Sydney Festival production of Kaija Saariaho’s 
La Passion de Simone, described by Time Out as “bold, uncompromising and musically spectacular… extraordinarily rich and rewarding.”

Imara Savage will also work with SCO on a development of a new work by Australian composer Paul Stanhope and playwright Wendy Beckett on the life of Camille Claudel.

Jack Symonds, Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Opera says “What this team delivered for La Passion de Simone was one of the most outstanding collaborations I’ve witnessed in this genre and I couldn’t be happier that they are making not one but two major new works for us across this year. Their combination of bold vision, originality, aesthetic discipline and an unswerving quest to reveal the heart of a new work couldn’t be more aligned with what SCO strives for in every production. To be making our European debut with this team is a dream come true.”

Imara Savage

Director

“What I find exciting about working with SCO is that they consistently challenge assumptions about what opera is. They aren’t presenting work that fits neatly into categories but testing the outer limits of what this art-form can and might be.”

Elizabeth Gadsby

Designer

The projects I have created with Sydney Chamber Opera are among those I am most proud of. They are a company who constantly support creative risk taking, both in the works they program and the artists they employ.

The residency with Imara, Mike and Alex allows an artistic progression of the ideas and forms we began working with in La Passion de Simone. It is an invaluable opportunity to grow our collaborative practice.”

 

Mike Daly

Filmmaker

“I’m so excited to be collaborating once again with SCO alongside Imara, Elizabeth and Alex. Antarctica and Awakening Shadow are both achingly beautiful works about the precariousness and preciousness of the human condition.

Our collaborative process of constantly interrogating the music and libretto to push a work to its conceptual and emotional conclusions is always rewarding and we can’t wait to experience the results with an audience.”

Alexander Berlage

Director & Lighting Designer

“I have had some of the greatest artistic collaborations of my career working with Sydney Chamber Opera. SCO provides an integral space where artists can push the boundaries of design and staging of contemporary opera, a rare gift for artists and designers in this country”.

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Antarctica

Antarctica

By Mary Finsterer & Tom Wright

World Premiere

Sydney Chamber Opera makes its European debut in the Holland Festival where it premieres the newest opera by leading Australian composer Mary Finsterer.

Antarctica explores the historical, mythical and scientific conceptions and stories about the southern continent. With a mesmerising combination of musical elements from early and new music styles, we are transported into another world.

This fictional tale begins with three characters from the Age of Discovery miraculously conjured from the memory of a young girl: a cartographer, a natural scientist and a philosopher travelling by ship to Antarctica, all with different dreams and expectations concerning the mysterious landscape. But what they find is far greater than themselves…

Created by the outstanding production team behind La Passion de Simone, 2022 SCO Creative Residents Imara Savage, Elizabeth Gadsby, Alexander Berlage and Cannes award-winning filmmaker Mike Daly will interpret this new work alongside some of SCO’s favourite singers and the legendary Dutch new music ensemble Asko|Schönberg. Finsterer’s first opera for SCO, Biographica was described by The Australian as an “outstanding new opera deserving a permanent place in the repertory”, and expectations are high for her second. 

In order to prepare for her new opera, Finsterer organised a symposium at the University of Tasmania where she and librettist Tom Wright could meet with scientists from the Institute of Marine and Antarctic Studies. In an age of increasing concern for our ecology, the displacement of populations and a heightened awareness of the vulnerability of our oceans, Antarctica is also an urgent story for today.

Conductor
Jack Symonds

Director
Imara Savage

Set & Costume Design
Elizabeth Gadsby

Video Artist
Mike Daly

Lighting Design
Alexander Berlage

Singers
Jane Sheldon
Jessica O’Donoghue
Anna Fraser
Michael Petruccelli
Simon Lobelson

With
Asko|Schönberg Ensemble
 

A co-production of Sydney Chamber Opera, Asko|Schönberg and Holland Festival supported by Carriageworks and the NSW Government through Create NSW.

Gallery

Date & TIME

June 5-6, 2022
8.30pm

VENUE

Muziekgebouw annt’ IJ
Amsterdam

duration

80 minutes

TICKET prices

Discover More

Limelight
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"This magnificent musical portrait of mankind’s slowly-shattered geopolitical dreams gives us an important opportunity to meditate on the relationship of our belligerent and expansionist civilisation to the only continent we have left uninhabited... Without doubt a milestone for Australian opera, and may also prove a landmark for the genre of chamber opera."
Theatrekrant
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"Asko|Schönberg and Sydney Chamber Opera go all out to produce a florid, epic performance... a clear, impressive aesthetic ...[where] music and text fit together seamlessly."
Het Parool
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"Finsterer expresses a personal contemporary variant of early baroque madrigal art, which made the contributions of Anna Fraser as the natural philosopher in particular a great pleasure... Director Imara Savage and designer Elizabeth Gadsby portrayed it all beautifully."
De Nieuwe Muze
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"A fantastic staging... Finsterer has followed crystal clear paths in the elaboration of her icy material... an ingenious interweaving of metaphor, imagined events and mysteries... What was heard and seen resulted in a hallucinatory experience. Antarctica is food for thought."
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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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Awakening Shadow

AWAKENING SHADOW

By Benjamin Britten & Luke Styles

Australian premiere

A private window to the soul – a sequence of desperate prayers –
a crusade from belief to doubt. Awakening Shadow channels Benjamin Britten’s crisis of faith through the singing body.
In a first Australian staging, Britten’s five Canticles are entwined with a new work by leading Australian composer Luke Styles: a
fevered photo negative.

The Canticles are a seminal portrait of Britten’s musical voice, written throughout his life for partner and muse Peter Pears. An hour-long quintet of chamber works centred on a radiant
tenor (sung here by SCO favourite Brenton Spiteri – Oscar & Lucinda, Notes from Underground), their texts draw widely on
English literature: a medieval Miracle Play, Jacobean metaphysics, poetry by T.S. Eliot & Edith Sitwell. None is specifically liturgical,
though taken as one they reveal a complex faith.

Imara Savage (La Passion de Simone, Owen Wingrave, Fly Away Peter) directs alongside Cannes award-winning filmmaker Mike Daly as part of their 2022 Creative Residency at SCO, interrogating Britten and Style’s confrontation with the eternal to forge a path through one of the 20th century’s most intense works, reinterpreted for the 21st.

Director
Imara Savage

Video Artist
Mike Daly

Set & Costume Design
Elizabeth Gadsby

Lighting Design
Alexander Berlage

Music Director/Piano
Jack Symonds

Singers
Brenton Spiteri
Emily Edmonds
Simon Lobelson
Jane Sheldon

Piano sponsored by Kawai Pianos, Australia.

Gallery

Date

30 Sep,
1, 3, 4, 6, 7 Oct 2022
At 7:30 pm

VENUE

Carriageworks 
Bay 20, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh

duration

80 minutes

TICKET prices

General Admission: $50
Buy your tickets here

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

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IN SONG BIOS

IN SONG
BIOGRAPHIES

Jane Sheldon is an Australian-American soprano and composer. Praised by the New York Times for singing “sublimely”, the Sydney Morning Herald for “a brilliant tour de force”, and The Washington Post for “a stunning performance”, Jane has established an international reputation for performing highly specialized contemporary chamber opera and art music for voice.

She has appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera, Ekmeles (USA), Talea Ensemble (USA), Sound Icon (USA), Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon, the Australian String Quartet, and Sydney Chamber Opera, where she is an Artistic Associate. She has appeared at numerous international arts festivals including Lincoln Centre Festival, Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival, Prototype Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and Sydney Festival. Described as “riveting” (New York Times) and “gripping” (Limelight Magazine), Jane’s compositions focus on the body in altered or transformative states.

She is a 2021 Artist in Residence at the Sydney Observatory with Imara Savage and Elizabeth Gadsby. 

Anna Fraser has gained a reputation as a versatile soprano specialising predominantly in the interpretation of early and contemporary repertoire. Anna has had the pleasure of performing in a myriad of traditional and exploratory programming expertly demonstrating the versatility and virtuosity of a cappella singing. Anna is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and New England Conservatory (Boston) and furthered her studies in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Program featuring as a soloist at the Aldeburgh Festival (UK) under the direction of Richard Egarr and Antony Rolfe-Johnson. Equally at home as a dramatist on the stage presenting opera and historically informed chamber music, Anna is a strong exponent in music education, particularly with Moorambilla Voices, Gondwana Choirs, and NIDA as a guest lecturer.

Anna performs extensively with a number of Australia’s professional ensembles including Pinchgut Opera (since 2004 with notable roles in L’Orfeo, Dardanus, L’Ormindo, Castor et Pollux) and Cantillation, Sydney Chamber Opera (Dusapin’s Passion, Finsterer’s Biographica), Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ironwood, The Acacia Quartet, Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon, Taikoz; Bach Akadamie Australia, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Salut! Baroque, Sydney Consort and Thoroughbass.

Anna performed as a core ensemble member of the Song Company for over a decade and has collaborated with international ensembles such as period specialists The Wallfisch Band (Bach Unwrapped cantata programmes at Kings Place, London) and the New Zealand String Quartet (Adam Chamber Music Festival, NZ; Canberra International Music Festival).

With a career that has spanned 4 continents, 85 operatic roles from the baroque to the newly composed, high respect as a pedagogue, a Helpmann Award nomination and superlative press reviews, Simon Lobelson has established himself as one of the most versatile baritones of his generation. Born in Sydney of Egyptian parents and brought up in Brussels, Simon graduated with distinction from Royal College of Music on scholarship, then studied with Sir Donald McIntyre and has since worked extensively as a soloist in Australia, the Middle East, Asia, the UK and Europe.

Oratorio appearances have included almost all the mainstream oratorio repertoire at venues such as the Sydney Opera House, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St. Johns Smith Square, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Sydney Town Hall and with the London Mozart Players, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, English Chamber Orchestra, Israel Camerata and the Lucerne Festival, under such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, Daniel Reuss, Reinbert de Leeuw, Richard Bonynge, Simon Halsey and Paul McCreesh. 

Simon has performed with many opera companies including Royal Opera House Covent Garden, English National Opera, Opera Australia, Young Vic, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney Chamber Opera and Canberra International Music Festival, in roles such as Amfortas, Escamillo, Rigoletto, Alberich, Marcello, Ford, Germont, Figaro, Michele and Don Alfonso, under such directors as Jean-Claude Auvray, Patrick Nolan, Ian Judge, John Copley, Bruno Ravella, Melly Still, Cheryl Barker and Jude Kelly. A champion of contemporary music, and creator of copious world premiere operatic roles, his recent performances as the main role in Metamorphosis for Opera Australia attracted outstanding press reviews and a Helpmann Award nomination.

He has recorded for Chandos and ABC Classics and is a vocal professor, lecturer and coach at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a judge for the Sydney Eisteddfod and has given masterclasses in Australia and China. He is also completing his doctorate on Vocalism in Contemporary Opera through Sydney University, on a RTP Commonwealth Government Scholarship Award.

Australian mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds was a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2015-2017. 

Most recently, Emily recorded the role of L’Enfant for an acclaimed virtual production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, produced by Vopera and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2020, she performed the UK premiere of Venables’ acclaimed Denis & Katya, and toured the piece throughout the UK with Music Theatre Wales. 

In November 2019, Emily performed the role of Dorabella in Classical Opera Company’s Così fan tutte, in London. In September 2019, Emily made her US debut, performing Philip Venables’ Denis & Katya for Opera Philadelphia. Earlier in 2019, she sang the title role of L’enfant in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges at the Komische Oper Berlin. Emily also performed the role of Varvara in Richard Jones’ Olivier award-winning new production of Katya Kabanova, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In December 2018, Emily appeared as Semira in Pinchgut Opera’s award-winning Australian Premiere of Hasse’s Artaserse. Pinchgut Live label has now released their CD recording of this performance. 

In the 2016/17 season, Emily performed the roles of Madrigal Singer (Manon Lescaut), Kate Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly), and Tebaldo (Don Carlo) for the Royal Opera. She also performed the role of Agathe/Dargelos in Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles for the Royal Ballet, at the Barbican. In 2016/17 she covered the roles of Dorabella (Così fan tutte), Magdalene (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), and Emilia (Otello) for the Royal Opera. 

Her roles in the 2015/16 season included Aglaea/Atropos/Bacchus (Orpheus) at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Alms Sister (Suor Angelica), Käthchen (Werther), for the Royal Opera. Emily was also one of the six cast members in the world premiere of Philip Venables’ critically acclaimed new opera 4.48 Psychosis at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Emily holds a First Class Honours degree in Vocal Performance from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She was the Dame Nellie Melba Scholar and Patrick & Vivian Gordon awardee for the Melba Opera Trust. In 2015, Emily was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts ArtStart grant, in support of her vocal and language development abroad. She is an awardee of the Australian Music Foundation and the Tait Memorial Trust. Emily is also a recipient of the Dame Heather Begg Memorial Award. 

Emily’s theatrical training background is extensive and has involved productions, national touring, and comprehensive acting study with the Australian Theatre for Young People, and the Fresh Ink project. Pursuing her passion for theatre-making, she was Staff Director on the revival of Richard Jones’ Der Rosenkavalier in the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival season. 

In July 2015 Emily performed the role of Asteria in Pinchgut Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet. In 2014 she sang Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Discovery Series. She also sang the role of Dritte Magd for the SSO’s concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra. In the 2014 Sydney Festival she performed in the Australian premiere of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill for Sydney Chamber Opera. She also performed the role of Kate Julian in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, for Sydney Chamber Opera.

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The Opera stripped bare

THE OPERA
STRIPPED BARE

Imara Savage on directing Fly Away Peter
By Annarosa Berman

It’s no secret that Sydney Chamber Opera, whose production of Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox’s Fly Away Peter premieres at Carriageworks this May, operates on a tight budget. But this does not faze director Imara Savage:  “In stripping a piece to its essentials, you work out what it’s really about; you couldn’t at the last minute decide that you wanted an elephant on stage,” she says. “With the right creative team, you can realise a piece without doing a B-grade version of what you’d imagined.”

With or without elephants, Savage is clear about the attraction of opera. “It’s never set in a kitchen; opera doesn’t live in the world of naturalism,” she says, with a laugh. “Fly Away Peter is an epic piece with much that is ephemeral and unknown about it, and I love the challenge of that.”

For emerging directors, there are very few opportunities to direct opera in Sydney. Savage, who has directed Britten’s Owen Wingrave and Philip Glass’ In the Penal Colony for SCO, considers herself lucky to be able to work for the company

“SCO does innovative, exciting and super challenging work, musically and in terms of staging,” she says. As a director she learns from all the productions she directs, but she’s learned the most from working for SCO. “They pick such hard pieces! “ she says, laughing again. “In the Penal Colony and Owen Wingrave had not been staged in Australia for a reason; they’re really hard pieces to do. You look at a  project and you think, this is really challenging. But this company doesn’t seem to think like that; they think, ‘Wow! This is really difficult! We’ll do it!’”

In Fly Away Peter, not having a libretto or the full orchestration of the music to use in preparation was Savage’s biggest challenge. Usually, her process would involve taking the score, getting a recording of it and listening to it many times, so that when she walks into the rehearsal room she knows the opera backwards.

“This has been a different process. We received the opera in segments. I put my faith in [conductor] Jack [Symonds], who played each part for me and talked me through the instrumentation.” SCO has a history of staging new opera, so although Savage had not worked in this way before, the company had. “They took me through a process that they’d already experienced. “

Conceptualising the piece was, once again, a new experience. “We were creating the directorial concept before we had all the music, in conjunction with Elliott Gyger, the composer,” Savage says. “We knew what the shape of the piece would be, but usually you pick away at the music and libretto in great detail to find out what the concept is going to be.”

Savage had to rely on the novel instead.  “What struck me about it were the landscapes: the piece starts in a bird sanctuary in Queensland and ends in the trenches in Europe. [Designer] Elizabeth Gadsby and I had to decide how to create a space that would encompass the transformation of landscape from a place of sanctuary to a place of death.”

In picking a designer, Savage was guided by her instinct that the opera needed an elemental set that was almost like an installation. “Elizabeth comes from an installation background.  She had the right sensibility and aesthetic for this piece. “

David Malouf encouraged the Fly Away Peter creative team to find an expression of the novel’s themes suited to the new medium. One of the things they decided to do was not to be literal about their depiction of the horrors of war. Savage says: “The novel’s images have been condensed so that you are hit with them almost one after the other, in a fractured and fragmented kind of way. The opera is like an expressionistic nightmare rather than like a TV drama.”

Carriageworks offers SCO a small, intimate and atmospheric space with an acoustic suited to chamber music, even though it’s a box with no wings and none of the big theatre conventions.

Savage is unfazed. “You play to its strengths,” she says.

Breaking Glass, Photo by Dan Boud

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Aliquam tortor lectus, hendrerit vitae augue ac, molestie scelerisque metus. Phasellus mauris lacus, tincidunt sed tellus et, convallis pharetra ante. Donec at lacinia est, ut aliquet ligula. Praesent sed molestie ante. Sed consequat turpis eu metus luctus ullamcorper. Duis non porttitor erat. In volutpat non arcu vel rutrum. Vestibulum accumsan ligula eget ante suscipit consectetur. Curabitur sollicitudin magna sit amet leo scelerisque, sed consectetur arcu efficitur. Vestibulum ante ipsum primis in faucibus orci luctus et ultrices posuere cubilia curae; Sed luctus, orci nec mollis sollicitudin, est tortor ultricies nisl, nec auctor risus lorem nec orci. Proin vulputate diam at mauris tempor consectetur eu sit amet purus. Pellentesque pharetra, mi in fringilla venenatis, odio nisi facilisis tortor, ut egestas nulla diam eget arcu. Nulla et congue elit. Donec nec interdum tortor. Etiam venenatis quam sollicitudin ex vehicula, quis efficitur lectus porta.

Lorem Ipsum,Carriageworks. Photo by Photographer

“Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Sed vel vestibulum eros. Cras ullamcorper bibendum magna, non hendrerit ipsum aliquet sed. Integer tempus tortor a orci imperdiet molestie.”

Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit. Sed vel vestibulum eros. Cras ullamcorper bibendum magna, non hendrerit ipsum aliquet sed. Integer tempus tortor a orci imperdiet molestie. Morbi vitae viverra est, non facilisis tortor. In hac habitasse platea dictumst. Duis nec tellus arcu. Praesent nec nibh a enim rhoncus iaculis quis id velit.

Duis interdum, quam sit amet vestibulum tincidunt, purus libero laoreet leo, tristique congue purus dolor eu lorem. Sed imperdiet orci metus, dignissim egestas ex sagittis eu. Vivamus at suscipit felis. Pellentesque tincidunt vulputate sapien, in tristique justo ullamcorper vel. Sed suscipit eleifend ligula non congue. Etiam tincidunt ipsum ut odio hendrerit, vitae pharetra nibh fermentum. Nullam auctor sapien metus. Aenean lobortis scelerisque dui nec feugiat. Morbi at eros sit amet nisi gravida faucibus at venenatis risus.

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

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Current Productions

Book In Song

BOOK
IN SONG

Presented by Phoenix Central Park

June 12, 5:30pm

Jane Sheldon

June 12, 7:30pm

Anna Fraser

June 19, 5:30pm

Emily Edmonds

June 19, 7:30pm

Simon Lobelson

July 10, 5:30pm
(postponed from June 26)

Simon Lobelson

July 10, 7:30pm
(postponed from June 26)

Emily Edmonds

July 17, 5:30pm
(postponed from July 3)

Anna Fraser

July 17, 7:30pm
(postponed from July 3)

Jane Sheldon

Date & TIME

Sat June 12
5:30PM —  Jane Sheldon
7:30PM — Anna Fraser

Sat June 19
5:30PM — Emily Edmonds
7:30PM — Simon Lobelson

Postponed Performances:

Sat June 26 July 10
5:30PM — Simon Lobelson
7:30PM — Emily Edmonds

Sat July 3 July 17
5:30PM — Anna Fraser
7:30PM — Jane Sheldon

VENUE

‘The Church’
9 Mitchell Rd. Alexandria

duration
4x 60 minute long programs, each
presented twice
TICKET prices

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General Inquiries ​

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General Information

We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang

Categories
Blog Posts

Florescence, Decay and the Body

Florescence, Decay
& The Body

By Jane Sheldon

One of the primary images woven into this month-long song installation is that of the garden, the setting for both Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens), sung by Anna Fraser, and Fauré’s La Chanson d’Ève (The Song of Eve), sung by me. These cycles are old by SCO standards; both were premiered in 1910 (although fragments of the Fauré had been presented earlier.) Both are performed too rarely. Some of the works in our series address us very much from the perspective of the intellect, but in the Fauré and the Schoenberg the body is where everything registers.

In both cycles the garden is intoxicating, all-consuming, but the dispositions of each protagonist couldn’t be more different: Eve awakens in Eden, embarking on a day of sublime discovery, while Schoenberg’s protagonist stumbles through a garden in decay, lovesick and reeling. Both works are sung in the present in a sense; we’re witness to something unfolding in real time for a single psychology. In the Schoenberg we’re in a kind of Babylon, perhaps, and in the Fauré we’re in Eden, but where we really are is in the sensorium of each protagonist. La Chanson d’Ève sets poems by Charles van Lerberghe and it is worth noting how unusual they are. If you hadn’t heard of Adam and wanted a fully-furnished picture of Judeo-Christian cosmology, this cycle is not going to help you; refreshingly, Adam never shows. We only ever hear from Eve, apparently waking in the garden alone, discovering it alone. But it’s not only the care taken over the singularity of Eve’s experience that is special here. It’s also that the experience is one of the garden making itself known to Eve’s body. As in song five, L’aube blanche:

A ray of light touches

The pale flower of my blue eyes;

A flame awakens my mouth,

A breeze awakens my hair.

The music itself is revealed like a garden coming into being, unfolding from incredibly simple elements, single pitches emerging one by one, until we are suddenly aware that we are deep in rich harmony, the garden in full bloom. Eve’s body is foregrounded all the while. We know as early as the third song, Roses ardentes, that Eve has arrived at an ecstatic, sublime conflation of her self with the garden. By song seven, the eroticism of this merging is clear:

Are you awake, my fragrant sun,

Scent of blonde bees,

Do you float across the world,

My sweet scent of honey?

At night, when my steps

Prowl in the silence,

Do you, who perfume my lilacs,

And my vivid roses, proclaim me?

Am I like a bunch of fruit

Hidden in the foliage,

That nothing reveals

But whose fragrance is felt at night?

Does he know, at this hour,

That I am loosening my tresses

And that they are breathing?

Does he sense it on earth?

Does he sense that I reach out my arms,

And that my voice – which he cannot hear –

Is fragrant

With lilies from my valleys?

The ultimate disintegration of self into garden comes at song ten, O mort, poussières d’étoiles, an expression of desire for ecstatic self-annihilation:

…It is into you I want to be absorbed,

To be extinguished and dissolved,

Death, to which my soul aspires!

Come, break me like a flower of foam,

A flower of sun in the crest

Of the waves,

And as if from a golden amphora,

A wine of heavenly fragrance,

Pour my soul

Into your abyss, that it might perfume

The dark earth and the breath of the dead.

In contrast to the sublime ecstasy of the Fauré, Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten is a dark and beautiful bruise, charting the torments of love in decay, and written at a time of great turmoil in Schoenberg’s marriage. The work was Schoenberg’s first entirely atonal work and it is heady and lush, quite gorgeously sickening at moments; for the protagonist it is a thoroughly arousing sort of pain. I’m going to quote repeatedly from Allen Shawn’s biography, Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, because it’s a truly wonderful book, terrible title notwithstanding. To borrow a map from Shawn, the songs travel through “vague anticipation (1, 2) and longing (3,4,5) to obsession (6,7,8), frustration (9), reverie (10), brief consummation (11), and finally doomed resignation (12, 13, 14, 15).”

From the final song:

The pond’s glass fades and breaks

And I stumble lost in the rotting grass.

Palms prickle with their spiky fingers.

Crumbling leaves in a sibilant mass

Are driven by invisible hands

Around this Eden’s sallow walls…

What is foregrounded for the most part is not the personage of the beloved, not their features or their actions; rather, what is rendered in extremely fine detail is the slowly rotting garden and its contents, observed by the singer staggering lovesick through meadows of flowers. Through the metaphor of the garden, what is most salient to us is the way that heartbreak tastes, smells, and feels, the oppressive dis-ease of it.

Schoenberg took these fifteen poems from a much larger work by Stefan George, which charts a more explicit storyline, but the composer’s selections leave us only the emotional dimension. Structurally speaking, Stefan George’s poetry is full of classical order, but Schoenberg’s music pays no heed to whatever structural constraints might be found in the poems, somehow concealing the rigidity of meter to reveal the emotional dimension of the poem with greater clarity. On this, Shawn quotes H. H. Stuckenschmidt, another Schoenberg biographer: “George’s strict meters are as it were unmasked by Schoenberg… Schoenberg’s sounds and rhythms shine behind this order and disclose the spiritual organism which lies behind it.”

George’s poems, with their themes of exquisite disorientation, served to support some of Schoenberg’s most radical musical gestures. It is George who lends text to Schoenberg’s second string quartet, in which he announces that he is, before our very ears, going to gently and decisively snip the tether from the spacecraft to send us floating off into free atonality, seeding a musical language for Das Buch der hängenden Gärten and beyond.

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The Art of Song

The Art of Song

By Jack Symonds

In curating the four hours of voice-and-piano music that make up IN SONG, Jane Sheldon and I hope to shed a bit of light on a body of work we’re fanatically passionate about: modern art song. This pretentious genre title is unfortunate: it smacks of fusty music lectures about, say, German word painting in Schubert (wonderful as it is!), and a certain privileged, intellectual arrogance that seems to bedevil this repertoire. This music is seen as the preserve of the few and inaccessible to the many. “Art” song, indeed. I suppose the title is only useful to mark an arbitrary division with ‘popular’ song – and thereby consign this music to UNpopularity!

However, tarnishing the staggering creative, musical and linguistic achievement of song composers firing on all cylinders with the stain of elitism surely misses the point. Just revel in the outrageous, transcendent level of invention; a riot of musical and poetic colour joined together in ever-surprising ways. Subjects and ideas you never thought you needed to experience through the music-poetry filter pop up where you least expect them. Who knew that Goethe had a thing for types of cloud, and that Pascal Dusapin would, almost 200 years later, find a staggeringly apposite musical language for this strange sidebar in German romantic poetry? This is modern artsong, and it needs no apology.

..."How could this genteel, moustachioed hanger-on from the French Romantic create something so deeply unstable, couched in a world of gently perfumed purity?"

Attempting to navigate a path through this bewildering and diverse musical landscape required some hard choices and inevitable omissions. I am devastated no place could be found for one of the grandest cycles of them all: Hindemith’s Das Marienleben, or one of the sparest and most withering expressions of anything, Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite. Henze’s Arabian Songs was likewise left, tragically, on the shelf, though it’s always good to leave oneself somewhere to go in the future…

Now, a little bit of an introduction to the choices we DID end up making.

PART ONE | Programs One & Two

Fauré and Schoenberg: this early 20th century pair both created visionary ‘gardens’ in their largest and most ambitious song cycles for voice and piano. And how different could they possibly be – on the surface, at least. Playing Fauré’s La chanson d’Ève (1910), I am struck by the hugely challenging paradox of having to maintain a perfectly unbroken surface of self-similar patterns while simultaneously illuminating the truly monumental and startling harmonic universe that whips by at an unpredictable orbit beneath. How could this genteel, moustachioed hanger-on from the French Romantic (whose middle name was indeed ‘Urbain’!) create something so deeply unstable, couched in a world of gently perfumed purity? He has created the rarest thing of all in music: a total and genuine reinvention of all our notions of tonality and consonance without ever puncturing its delicate skin. The performance style is utterly different from Schoenberg’s The Book of the Hanging Gardens (1909), which teeters on the brink between Romanticism and Expressionism, all its suppurating wounds exposed, demanding a constant, passionate representation of its depiction of a world and a language in a state of decadent decay. How could we not put these two great, polar opposite works on the same day and surround them with orbiting satellites from the more than hundred years since their composition?

The path from Schoenberg to the exquisite dodecaphonic miniatures of Luigi Dallapiccola is clear: Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to embrace Schoenberg’s reinvention of pitch in twelve-tone serialism yet how utterly different from Schoenberg and his students this music sounds! The gossamer threads of these newly minted chords light up Machado’s gnomic reflections on the turning of the seasons, just as Pascal Dusapin’s Wolken on those Goethe poems about clouds seems the most natural aerial extension from Fauré’s rarefied garden.

SCO audiences may remember that we spent a summer with Dusapin in 2016’s Sydney Festival, presenting his large opera Passion and the song-cycle/stage work O Mensch! in the space of a week.

Both these programs have small, impactful cycles by the living master György Kurtág. These abutting opus numbers are spectacular examples of Kurtág’s art of seeming to compress the history of European music into hyper-dense miniatures of only a few minutes. To hear them sung by different singers will hopefully give a rounded view of this frighteningly intense music. These two cycles from the 1980s are like synecdoches for the whole 19th and 20th century art of voice and piano, and it is a joy to reconnect with his music after SCO staged the monumental song cycle …pas à pas – nulle part…. in 2014.

Of course, this being SCO, we couldn’t resist continuing the journey with new works by Australian composers. Along with Fauré, Dusapin and Kurtág, Jane Sheldon will premiere Mary Finsterer’s Nearing Circumpolar, a song cycle based on Mary’s upcoming opera Antarctica. SCO premiered Mary’s first opera Biographica in 2017 (which you can watch here) and has crafted another ‘nature’ work to complement Dusapin and Fauré: a world of ice, white silence and the billions of tiny creatures under the surface of the frozen sea. 

Anna Fraser, along with Schoenberg, Dallapiccola, Kurtág and Boulanger will sing David Evans’s In my brain, an extreme and disturbing setting of Emily Dickinson’s classic “I felt a funeral in my brain”. This long single song feels like a cycle, vacillating as it does between mechanistic, brutal and harsh streams of text and warm cushions of velvety tonality that could have brought a smile to a French Romantic’s face. This Dickinson setting is also the ‘apology’ for not including in the series Aaron Copland’s wide-eyed and perfect Dickinson cycle. 

PART TWO | Programs THREE & FOUR

Here we find a broader, more philosophical view of subject matter, and wilder swings of style. Simon Lobelson carries a heavy burden delivering both Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and Wolfgang Rihm’s Vermischter Traum. No survey of modern song cycles could omit Britten and this is perhaps my favourite: dark, late Britten shot through with the agony of existence. Written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, this stern yet remarkably well-contrasted piece attempts to embrace William Blake’s eccentric world vision with chiselled precision, economy and that classic Britten style of text setting where you simply can’t imagine the words being sung any other way. SCO has quite a history with Britten – Owen Wingrave in 2013, The Rape of Lucretia in 2017.

Will there be more this year? Watch this space…

The Rihm is a recent (2017) work by the hugely prolific living German composer and provides a vital link back to the Schoenberg from the previous program as well as casting an expressive net much further back to Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. This piece is about as serious, heavy and German as you can get. When your first line (setting the grumpy Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius) is “What is this life? What are we?” there’s only one way to go, and Rihm takes us straight into the heart of the big questions of life and death, meaning and purpose. This is German art painfully aware of its own history and deeply moving in the music’s acknowledgement that these threads remain unresolved, even in the second decade of the 21st century.

In between these two big works is a treat: Ravel’s Histoires naturelles – pure delight from start to finish – where the traits of four birds and a little cricket are lightly satirised and anthropomorphised to form a surprisingly profound portrait of inter-species folly.

Emily Edmonds will deliver a program rooted in the pleasures and ecstasies of life and religion. If the Rihm and the Britten are existential, doubting works pleading for meaning in a Godless universe, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs are the perfect riposte. Ten reflections from anonymous monks in pre-modern monasteries, they contain a cosmic pleasure in the simple acts of praise, worship and solitude from which we could all learn. Barber really rose to the occasion with this glorious cycle, capturing the text with alternately devotional wonder and sparkling joy. 

Barber adored the music of Francis Poulenc, who also could not be omitted from a survey of modern song. And Barber wasn’t the only one – it is hard music to resist. The ten minute song cycle Banalités is much, much more than its tongue-in-cheek title suggests. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscopic survey of Poulenc’s art, with each song reflecting a different side of his complex and winning personality. From breezy Parisian interwar insouciance to operatic drama, smoky eroticism and profound introspection, it seems to have it all.

If Poulenc’s sexy setting of the word ‘cigarette’ in “Hôtel” gets you going, then Kaija Saariaho’s Quatre instants (2002) is love-music on another level entirely. This is a 21st century song cycle saturated in the kind of ‘complex pleasure’ at which Saariaho is a true master. Written in the wake of her massively successful opera L’amour de loin and just before La Passion de Simone (which SCO performed in 2019) these four songs are vast in expression and imagination – an ocean of sound for just two performers. They are among the most complex things I’ve ever played – I can sense Saariaho’s imagination working overtime to make the piano into a huge resonating chamber seemingly capable of producing every pitch and rhythm simultaneously! These texts move from pure pleasure through pain and eventually reminiscence, culminating, at the end of more than 20 minutes of pulverising eroticism, in one of the most sheerly gorgeous codas written this century. By rights, here of course should be made mention of Messiaen’s ecstatically loopy Harawi (recently heard locally by The Song Company) which was too long for this program anyway, and the lovesick world of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared – presented just this January by SCO, staged in Sydney Festival.

Lastly – and one never likes to write too much about one’s own work – I had to pay tribute to both Emily Edmonds’s remarkable voice and the other music I have been thinking about all this time in my own small song cycle Nothing other than silence. A setting of an ecstatic, apocalyptic vision of the Flood myth from an oracle in The Epic of Gilgamesh (re-interpreted by SCO co-founder Louis Garrick) I have simply tried to capture some of the things I love about working with voice and piano: electric intimacy, and the seeming infinity of expression and colour that one can find in just two people on stage.

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

© 2020 Sydney Chamber Opera | Site designed & built by Anderson Chang