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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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Lorem Ipsum,Carriageworks. Photo by Photographer

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The Rape of Lucretia Cast and Creatives

SCO BIOGRAPHIES

Creative Team

Jack Symonds

Jack Symonds is a composer, conductor and accompanist, and Artistic Director of Sydney Chamber Opera. He studied composition at the Royal College of Music, London under Kenneth Hesketh and at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music where he received the University Medal. Trained also as a pianist and trombonist, he continues to work regularly as an accompanist and pianist, giving the premiere of many new works as well as frequently conducting his own and others’ music, including Britten’s Owen Wingrave (2013- Australian premiere) & The Turn of the Screw (2010), Dusapin’s Passion & O Mensch! (2016 Sydney Festival- Australian premieres), Romitelli’s An Index of Metals with Ensemble Offspring (2015), Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill & Kurtág’s … pas à pas- nulle part… (2014 Sydney Festival), Maxwell Davies’s The Lighthouse (2012), Kancheli’s Exil(2013) and Jonathan Dove’s chamber version of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen (2011- Australian premiere). He has also conducted the world premieres of Elliott Gyger’s Fly Away Peter and Michael Smetanin’s Mayakovsky.

Significant composition premieres include Climbing Toward Midnight, a chamber opera re-imagining the second act of Wagner’s Parsifal, a piece for New York’s JACK Quartet, the Dostoevsky opera Notes from Underground (2011, and re-written 2016 for Carriageworks), Decadent Purity, a double concerto for BIFEM, stage work Nunc Dimittis, (2011), the song cycle Time Unredeemed (2010), a large-scale work for viola and piano, Song Cycle, written for violist James Wannan (2011), Sunless Communion (2013) for the Composers Ensemble at Dartington where he studied with Detlev Glanert as well as new pieces for Timo-Veikko Valve, Jane Sheldon, two works for Australia Piano Quartet, the Streeton Trio, cellist Patrick Murphy, and a concert series curated around his music by Affinity Collective which included three premieres.

His first album of chamber music was released on Hospital Hill in August 2016.

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Board Members

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BRAND AMBASSADOR

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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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In at the deep end

In at the deep end

Singers on the fearsome thrill of Britten’s Lucretia
by Annarosa Berman

Sydney Chamber Opera and Victorian Opera’s co-production of Benjamin Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia, showcases two of Australia’s brightest young opera stars, mezzo soprano Anna Dowsley as Lucretia, and soprano Celeste Lazarenko as Female Chorus. While both singers love the intimacy of chamber opera, they say that initially at least, they found their roles daunting.

Female Chorus has been described as the most challenging role in the opera, and Lazarenko, who while living in the UK has worked with ENO, Opera North and at Glyndebourne, says the difficulty lies in the role’s unusually wide vocal range. “Britten wanted female chorus to communicate in the range of a woman’s speaking voice, so the singing goes very low, but it also needs a lot of light and purity at the top.” The size of the role adds to its difficulty: in Greek tradition the chorus witnesses and describes the events, but in Lucretia, male and female chorus both become involved. And there’s diction. “In an English opera, the audience expects to understand what you’re singing. So you have to learn to finish your words – can’T; don’T.”

Dowsley, a former young artist and now principal artist at Opera Australia, faced a different kind of challenge. She says of the potentially career-defining role of Lucretia: “For someone without perfect pitch, the first hurdle was to learn some very difficult music. But [SCO Artistic Director] Jack Symonds teaches the music to you very patiently, and after a while, Britten becomes tuneful. Once you ‘get’ the music, it’s not difficult at all, and singing it feels great.”

The Rape of Lucretia,Carriageworks. Photo by Zan Wimberley

When rehearsals with director (and Sydney Theatre Company Artistic Director) Kip Williams start in mid-July, she imagines that for her, the real challenge will be the drama. “So far I’ve sung mostly comic roles like Dorabella and Cherubino. I’ve never died on stage, never killed myself on stage. And I’ve never been raped on stage.”

Williams has a reputation for throwing singers in at the deep end, and Lazarenko for one, relishes the prospect. “We’re all very excited to be working with Kip. I’m already thinking, if he asks me to do this, or that, I’m going to say yes!” To which Dowsley quips: “It’s on the record now.”

She worked with Williams in SCO’s staged version of Bach’s Ich Habe Genug, an experience she found exhilarating. “There was a lot of discussion and exploration. Generally in opera you don’t have that luxury; you’re boxed in by the time constraints of the rehearsal period.” That Williams, an acclaimed and sought-after theatre director, loves directing opera, is just delightful. “We feel privileged to be able to work with him. I can’t wait to see what he will make of Lucretia.”

Both singers are looking forward to discover Williams’ directorial take on Britten’s opera, and especially on its problematic ending. As Dowsley puts it: “The ending is tricky. I think it’s one of the reasons why Lucretia is not performed very often.”

When working on difficult repertoire, singers rely heavily on the musical instincts of the conductor. Says Dowsley: “When the music is demanding, you can’t always trust your own ears. Jack would play this very complicated chord, and you’d have to get your note from it. For him it’s like picking apples, but for me it’s difficult. He’s quite patient though.”

Lazarenko agrees. “Having someone with an ear as trustworthy as Jack’s; someone who is also trying to coax the best out of you, that’s very valuable. He can shock and intimidate you with his talent and ability (she laughs), but if you’ve made a mistake, or you’re out of tune, he will tell you in a courteous way.”

Both singers laugh when asked about their plans for the future. “A very small percentage of opera singers actually have control over their careers,” Dowsley points out. “You go where the voice and opportunities take you.” Lazarenko says, with a smile: “Dame Kiri Te Kanawa once asked me where I saw myself in five years. I said, ‘I see myself with a driver and a house in Covent Garden.’ I think she was a little shocked because I said it with a straight face.”

When she was studying at London’s Guildhall, her teachers didn’t think she’d be able to make a career of the roles that interested her – very early Mozart; a collection of obscure Handel pieces. “And yet, that’s exactly the repertoire I’m being booked for.” She’s glad that she followed her passion, “because now I get to do these unusual, fascinating pieces.”

Lucretia is the most dramatic role that Dowsley has sung so far, and she considers herself lucky that it’s in a small, chamber environment, which is less taxing on a young voice than an opera house auditorium. But when she reaches her thirties, she’d like to do some Massenet, perhaps a Carmen, and her dream role is Strauss’s Octavian. “The stage is about escaping. If you’re a girl, what better way to escape than to play a boy?”

Both singers consider themselves extraordinarily lucky to have careers as opera singers at all. Lazarenko is especially thrilled at the prospect of singing the title role in Cunning Little Vixen for Victorian Opera this winter, once again with Symonds conducting. “But,” says Dowsley, with a wink, “houses in Barcelona and Paris is definitely where we see ourselves in future.”

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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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