Poppea Rehearsal Gallery

As we enter the final weeks of rehearsals for Coronation of Poppea, we march toward one of the most anticipated productions ever staged by Pinchgut.  The passion and intensity of this monumental story is already evident, as these photos attest.

Click on each image to scroll through to see the entire gallery.

Photography:  Alex Smiles

 

Notes on Poppea

Pinchgut Opera brings Monteverdi’s The Coronation of Poppea to Angel Place in 2017, to celebrate the composer's 450th birthday.

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Helen Sherman and Jake Arditti in rehearsal as Poppea and Nero

Helen Sherman and Jake Arditti in rehearsal as Poppea and Nero

The Coronation of Poppea set a new trend, avoiding stories of the gods, and instead told a story of real people and events. The real Poppea was born in Pompeii in the year 30AD, and did marry the Emperor Nero and became the Empress of Rome. The story is about sex, violence and power and how they are used. It was a very relevant story then, and it is now. Mark, the director, and Charlie, the designer, have chosen to set this story in a time where these elements are just as important – our own time.


PLOT SUMMARY

Amore (the god of Love and Desire) wants to prove that Love will triumph over Fortune and Virtue in the human world in a single day. Nero is in love with beautiful Poppea who is very ambitious. Nero wants to divorce his wife Ottavia and marry Poppea, even though this would be very bad for his kingdom. Seneca, Nero’s teacher, tells him that he must not divorce Ottavia, but Nero refuses to listen and has Seneca executed. Ottavia asks Poppea’s old lover Ottone to kill Poppea, but Amore saves her. Ottone is caught and confesses. Nero realizes that he now has a reason to divorce Ottavia. Ottone and Ottavia are banished and Nero marries Poppea. Love has triumphed by the end of the day.

Nero and Poppea

Nero and Poppea


Poppea Sabina by John William Godward

Poppea Sabina by John William Godward

HIGHLIGHTS

  • Monteverdi shows off his new technique of using musical phrases and shapes that match the imagery of the text in the confrontation between Seneca and Nero (Act 1).
  • Nero’s vocal lines change mood from phrase to phrase, illustrating his psychotic nature.
  • Arioso laments are sung by Nero’s (ex-) wife and Poppea’s (ex-) lover.
  • There are many love duets, representing emotions from light-hearted flirting to serious declarations of love.
  • When Seneca dies we hear a chromatic madrigal full of tragedy and powerful music.
  • Look out for a beautiful and sensuous duet “Pur ti miro” between Nero and Poppea (Act 3). Note that Nero was originally written for a high castrato.
  • The Pinchgut ensemble features copies of stringed instruments that are over 300 years old.

A 16th century theorist (Artusi) criticized Monteverdi’s harmonic innovations and chord progressions; this led Monteverdi to describe a new style of music that he championed and that contrasted with that of an older generation. He called this new style the Seconda Pratica (or “Second Practice”).


COMPOSER INFO

Monteverdi was born in Italy in 1567.  He was a composing prodigy and published his first book of madrigals at the age of just 15 years. He lived a long life, and published many books of madrigals as well as writing several operas. His music was always forward-thinking and he was among the first to express deep emotions explicitly through music, expressing the meaning of text through musical concepts.

Monteverdi also wrote church music, and he brought his new ideas and compositional techniques to sacred music as well. He wasn’t afraid to repeat a phrase or word in vocal music in order to emphasise its meaning and make the music more elegant.

Claudio Monteverdi

Claudio Monteverdi

Unusual Instruments: Coronation of Poppea

In the orchestra for Poppea you will see a number of instruments that we don’t often see any more even in baroque orchestras.  Two are slightly more usual instruments (the viola da gamba and the theorbo),  and two are very unusual instruments (the lirone and cornetto). Here’s a guide to these.


Lirone (or lira da gamba)

The lirone is the bass member of the lira family of instruments, popular in the late 16th/17th centuries. It is a string instrument played with a bow, has between 9 and 16 string, and a fretted neck. It’s held between the legs like a cello or viola da gamba. It has a flat bridge which means that it can play chords. This is it’s characteristic sound -  four- to six-note bowed chords, which player are able to control with (ideally!) all the same shades of colour and dynamic as if they were playing a beautiful melody on a violin. Other members of this family include the lira da braccio.

Laura Vaughan, who is playing the lirone for Poppea, wrote a lovely piece on the commissioning of the lirone when it was first played in our production of OrmindoYou can read this here.

You can also watch a video of Laura talking about the lirone here

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Cornetto (or cornett)

A cornetto is a conical wooden pipe, about 60 cms long, covered in leather. It has fingerholes and a small cup shaped mouthpiece. They are usually slightly curved and there are several different sizes, the most popular being the treble. It was much prized for it’s resemblance to the human voice (considered the most perfect of instrumets) and its heyday was the late 16th and first half of the 17th centuries. It is a difficult instrument to master; at it’s most popular it’s virtuoso players commanded impressive salaries and were very highly regarded, particularly for their ornamentation. It is not to be confused with the modern day cornet with which it has no connection.

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Viola da Gamba (often called viols or gambas)

 

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The viol family existed side by side with the violin family from the late 15th century to the mid-18th century. Viols differ from violins in a number of ways – they usually have six strings (instead of four); their ribs (the sides of the instrument) are deeper; they are always played vertically, unlike some of the violin family which were initially rested horizontally against the arm, and were later tucked under the chin; and they have tied-on frets, like a guitar. The bow is also held differently – with the player’s hand underneath the hair rather than on top of the wood. They have a darker, more introverted sound than the violin family. There are four sizes of viols – soprano (treble), alto, tenor and bass. The double bass version is often called the violone, and this is what we are using for Coronation of Poppea.


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Theorbo

 

The theorbo is a variation of the lute, with several extra bass strings attached to an extra pegbox halfway up the neck of the instrument. The most recognisable thing about the theorbo is its length – most instruments are around two metres tall or longer. Fourteen strings seems to be the usual number, though this can vary. The lute and its variants – the archlute, theorbo and chitarrone – were phenomenally popular in their time (from the middle of the 16th century to the middle of the 18th) and much extraordinarily virtuosic music was written for them.

 

Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea

30 Nov - 6 Dec

City Recital Hall

Director Mark Gaal on Poppea and working with Pinchgut - again!

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This is your 6th and a half production with Pinchgut (we have included when you stepped in during the final stages of Ormindo and the director couldn't continue).  What draws you to working with us and specifically collaborating with Erin, that keeps you coming back? 

There are rumours out there that opera is dead, that in five or so years existing companies will start closing their doors.  But Pinchgut flies in the face of this thinking – audiences are building, responding I think to the power of the live musicianship and receiving the Pinchgut ethos that there are operas that provide us with both entertainment and insight into our lives. Erin is as passionate as I am about making opera that both delights and surprises, and about finding stories within pieces from another time that can connect with who we are now. 

 

You've made a directorial decision to place the characters firmly in the 'here and now' with Poppea, I heard you mention 'not a toga in sight!'  Why did you do that and what do you hope the audience will take away from this Poppea? 

What's real about L'incoronazione di Poppea is music that cuts to the heart of human experience, and situations that are as murky and complex today as they were in Monteverdi's time.  Audiences can draw parallels between old worlds and now but sometimes the best way to release something like this is to let it intersect very directly with our own contemporary worlds.

 

Opera Australia did a celebrated production of The Coronation of Poppea which was many years ago, but which some of our audience may remember. Do you feel any connection to that production or any responsibility to reference it in any way? 

I have fond memories of Suzanne Johnston on a glossy red staircase – an astonishing design by Carl Friedrich Oberle. The production was referencing its own time – there was a context of corporate 1980s excess and of life as a cocktail party. There are other goings on in the opera that resonate with us today; we're now in a very different political and social climate, and the excesses and dangerous behaviours of the 21st Century necessitate that we take a dirty fighting spirit into the arena. There's no point in staging the piece unless we connect it directly to our own experience. 

 

What is your favourite thing about being in a rehearsal room?  How do you work with singers and also with your creative crew?  How do you get the best from your creative team on all fronts?

All of us, the musicians, singers, actors, the production and management teams, spend such a long time preparing for rehearsals, that once we're released into the rehearsal room, we're ready to let it rip.  I love the challenge of making sure that this intense creative environment moves forward collectively to a common goal.  The singers arrive note perfect and are hungry for information that lets them build their character and tell the story.  We all have our part to play in making an experience that thrills the audience, and that responsibility is not taken lightly by anybody.

 

Click here to read our blog about the images of inspiration Mark and set designer Charles Davis used to create their world for Poppea.  

Images of Inspiration for Coronation of Poppea

Here you will find a collection of images our director Mark Gaal and set/costume designer Charles Davis used to inspire them for this monumental and deeply passionate work by the great Monteverdi.

The design team will create a thoroughly modern world for Poppea, setting the action inside a concrete bunker.  These grey, industrial tones will be contrasted with hot pink neon lights that will bring a sense of vibrancy and energy of an inner-urban world.  Historically, the colour red has been synonymous with Poppea and indeed royalty in general.  Here the pink is most certainly a nod to this treatment while providing a twist on this convention. 

The characters Nero and Poppea, although they lived centuries ago, remain relevant in this contemporary, but flexible world.  They were Anceient Rome's version of our modern day celebrities.  Their position and popularity elevated them to a status within society, much in the way we elevate cultural characters to celebrity status today.    You might recognise some of the modern day characters Charles and Mark have used to draw their inspiration for costumes and characterisation.

 

Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea

30 Nov - Dec 7

City Recital Hall

Preparing for Poppea

Erin Helyard and mezzo-soprano and Helen Sherman, who will play Poppea, have kicked things off with a session together at ABC's Studio 227 in Sydney ahead of rehearsals which start November 2.  Here's a preview of the delights that await in our performance of Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea.

As we prepare for Poppea, here's another video to watch to help you get ready for this extraordinary event.  Here you will see Danielle de Niese and Philippe Jaroussky perform  "Pur ti miro".  For Pinchgut's performances, this exquisite duet will be sung by Helen Sherman and English counter-tenor Jake Arditti.  Enjoy!

Monteverdi's Coronation of Poppea

30 Nov - 6 Dec

City Recital Hall, Sydney

Catch up with our Theodora Stars

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Valda Wilson (Theodora)

I had a year with a LOT of travelling:  back and forth to Australia three times for Theodora, then a circus opera in Sydney in which I sang while bouncing around in a bungee harness with acrobats, contortionists and a fire-breathing violinist, and Beethoven's 9th Symphony with Marko Letonja and the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra.   I was also singing Vitellia in Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito in Ulm, Germany - and was then asked by the same company to be their Aida for their summer outdoor production.  It's been a great year of contrasts.  Then a couple of big arena Carmina Buranas in Austria and Bavaria, and now I have started my position in the soloist ensemble of the Saarlaendisches Staatstheater where this year I'm singing Musetta, First Lady in Die Zauberfloete, and Fiordiligi.

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Caitlin Hulcup (Irene)

Caitlin has had a busy year with engagements taking her from Sydney in December 2016 to Perth, Hong Kong, London, Beijing and the Newbury Spring Festival in Berkshire in 2017. Also, Caitlin and her husband moved to Oxford, where she is started on vocal staff at the Royal Academy of Music London in August.

 

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Christopher Lowrey (Didymus)

For my part, I'm just about to start work at English National Opera on a revival production of Rodelinda singing Unulfo.  It's my dream to sing Bertarido one day, but Unulfo is also an amazing role and I know it will be a huge challenge.  In this production, he has a soft-shoe dance number on treadmills!  Simultaneous to Rodelinda, I'm going to be covering at ENO the role of Terry in Nico Muhly's brand new opera Marnie. It's been a year of brand new opera for me, as I worked on the premiere of Brett Dean's new opera Hamlet over the summer at Glyndebourne.  The Muhly is pretty challenging, but compared to Hamlet it's a nursery rhyme.  After ENO I'm singing some Bach cantatas at the Philharmonie de Paris with Ensemble Pygmalion.  Then in the new year, I'm singing Medoro in a concert performance of Orlando in London with La Nuova Musica, then heading back to Adelaide to do a revival of Hamlet with the whole Australian team (Brett Dean, Neal Armfield, Alice Babidge, Ralph Myers). After that it's off to the Göttingen Handel Festival to sing the title role in Arminio, and then I have two concert tours with Les Talens Lyriques, one of a strange version of Rinaldo in which I sing Argante, and then I'm doing Pergolesi Stabat Mater with soprano Sandrine Piau, one of my all-time heroes.  If all goes to plan we're recording it next autumn, and I'm excited but definitely shaking in my boots! 

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Andrew Collis (Valens)

Since Theodora, I have had a largely comic year with productions of The Mikado (in NZ), Ruddigore (at OQ), The Merry Widow (OQ/ Queensland Music Festival) and coming up are productions of Don Pasquale (SOSA/Elder Con. co-pro), a tour of Ruddigore and another Merry Widow. There is also a Don Giovanni coming up  at OQ and, on the serious side there was a Pearl Fishers early in the year and there is a QSO Messiah on the horizon (with Erin) and a Beethoven 9 next year  in Adelaide with the ASO.  So... hanging on grim death!

Update from Erin

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Both the Orchestra of the Antipodes and myself have been participating in the Monteverdi celebrations with various events in Melbourne and Sydney that have been great successes.  A student production of Monteverdi’s L’orfeo that I conducted at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music received a five-star review in Limelight praising David Greco (singing the title role) in particular:

“[h]is voice and stage presence captivate; his performance is masterful, poised and exemplary.”

The Orchestra of the Antipodes participated in a performance of the Monteverdi Vespers in Sydney recently with the Song Company and the Choir of St Mary’s in what was described in Australian Stage Online as

“a truly wonderful performance […] the choruses shone like living pillars striding through the nave of this majestic building.”

But the highlight of the this year’s Monteverdi performances will undoubtedly be Pinchgut’s production of Monteverdi’s great masterpiece, Coronation of Poppea. Featuring the talents of Australia’s finest specialists of seventeenth-century performance in both the orchestra and on the stage, this will be an operatic event not to be missed. I look forward to seeing you there!”

 

Chat with Triple Bill Costume Designer Melanie Liertz

Melanie Leirtz

Melanie Leirtz

As rehearsals begin for our Triple Bill featuring Rameau's Anacréon and Pigmalion,  we sat down for a chat with costume designer Melanie Leirtz.  

After graduating from The Victorian College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Creative Arts, Mel was resident costume designer at the Ballarat Arts Academy (now Federation Uni) from 2008 to 2013.  Mel designs and makes costumes for both theatre and film and has worked with many leading arts organsations including Bell Shakespeare, Legs on the Wall, BighART, Malthouse Theatre, Australian Ballet and Victorian Opera.  

Mel recently received a Sydney Theatre Award nomination for her costume design for Sport for Jove’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (see picture below).

When discussing Mel's process and approach to designing costumes for opera, here's what we discovered.

Have you ever costumed an opera before?  If so, which operas?

This will be the first time I have designed for opera. I have spent many years making costumes for Melbourne Opera, Victorian Opera and more recently Sydney Chamber Opera with Notes from Underground.


Have you listened to, or experienced much opera?

I come from a musical family so I was introduced to opera very young. I have been lucky to have seen many operas in Sydney and Melbourne and also in Munich where my family is from.  Whether it is a lavish, traditionally presented Verdi or Mozart, stark modern interpretations or Monteverdi presented with puppets and singers, the opera has always been a part of my cultural diet.  I find the combination of music and theatre intoxicating.

What was your inspiration for the costume design?

The inspiration came from needing to tell a story.  In our case the story that weaves the three operas together and allows the audience to experience them as a whole journey.  We have set the evening in an art gallery and given the performers archetypes or characteristics that fit within that world. The aesthetics of the operas can therefore spring directly from works of art. The classic masterpieces depicting Bacchus and ancient greek revelry for Anacreon or the intricate decorative opulence of baroque paintings of pairs of lovers for Pigmalion for example.


What’s the design process?


The design process has been very collaborative.  Alicia (set designer) and I have been talking with Crystal over Skype for months deciding the best way to present these three pieces.  It was decided very early that it was important the operas sat within a bigger picture, allowing them to become greater than a sum of their parts. We have created a whole world that the performers inhabit but there are restrictions in this also. It needs to be completely feasible that our characters slip from one opera to the next. Our job is to give them the tools to do so.

Are there any practical considerations when working with singers?


All performers have their own specific needs and this - and the needs of the production - are taken into consideration at every step.  Whether it is as simple as a mask that might cover too much of the face and muffle sound or a costume that restricts movement in a particular way, all choices have to serve both the production and the performer. I feel that opera is becoming increasingly theatrical and more is being expected of the performers in terms of interesting or different presentation styles and movement. I have found that good communication is vital in the early stages of the production and most performers are willing to try anything!


Are you busier than usual with three operas to costume?


Yes! Because we are creating a whole world, we need to create a base character costume that rings true to this world but also all the elements that the performers add to create the characters for each of the three operas. It is an ensemble piece where all the performers and the chorus create the shifts between the scenes and the operas onstage in full view of the audience. The magic is seeing the magic be created.

Are there any common elements between the costumes / characters played by various singers?


I have given a distinctive pallet to each of the operas that help define the characters that the performers inhabit for each opera. This helps us create the mood of each opera but also makes it easy for the audience to see the different characters even if they are being performed by the same singer.

To read more about Mel and her work, visit https://www.theloop.com.au/melanieliertz/portfolio

Mel's work in Sport for Jove's Love's Labour's Lost which earned her a Sydney Theatre Award nomination. Pic:  Marnya Rothe

Mel's work in Sport for Jove's Love's Labour's Lost which earned her a Sydney Theatre Award nomination. Pic:  Marnya Rothe

Thoughts on Becoming Our Life Patron with Liz Nielsen

Liz with Marie Bashir and David Walker (countertenor).

Liz Nielsen is now Pinchgut Opera’s Life Patron, we’re delighted that she’s still part of the family, cheering us on in this capacity. Below she shares some reminiscences with us...

Hearing Les Arts Florissant in Sydney recently was a great joy, and reminded me of how many interesting connections Pinchgut has made over the years, and all around the world. To hear Paul Agnew’s beautifully shaped tenor voice again, just as it was when he sang the role of Dardanus for Pinchgut in 2005, and delighting in seeing him now as Musical Director and Associate Conductor of LAF. And to see Miriam Allan as a member of the group, who has also sung for Pinchgut so many glorious times, remembering that Paul first heard Miriam’s beautiful voice in Dardanus and then contacted her about joining LAF. It was a reminder of how many singers have grown into roles with Pinchgut and overseas. Miriam sang with us in Semele first and we’ve since brought her back from her home in London to sing in Griselda and Giasone.

It’s the connections with all the wonderful singers and orchestra players, and the excellence they have displayed in their performances over 15 years that has meant Pinchgut has grown. And it’s the friendships with all these musicians that has been very special to me personally. Working with a team of people who have, mostly, been there since the beginning has been very exciting, as we have all had the same commitment to Pinchgut.

Seeing the creation of a production from the director’s and conductor’s initial concepts, through to rehearsals and then to performances has been a privilege. Connecting with the audience and seeing their joy and appreciation has been a pure delight and is the best reason to have formed Pinchgut Opera.

In my role as Life Patron I will love keeping those connections with the friends of Pinchgut. But enough reminiscence! It is the future that is important. I am happy to hand that over to a very competent team lead by Sarah and a strong Board and now let myself just enjoy the music. Here’s to the next fifteen years! 

We warmly invite you to send your thoughts, reminiscences, and thanks to Liz for her astonishing 15 years with Pinchgut.   Please email ilona@pinchgutopera.com.au

Or post to:  
PO Box 291  
Strawberry Hills NSW 2012

ERIN EXPLAINS... from The Artistic Director

 
 
 

“I guess this is why I love opera so much!”

 

Pinchgut Artistic Director Erin Helyard explains his choice of three works for our Winter season this year.

In all my reading, research, and casual forays into 18th-century culture, I’m continually fascinated by the fact that people then were very much like people today; fussy, easily bored, passionate, clever, and highly adaptable creatures. Nowhere is this similarity more apparent than in entertainment culture.

Eighteenth century arias are about the length of modern pop songs – the poetry expressed in both neatly captures and dramatises just one tiny sliver of the messy human condition. I guess this is why I love early opera so much. Not only was it the distillation of every facet of
the entertainment industry (much like movies today), but audiences were just as voracious, just as easily distracted, and just as vociferous in critique or adulation then as they are now. 

The idea of recreating a night’s entertainment “18th-century style” has long fascinated me. Even though we can’t ever try to reclaim or recreate the wonderfully noisy and informal audience behaviour that characterised mid-century opera, I thought that it might be worth trying out the highly contrasting entertainments that were a feature of the French opera house in the mid-century. Serious and moralistic Lully operas were interspersed with Italian comedy, complete with fart jokes. Just like we change the channel on the TV when we are bored, or leave a website to look at another on our computers, so too did 18th-century audience seek alternative sources of stimulation when their attention was exhausted or their palate needed cleansing.  It’s in this spirit – in which highly contrasting genres are placed closely to one another – that I decided to revive the 18th-century practice of including an Italian intermezzo in between the acts of a French opera.

This year in our Winter season, to highlight the pleasure of the “degustation” or “tasting menu”, we have chosen two single actes du ballets and an Italian intermezzo. It’s a celebration of difference, diversity, contrast, and topsy-turvydom. We relish the shorter dramatic forms and we enjoy the sounds of different national traditions and languages, and it’s really shaping up to be one riotous evening. 

I chose these works because I think Rameau’s Pigmalion and Anacréon are the best examples of the acte du ballet genre: witty, short, melodious, and packed with contrast. The Vinci intermezzo is full of all the jokes that made it a hit in its day – rather than presenting gods, kings and princes we have instead a rich hypochondriac and a scheming maid. These kinds of stories were instantly relevant to an audience hungering for realism. I’m sure you’ll enjoy what the marvellous Pinchgut creative team will give you in our first ever triptych! 

Rameau Anacréon  (libretto by Pierre-Joseph-Justin Bernard)

Rameau Pigmalion  (libretto by Ballot de Sauvot)

Vinci Erighetta e Don Chilone (libretto by Vinci)

Thu 15 Jun, 7pm  
Sat 17 Jun 2pm
Sun 18 Jun 5pm
Tue 20 Jun 7pm
City Recital Hall, Sydney. For tickets: (02) 8256 2222 click on the box below

REVISTING RAMEAU

Castor and Pollux, Celeste Lazarenko as Télaïre.

The music of Rameau, and French baroque opera more broadly, was virtually unknown in Sydney until Pinchgut started uncovering some jewels.

Dardanus, 2005.

Dardanus, 2005.

The colours, textures, and particularly the glorious harmonies of music from this time and place was a particular interest of Antony Walker, our Conductor Emeritus. In 2005, even though we were still in our earliest years, Dardanus was reviewed in the Sydney Morning Herald as ‘Musically, Pinchgut’s best effort yet. It is a credit to Walker and the Pinchgut philosophy that [this]… production is sustained by diverting the eye and ear with something rich, varied, nuanced and voluptuous.’We then returned to the French Baroque in 2012 with Castor & Pollux, a tale of two star-crossed brothers. This season saw our biggest audiences to date, and was wonderfully received by the critics. Harriet Cunningham in the Herald said
‘For a start, Rameau’s score is a revelation and, ever true to its promise to put the music first, every part of the Pinchgut ensemble contributes to making it soar.’ Nicholas Routley, writing for Australian Stage, was more to the point: ‘Altogether another triumph. Go to see it if you haven’t already.’


Listen

 


Watch

Sonya Yoncheva sings aria of Télaïre "Tristes apprêts" by Rameau, performed at Chateau de Chimay in a private Gala "150 ans de Théâtre de Chateau de Chimay" Belgium live performance from September 2013 dir. Philippe Pierlot

 

2017 Season Launch Event

Guests sipped cocktails and enjoyed Friday evening conversation to celebrate the launch of Pinchgut's 2017 Season.  Chic Sydney bar Eau de Vie was transformed into an 18th century-style salon with an intimate performance by the divine soprano Alex Oomens and our artistic director Erin Helyard on harpsicord.  The video below gives you a snippet of this wonderful evening.

 

The Men of Theodora

With less than two weeks to go until opening night we wanted to introduce you to the final members and men of the principal cast. Bass Andrew Collis, Countertenor Christopher Lowrey and Tenor Ed Lyon.

The trio took some time out of their busy rehearsal schedule to answer a few questions about their character's roles, how the rehearsal process has been so far and the beauty of Handel's repertoire. 

Andrew Collis

© Robert Catto

© Robert Catto

THIS IS YOUR PINCHGUT DEBUT. HOW HAS THE REHEARSAL PROCESS BEEN SO FAR?

 The atmosphere in rehearsals is very positive and focused. Theodora is a very beautiful yet dark piece and so it is also important to lighten the mood as much as possible. We have set the whole opera and are now fine tuning the narrative. We have another week on the rehearsal stage and then we move to City Recital Hall.

TELL US ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER VALENS. WHY DO YOU THINK HE APPROACHES THE WORLD IN SUCH AN EVIL MANNER?

Valens is an authority figure with great ambition and a determination to bring actual or perceived opposition into line.  He is more than prepared to enforce his will by any means necessary, but he is also a pragmatic politician who will show forbearance if his demands are met.  In this case, he is quite prepared to leave Theodora and the Christians alone if they observe to formalities of Roman sacrifice, but he will pursue them and punish them if they refuse to comply. In the end, he sentences them in order to protect his own authority and that of the Empire.

YOU SPENT MANY YEARS LIVING IN WORKING IN GERMANY. HOW DO THE OPERA HOUSE OF EUROPE DIFFER FROM AUSTRALIA?

Opera is an institutional presence in Germany, with every city of any size having a theatre. As a part of the city or state government, the profile of the theatre is very high. There will often be a drama company as well as a ballet and they will employ a large number of full time artists who will have a public servant status.

The range of theatres reflects the size of the city with very big houses in the cities such as Munich, Hamburg or Berlin and smaller operas in regional centres. This means that you are never more than a 100km from the nearest opera house and that the variety of repertoire on offer is huge – though the favourites by Mozart, Puccini and Verdi are every bit as popular there as here.

To me, the main difference between Germany and Australia is the centrality of the art form to every day life. In Germany, the profession is just that – a profession. In Australia, though the standard is very good, opera is a niche market that struggles to keep its head above water.  That is why companies such as Pinchgut are so important in Australia's cultural landscape.

Christopher Lowrey

© Robert Catto

© Robert Catto

WHAT DO YOU MOST ENJOY WHEN PERFORMING BAROQUE REPERTOIRE?

For me, what’s most exciting is the balance of vocal beauty and dramatic effects, a merger of newer Enlightenment ideals of rationality, symmetry, and balance with something more excessive, protean, and from our deep human past. One of my great loves is choral music of the Renaissance, an unaccompanied form that allows the directness of the voice to shine through. The best composers of baroque music borrow these insights about vocalism and marry them to incredible instrumental colours. In Theodora, I’m struck by the full range of Handel’s genius, from the simple plaintive counterpoint of the duets to the invention of his endlessly adorned disquisition arias, to the gut-punching immediacy of his accompanied recitative. There is something new to be discovered and relished every single time.

YOUR CHARACTER DIDYMUS FACES AN INTERNAL STRUGGLE BETWEEN HIS FAITH AND SERVICE. HOW HAVE YOU APPROACHED PERFORMING THIS ROLE?

Peter Sellars - whose famous staging of Theodora for the Glyndebourne Festival lingers in our collective consciousness - continues to assert that the arts are inseparable from the realm of politics. Never has that view seemed more undeniable than in our current moment. In preparing this role, the personal continues to bleed into the universal. My attention is focused intensely on the state of affairs of the world and indeed my home and adopted countries. How can we balance our outrage with our compassion? How can we stand up for what we believe in without alienating friends and loved ones who disagree so passionately with us? I think Theodora is helping me to see that one path forward for me is to live out my principles with even more conviction and to be a bright example for others.

YOU HAVE MADE THE TRIP TO AUSTRALIA QUITE A FEW TIMES NOW (WE'RE EXCITED TO SEE YOU AGAIN NEXT YEAR FOR THE ADELAIDE FESTIVAL'S SAUL TOO!) WHAT DO YOU MOST ENJOY ABOUT PERFORMING IN AUSTRALIA?

 I love Australia, and I’m beyond tickled that Australia seems to love me back. The people, the weather, the food (so much brunch!). The Aussies can be a bit hard on themselves, I think unfairly, endlessly comparing what's happening here with Europe. Curiously though, this impulse seems to enliven the scene here. It encourages a wonderfully outward perspective, and an openness to fresh and untested approaches. Your festival system ensures that amazing projects like Faramondo at Brisbane Baroque and Saul at Adelaide Festival will be within reach of so many within a single country who would otherwise miss these masterpieces. And the relative scale of companies like Pinchgut mean that every company member is fully invested in their work and relates to each other and guest artists like a family. 

Ed Lyon

© Robert Catto

© Robert Catto

WELCOME BACK TO PINCHGUT! WHAT HAVE YOU BEEN UP TO SINCE PERFORMING IN L'AMANT JALOUX?

I've had a super busy year. Firstly Ariodante with Scottish Opera (with the lovely Caitlin in the title role) then in spring I sang Walther von der Vogelweider (great name) in Tannhäuser at Covent Garden. Summer was totally absorbed by the world premiere of a new opera by Thomas Adès called the Exterminating Angel in the Salzburg festival, and I headed straight from there to Copenhagen for a production of The Fairy Queen by Purcell.  Then I came here! I've done some exciting concerts too, and recorded the John Passion arias with the choir of Kings College, Cambridge. It's been full on! I've also moved cities, bought a new house, and got engaged.  So in spite of Brexit, it has been a wonderful year.

A CAREER IN OPERA IS QUTE A DEMANDING PROFESSION. WHAT DO YOU DO TO ENSURE THAT YOUR VOICE REMAINS FRESH AND HEALTHY?

To be honest, I don't have any special secrets or rituals. The voice is connected to the rest of the body, so essentially I believe you treat the body holistically to care for the voice.  I always find a gym when I'm travelling - singing is a physical activity, and I believe the fitter you are, the better you function - and try to eat well. Sleep is the main factor in vocal health in my opinion, and by that I mean quality sleep and regular patterns. Though having said that, when I arrived here I was vocally fresh as I've ever been, even after 31 hours in transit.  That's the problem - you never know. The voice is a capricious mistress.

CAN YOU TELL ME A BIT ABOUT YOUR CHARACTER SEPTIMIUS? 

Septimius is, I think, dramatically possibly the most interesting tenor role in all Handel. As well as having some truly great music (there are very few 'filler' arias in Theodora), he has a remarkably interesting dramatic arc and function.  I believe he represents the secular enlightenment. He accepts the state religion out of respect for his ancestors, but believes fundamentally in tolerance and the respect for choice.  He doesn't see Christianity as being at odds with Roman moral values.  Indeed, towards the end he sees such virtue in Theodora that he encourages the Romans around him to defy the president and is perfectly willing to turn accept Didymus's Christianity.  What is astonishing about this piece is its prescience.  It deals directly with the same moral, religious and civic dilemmas which are so much part of political discourse at the moment.  Absolutism, demagoguery, religious intolerance, the use of majority beliefs to persecute, detain and even kill dissenters, irrespective of the passivity and peacefulness of their behaviour and beliefs - this is a world we live in today. And Septimius, for me, is the moderate, the liberal, the guy caught in the middle. He is, in some respects, the Everyman of the audience.

Handel's Theodora
30 November - 6 December
City Recital Hall