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.
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.
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.
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.
30 November - 6 December
City Recital Hall