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


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

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

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


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.’




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


 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.


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.


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


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.


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.


 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


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.


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.


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


Did You Know? Orchestra of the Antipodes & Cantillation

Did you know that many of the singers and players in Cantillation and Orchestra of the Antipodes do very interesting things in their ‘other’ lives? 

Many have been with us since our first production of Semele in 2002. You may have seen them perform with Opera Australia, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Halcyon, the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra, the Song Company, the Australian Chamber Orchestra and many others.

Four members of Cantillation for Theodora sang in our very first production of Handel’s Semele in 2002: Lindy Montgomery, Alison Morgan, Josie Ryan (sopranos) and Natalie Shea (mezzo). 

From Orchestra of the Antipodes we have eight players who played in both Semele and Theodora - Matt Bruce and Stephen Freeman (violins), Danny Yeadon (cello), Simon Rickard (bassoon), Darryl Poulsen and Lisa Wynne-Allen (horns), Neal Peres Da Costa and our very own Erin Helyard on keyboards.

Double Bassist Kirsty McCahon has played in every opera except one since The Fairy Queen in 2003, most often on bass, but occasionally on violone. Theodora will be her 16th show with Pinchgut. 

Simon Rickard (principal bassoon) is a justly renowned gardener in his other life. His credits include Head Gardener at the Digger’s Club and the Garden of St Erth, He has published several books on the subject, including Heirloom Vegetables with another in the works for Heirloom Fruits.

Dominic Glynn (violin) is the Senior Scientist at Pixar Studios. He is an imaging specialist, mathematician and colour scientist, and plays baroque violin as well.

John Pitman (tenor) is the CEO of Krunchbox, a business using point of sale data for wholesale companies. John also had a life as a professional bassoon player, and was one of the architects of our commissioning the contrabassoon for Theodora.

Simon Rickard

Simon Rickard

Kirsty McCahon

Kirsty McCahon

John Pitman

John Pitman

Introducing Valda Wilson

We’re delighted to welcome Valda Wilson to the Pinchgut family. Valda has had a tremendous career in Europe and we can’t wait to share her stunning lyric soprano voice with you this December in Theodora.


I have always been keenly interested in Pinchgut’s work.  I love my opera to be slightly on the grittier side of things – perhaps that’s why I’ve found my way so well in the houses of Germany, where the productions are on the whole less ‘grand opera’  in style and you’re more likely to find yourself singing upside-down in jeans and a T-shirt.

Pinchgut is renowned for its presentation of works and composers that are left field, and I love that.  There is so much beautiful music out there and people deserve the chance to hear and see it.

My engagement with Pinchgut simply came from an audition I gave for Erin and Antony a couple of years ago on one of my annual visits back home.  I am thrilled to be cast as Theodora!


Yes, I’ve been in Germany for six years now – primarily Dresden and Oldenburg. There is such a density of performance opportunities here that we cannot imagine in Australia.  I’m at my best when I’m performing frequently... so ‘Fest’ jobs in an ensemble have been wonderful for me to develop a wide repertoire and to be constantly busy. In just two seasons here I have made ten role debuts, ranging from Countess Almaviva through to Handel’s Romilda and Iole, bel canto such as La Dame Blanche, classic operetta like The Merry Widow and more modern repertoire including Philip Glass and Britten!  Such a full-time ensemble position is unique to this part of the world, and I do love it.The challenge is balancing that with enough freedom to pursue concerts, festivals and guest jobs outside of one’s full-time position.

Opera in Germany is part of the fabric of society: Little children always know what I mean when I talk about The Magic Flute and will sing me the ‘Pa pa pa’ duet... that’s pretty special.  No one suggests that I should go on X Factor!  The theatres are quite heavily subsidised by the State which makes ticket prices affordable and keeps this amazing art form accessible to the general public.


As a lyric soprano I’ve sung a lot of highly-strung characters in stressful situations... the thing is, the music still needs to be able to soar, in spite of the character’s desperation.  When I’m working on roles like Theodora, I like to work extremely technically on the musical side of things, but keep the emotions out of it until I’ve really got a solid foundation.  I think about the drama quite separately and only really allow the two to begin to merge when we then start to stage it.  If one tries too early in the preparation process to embrace all the angst, all the bodice-ripping emotions of the character, one runs the risk of sacrificing the beauty of the music.

It is definitely a balancing act!  At the end of it all, you want to have done enough technical work behind the scenes such that you can step out on stage and forget it all.  That’s our job.


Theodora is fascinating.  Profoundly committed to her faith in the face of tyranny, she cuts a strong figure. But she is not only a noble, virtuous pillar: Her moments of self-questioning are deeply human and extremely affecting.  She must also be an extraordinarily charismatic woman...  In contrast with Handel’s often florid style, his music for Theodora has a serene simplicity and a spiritual radiance that is breathtaking. She is strong yet vulnerable. 

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  Valda Wilson in Oldenburg State Theatre’s  The Merry Widow

Valda Wilson in Oldenburg State Theatre’s The Merry Widow


Yes, absolutely!  It’s wonderful to sing in a language in which you are truly fluent. There is then an immediacy there that I have to work much harder to achieve in say French or Czech.  Young singers: Get stuck into learning foreign languages, it’s never too early!

On the more technical side of things, singing in English does have its pitfalls – in contrast with Italian, English syllables are generally closed meaning you have to work harder to maintain the long legato lines essential to beautiful singing. But that’s a small challenge balanced against the joy of singing in your native tongue!


 I think that opera is a deeply human art form, not something to be put up on an untouchable pedestal.  For me what makes an operatic performance really touching is the palpable humanity behind the art... at its best moments, there is a real exchange of energy between the stage and those seated in front of it.  It should be visceral and thrilling.

It’s important for me to feel a connection with my audience and I love that social media makes this possible – even when I’m not on stage.


The Politics and Power of Theodora with Lindy Hume

We’re incredibly excited to welcome back Lindy Hume to the Pinchgut stage after directing our tremendously successful production of Gluck’s Iphigénie en Tauride in 2014. Here Lindy shares her powerful vision for our December production of Theodora.

 We have approached this telling of Theodora as both a poetic interpretation of a true past world and a foreshadowing of a very possible and chilling future world.

It’s not hard for us, in 2016, to imagine the kind of society in which the action takes place, a place where religious and philosophical freedoms are suppressed and the human rights of minorities are ravaged by the dominant culture. These societies have existed all over the world from ancient times to our own and the tendrils of cultural myopia are creeping ever closer. For spectacular triumphalism, boorishness and vilification of other races and religions, and for his celebration of wealth above all else, Donald Trump is Valens’ soul mate. Trump may or may not be President of the United States by the time this production is on stage, but his spirit and shadow have influenced our approach to the staging and characters in Handel’s Theodora.

Religious freedom, absolute power, human rights and the death penalty are some of the great themes of Theodora - and these must be explored. The political and philosophical biosphere of Antioch is populated with five characters placed on the power spectrum from the highest (Valens the dictator and his followers) to the lowest (Irene, the leader of an oppressed minority, in this case the Christians). In between are Theodora and the two Presidential guards Didymus and Septimius whose moral conflict drives the action. Their thoughts are expressed through some of the most ravishing music ever written.

There are no “goodies” and “baddies” in this society. Strength or weakness depends on your perspective. With so much wonderful choral writing to explore it’s inevitable that this production will focus on the individual and collective psychology of these two opposing groups: the Christians and Heathens. I love the idea that the entire Cantillation chorus play both and alternate between the two before our eyes, allowing us to contemplate their journey from one mindset to the other. The Theodora chorus, as autonomous individuals and as a group, reminds us that people are people. No matter how strong our convictions, each of us is flawed, we can be led to acts of folly or protest or greatness, make mistakes and be uncertain of our convictions. What’s truly in peoples’ hearts is unknowable.

It’s impossible to stage Theodora without paying huge respect to the exquisite Peter Sellars 1996 production for Glyndebourne, which I was lucky enough to see live. A revelation for so many artists and audiences, even twenty years later it’s impossible not to be inspired by the depth of Sellars’ conviction of the human potency of the Theodora experience. “It's a huge question: when we take people's lives as a society; when and how we justify killing”.

The last word is from Pope Francis, describing perfectly how Theodora resonates with me:

“In a world where various forms of modern tyranny seek to suppress religious freedom, or try to reduce it to a subculture without right to a voice in the public square, or to use religion as a pretext for hatred and brutality, it is imperative that the followers of the various religions join their voices in calling for peace, tolerance, and respect for the dignity and rights of others.

Pinchgut's New Contrabassoon - FAQ with Simon Rickard

Who built this instrument?
The contrabassoon was made by the Guntram Wolf workshop in Kronach, Germany, in conjunction with Stefan Pantzier. More info at

Is this instrument modeled on any particular historical instrument?
Yes. It is modelled on an original by Andreas Eichentopf, dated 1714.

Where is the original instrument?
The original contrabassoon is now in the Museum für Musikinstrumente der Universität Leipzig.

What is the instrument made of?
The contra is made from maple, stained to the darker colour.

How long is in the instrument?
It is 2.7 metres.

How much does it weigh?
It weighs 5.7kg. By contrast, a modern contraforte from the same maker's workshop weighs 10kg.


Does it come apart into pieces?
Yes. The original has four pieces (left in the pic), but the Wolf workshop has cleverly broken it down further to make it more manageable (right in the pic). 


How many keys does it have?
It has five brass keys - Bb, D, Eb, F, G#.

How long is that crook?
The crook is 72cm long.

Can it be used for other music?
We had this instrument made to play in both A=415 (‘Baroque’ pitch) and A=430 (‘Classical’ era pitch) so that we would be able to use it in a number of different contexts.

How does it play in both A=415 and A=430?
The instrument comes with two different crooks – one for each pitch. And the reeds and fingering are slightly different between the two.

How much of an angle are the tone holes on so that they can be both reached by the fingers yet pierce the bore in the acoustically correct position?
Well spotted - the holes are drilled at an extremely acute angle, much more so than an ordinary bassoon. As such, the contra has an extended wing on the tenor joint, which extends all the way down to meet the butt section. These obliquely drilled finger holes, called 'chimneys', are a feature of all bassoons, and contribute to the bassoon's characteristic sound. 

Who designed and made the nifty stand?
The stand is very elegantly designed and constructed by the Guntram Wolf workshop in conjunction with Stefan Pantzier.

What sized reed does this contra use?
Here’s a pic of the reed, with a normal baroque bassoon reed next to it for comparison. 

What repertoire was written for this instrument?
Some of the most famous pieces of the 18th century specifically call for a contrabassoon - Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749) and l’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1740), JS Bach’s St John Passion (1724) and Haydn’s Creation (1798). The baroque contrabassoon might have been used to double the bass line more frequently than these specific cases suggest, in the way that the double bass is used to double the bass line of the string ensemble.

Is it hard to blow?
It’s not difficult to blow but it does take a lot of air. It makes the player’s whole body vibrate when playing it!

A Contrabassoon for Theodora

(Photo by Anthony Johnson/Fairfax Media)

(Photo by Anthony Johnson/Fairfax Media)

Exciting news – we now have the contrabassoon! Guntram Wolf, the makers of our new contrabassoon, have been working away and the really excellent news is that they have managed to find a way to accommodate our wish to be able to use the instrument at both A=415 (Baroque pitch) and A=430 (Classical pitch). Initially Peter Wolf (the maker of our instrument) thought that this would be impossible, so we are delighted that he has been able to find a way to do this. As you probably know the contrabassoon only truly came into its own in the Classical period as a featured part of the orchestra (Haydn’s Creation is the most famous example of the use of contrabassoon from that period). By commissioning a 415 only instrument we were restricting the possible uses of the contra, so we really wanted to explore ways in which it could be used as a 430 instrument as well, as it will be the only period contrabassoon in the southern hemisphere (that we know about). The difference in pitch is achieved by adapting the bocal (what we would call the crook) and the reed to bring the instrument up to 430 (about a quarter of a tone above baroque pitch). As the bore of the instrument (the length of the tube inside the contra) is very long the fingerholes don’t need to be repositioned between the two pitches, which is what makes this possible. Peter Wolf has worked with Stefan Pantzier, a leading expert in period bassoons and contrabassoons in Germany, on this and they have found a way to do this. Hooray!

Our contrabassoon is based on a model known as the Eichentopf contrabassoon, after a maker Andreas Eichentopf (c. 1670-1721) who was resident in Nordhausen, contemporaneous with J S Bach. The oldest surviving contra is from 1714 in Leipzig and is inscribed with Eichentopf’s mark. A pair of contras survive from this period and have extremely well worn fingerholes suggesting that they were in great use from the time – which is very interesting, as we tend to think about the contra as a specialist instrument, which it probably was not.



John Pitman, Pinchgut Board member, tenor in Cantillation, and contrabassoon donor made the trip to Kronenberg in Germany (while in Europe), where the Guntram Wolf workshop is based, and collected the contra mid August. It came back with John well packed and in the hold of the aircraft, and it’s been handed over to us. From the Pinchgut office it will go to Simon Rickard, who is our principal bassoon, and Brock Imison, who will be the contra player for Theodora. They will be making adjustments, adapting finger holes, cutting new reeds according the ones supplied with the instrument and generally playing it in before Theodora begins. As it is a new instrument it will require considerable working on and getting used to before it is ready to play in the orchestra. It’s very large! We would say look out for it at the Theodora performances, but you won’t be able to miss it!

We recently held a function to celebrate the arrival of the instrument with our donors. See photos below.

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