Far from a rotary phone

7 July 2020

While its characters aren’t communicating clearly, West Australian Opera’s exciting digital offering, The Telephone, is saying plenty. Ara Jansen gets dialling.

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Like an email that won’t send or a letter which doesn’t find the right post box, the characters in The Telephone just can’t seem to get on the same page and get the right words out.

Chelsea Burns as Lucy. She wears a glamorous purple evening dress. She is seated and her body faces away from the camera, with her head twisting back over her shoulder to look at Ben whose outline we can see in the foreground.
On the set of ‘The Telephone’: Chelsea Burns as Lucy in ‘The Telephone‘.

Just as Spandau Ballet lamented that “communication let me down”, in their recently renovated home, characters Ben (Wesfarmers Arts Young Artist, Lachlann Lawton) and Lucy (Wesfarmers Arts Young Artist, Chelsea Burns) just don’t connect and aren’t really listening to each other. He wants to propose. She has her ear glued to the phone in endless urgent calls with her friends.

They’re performing Menotti’s The Telephone, a one-act English language opera, written in the 1940s.
It’s a comedy of errors which, when restaged by the West Australian Opera in 2020, features a tablet, a Zoom app and yet another day in isolation.

Though thrust into a future far from a rotary phone, director Katt Osborne says the themes of miscommunication and not connecting remain the same.

“This work is about how we communicate and the styles of communication we use in a relationship,” Osborne says. “Especially now, what does that do to our relationships with people in our lives and those around us? The content of the story really suited what we were experiencing and offered a natural way to update it.”

Apart from a couple of places, Osborne says they haven’t had to alter the language much in the 30-minute piece but have modernised the set and the technology, while keeping a hint of vintage in their design.

“The piece is very clever in that you can easily fill in the responses when Lucy is on the phone and we didn’t want to change the core of the music. That gave us some good problems to solve creatively and lent itself to a fresh creative visual exploration. We’ve used an abstract expressionist style with bright colours in the clothes and they still feel modern.


“We’ve also put the couple in an isolation scenario. Ben has been at home and has taken to cooking and craft projects while Lucy is missing her social life, so she’s spending a lot of time on her tablet.

“Their relationship is still quite conservative, traditional and heteronormative but I hope we have managed to make it feel more complex by adding some subtext. That’s the beauty of taking a story and finding the resonance now.”

The piece also explores how technology is a help and hindrance to communication and can change the way we interact and relate. It also reveals the absurdity of how we communicate – or don’t – and relate to the devices in our lives.

In addition to the isolation, the couple have also been renovating, and are living in the results of the on-going construction, which mimics some of the work needed on their relationship.

Lachlann Lawton, Chelsea Kluga with Director Katt Osborne and Designer Tyler Hill on set. The set appears to be made of taped together blue cardboard.
Making ‘The Telephone’: Lachlann Lawton, Chelsea Burns with Director Katt Osborne and Designer Tyler Hill.

The team at West Australian Opera has been highly active in creating new and energetic ways to share their work with the world at a time when they can’t invite you into a theatre. As the company’s music director Chris van Tuinen told Seesaw recently, the pandemic has given permission for a new kind of creativity.

Osborne says the idea behind this online digital version of The Telephone wasn’t just to film it live. The company wanted to create something which sat between a live production and a television production but wasn’t really either. Plus, with the performance and production teams spread between Perth and Melbourne, plenty of Zoom hours were logged.

“It’s not just pure realism,” she says. “With a full creative team behind it we had so many ideas that we went a bit crazy. It’s a fun piece so we wanted to reflect that too without you feeling like you were just watching the piece being performed on stage and filmed.”

Chris van Tuinen on the set of ‘The Telephone’.

With social distancing in place, they kept the film crew small and filmed in van Tuinen’s Perth home which has been undergoing renovation. To add another element, van Tuinen – as The Telephone’s music director – plays the piano live on set.

“Ultimately, we tried to create a hybrid of something which is designed to be watched as a digital piece, continues Osborne. “It’s neither a piece of film nor a live performance. In opera everything is a bit extra and has this heightened sense of spectacle, which it does on film as well. So, our experiment has been to bring it all together in a way which makes it thoroughly watchable online.”

The Telephone will be released at 7.30pm (AWST), Thursday 9 July on West Australian Opera’s YouTube channel and afterwards will be available on demand.

You can catch Chris van Tuinen talking about ‘The Telephone’ in a live online conversation with Rosalind Appleby, at the Seesaw Lounge, Friday 17 July, 6pm. This talk is free to Friends of Seesaw. To become a Friend or find out more, head to our Friends page.

Pictured top is Lachlann Lawton as Ben, on the set of ‘The Telephone’.

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Author —
Ara Jansen

Ara Jansen is a freelance journalist. Words, bright colour, books, music, art, fountain pens, good conversation, interesting people and languages make her deeply happy. A longtime music journalist and critic, she’s the former music editor of The West Australian. Being in the pool next to the playground is one of her favourite places, ever.

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