Lockdown delivers an operatic good time

20 August 2021

An innovative inter-faculty opera from the University of Western Australia finds the intersection between Baroque arias and a pandemic, says Rosalind Appleby

‘Love and Lockdown: A Pastiche Opera’, The Irwin Street Collective & UWA English and Literary Studies ·
Hackett Hall, WA Museum, 19 August 2021 ·

How to sandwich 14 classical vocal students from the UWA Conservatorium of Music into a concert that is enjoyable for an audience? This was the quandary for Voice Lecturer Sara Macliver, as it has been for music directors for centuries. Either the singers don’t match the repertoire, or the repertoire doesn’t exist for that particular combination of singers. What to do?

In the 17th and early 18th centuries Baroque operatic composers solved the problem by adapting or substituting solo numbers to suit the singers available for each performance. Or an entirely new “pastiche” opera could be created from repurposing existing music into a libretto.

Macliver specialises in repertoire from this period and for this concert with the help of other members of the University’s resident Baroque ensemble the Irwin Street Collective – violinist Shaun Lee-Chen and harpsichordist Cecilia Sun – she cobbled together works by Handel, Monteverdi, Strozzi and others into a pastiche opera. The innovative cross-faculty collaboration also involved UWA Creative Writing Lecturer Catherine Noske, whose libretto recounted a familiar tale: the trials of life in lockdown.

From the balconies above us in Hackett Hall actors (English and Creative Writing students) conveyed the frustrations of a pandemic lockdown in rhyming couplets, while on the stage below vocal students took it in turns to express the sentiment of each character in songs from the Italian Baroque, accompanied by the university orchestra.

Incongruous though it may seem, it worked!

The opera was coherent, with a clear dramatic trajectory and the emotional depth of each character was poignantly expressed through some of the finest gems of the Baroque repertoire. Who knew that Vivaldi’s “Del destin non dee lagnarsi” (“One should not complain about destiny”) could convey so powerfully the trauma of having a family member in ICU during lockdown? The timeless relevance of other pieces like Handel’s flirtatious “Un cenno leggiaretto” easily applied to the love triangle unfolding on the balconies. Barbara Strozzi’s “Che si puo fare” (“What can you do?”) was a particular highlight, its wide melodic intervals and dramatic range capturing the anguish of loneliness.

It was clear the songs were carefully curated to suit individual voices and the lighter Baroque orchestra was the perfect size for young voices to sing over (I’m not convinced the microphone amplification was necessary, in fact it distorted the natural purity of the vocal sound). Both singers and actors performed with impressive professionalism.

Lee-Chen led the 15-piece orchestra, his effortless musicality infusing the students around him with energy and poise, drawing from them a clean, vibrato-less Baroque sound. The ensemble’s assertive yet elegant shaping of volume, momentum and mood embedded each song with emotional impact.

From an audience perspective the accessible narrative, bite-sized portions of music, variety of voices and interesting venue made for an entertaining package. And it was enlightening to experience the dramatic power and beauty of Baroque music in a new context. As the characters celebrated the end of their lockdown: “It’s been Facebook and sour dough as far as the eye can see/ Tomorrow will be a whale of a time for me” it was also a gentle reminder to the audience, seated under the museum’s suspended blue whale skeleton, that these moments of live performance are not to be taken for granted.

The next performance from the Conservatorium of Music is “Piazzola Project”, 27 August 2021.

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She was co-managing editor and founding board member of Seesaw Magazine 2018 – 2023, is author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine (UK). She loves park percussion instruments.

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