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Reviews/Music

A fresh take on opera

7 November 2021

From the frothy fun of operetta to the suave tones of Hollywood, Couch Opera Live take audiences on an entertaining operatic journey.

“From Vienna to Hollywood and Broadway”, Couch Opera Live ·
Camelot Theatre, 5 November 2021 ·

Couch Opera Live started out life as an online performance platform for opera singers during the pandemic. Soprano Magda Lisek continued the project beyond lockdown with the live Fringe show “Diary of A Diva” which fell victim to lockdown cancellations. The latest project, “From Vienna to Hollywood and Broadway”, written and directed by internationally renowned baritone and mentor Gregory Yurisich, finally made it to the stage on the weekend.

The cabaret-styled show traces the journey of early 20th century operetta (opera’s more light-weight, comical cousin) and its influence on America’s film and music theatre industry. Operetta’s frothy style of singing suited the cabaret seating of the intimate Camelot Theatre, and also the young voices of the singers Lisek has gathered around her.

The thread tying the musical numbers together was the significant role of Jewish composers who were key to the success of operetta in Vienna and also instrumental in developing the symphonic music of Hollywood and Broadway. We are introduced first to Austro-Hungarian Jewish composers Emmerich Kalman, Carl Millöcker, Robert Stolz and Paul Abraham, and performances of various duets, solos and ensemble numbers from their operettas reveal plenty of waltzes, Puccini nostalgia and traces of folk music. Digital projections on the cyclorama show glimpses of opulent Viennese buildings, while the singers don lederhosen and dirndl to deliver the frivolity and sweeping climaxes of the operetta repertoire.

Film footage of the Nazi annexation of Austria prompts stories (narrated by the cast members) of Stolz smuggling Jews from Austria in the boot of his limousine. Sadly, much of the dialogue is lost due to an onstage vacuum prop (!) but we get the gist of it and segue to America where the roll call of Jewish immigrants includes some of Hollywood’s biggest film score composers. Max Steiner (Gone With the Wind, Casablanca) and Erich Korngold (The Adventures of Robin Hood) are two examples, composers of film scores filled with lyricism and dramatic potency, and also tinged with melancholy.

Ileana Rinaldi (centre) leads the Couch Opera ensemble in a Broadway number. Photo: Alec Kucy

As we move onto Broadway hits the dresses become sequined and the songs suaver, but the light touch, the romance and folk-inflections remain, as well as the voluptuous sound in the ensemble numbers. It becomes clear that the phenomenon that was Broadway was in fact underpinned almost exclusively by Jewish composers. A medley of hits from Rogers & Hammerstein (South Pacific, Oklahoma, Carousel, Sound of Music) sets the tone, followed by a tune from Frank Loesser’s Guys and Dolls, and several songs by Kurt Weill.

The Jewish narrative thread works well and the songs are well-chosen to showcase the voices in the cast. It is a delight to hear up close and personal some of Perth’s emerging and more seasoned singers who often don’t get much of the spotlight. WAAPA graduate Magda Lisek’s warm lyric soprano and endearing stage presence promises much for the future. Tom Buckmaster’s tenor is already well-formed, and Guildhall School of Music and Drama graduate Matthew Dixon’s polished baritone came up particularly well in the smooth Broadway numbers. WA Opera Chorus member Yann Kee made the operetta repertoire look easy, her pearly soprano and clean technique drawing us into the drama of each song. Ileana Rinaldi’s mezzo soprano is always pleasing and she brought impressive gravitas, even in the tango from Ball im Savoy as she dragged the rest of the cast along with her enormous feather boa. Jun Zhang revealed the multiple hues of his tenor across a number of solos and duets, first light and lyrical, then fruity and luxurious.

Even more could’ve been made of the cabaret seating; the performers clustered around Michael Schouten, faithfully navigating the orchestral scores at the piano, but no one ventured into the crowd. Still, the close proximity to the powerful instruments of operatic voices was both intimate and thrilling.  We have an abundance of singers in Perth – even more with the addition of COVID refugees – and programs like this are a fabulous opportunity to showcase their talent. Couch Opera are proving themselves a fresh and necessary addition to the Perth opera scene.

From Vienna to Hollywood and Broadway continues until 13 November 2021.

Pictured top: Couch Opera deliver an entertaining guide through operetta history. Photo: Nikola Mateja

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Author —
Rosalind Appleby

Rosalind Appleby is an arts journalist, author and speaker. She is co-editor of Seesaw Magazine, author of Women of Note, and has written for The West Australian, The Guardian, The Australian, Limelight magazine and Opera magazine. She loves the percussion instruments which can be found in the uber cool parks.

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