Perth Festival review: Lost and Found Opera, Ned Kelly ⋅
No.1 Mill, Jarrahdale, February 15 ⋅
Review by Ron Banks ⋅
Ned Kelly as an opera succeeds on a number of levels. It’s an unusual venue in the country, a smooth orchestra, strong performers, a well-drilled chorus, a story that is familiar to Australians. So what could go wrong?
It’s an acoustic disaster, that’s what’s wrong. With the singers unmiked, even though they sing in English, the cavernous space with its corrugated iron roof and open ends snatches away the words that spring from the mouths of the performers to the point where it is extremely difficult to understand what they are saying.
And that means it is impossible to follow the action as librettist Peter Goldsworthy deconstructs the life of Ned Kelly and reassembles it in short, choppy scenes that track backwards and forwards over his career as Australia’s most famous bushranger or bandit, or perhaps most controversial folk hero.
The opera starts promisingly enough with mezzo soprano Fiona Campbell as Ned’s mother Ellen standing centre-stage on the bare concrete floor of the abandoned Jarrahdale mill and telling the back story of the Kelly family to the tune of The Wild Colonial Boy, one of two folk tunes appropriated by composer Luke Styles. Her diction is good in the opening number, but as the rest of the cast populate the stage the poor acoustics lead to bewilderment on the part of the audience.
“Can you understand what they are saying?” I ask my wife beside me on the comfortable scaffolding seating with its cushion on each seat. “No,” she says. As we file out after the show I ask if other people had been able to hear what the singers were on about. The answers were also negative.
Had the opera been sung in Italian we would have had surtitles, but I guess such technology would have spoiled the rustic atmosphere of the setting, which was entirely suitable to the colonial history of the story.
The acoustics of the venue is the culprit in the opera’s lack of comprehension because the singers, led by Sam Dundas as Ned, perform with admirable precision to music that is colourful and dramatic, (performed by the West Australian Symphony Orchestra under conductor Chris van Tuinen). Composer Styles occasionally gives them difficult notes to negotiate in the sung-through style that owes more to Benjamin Britten than Verdi, so it is understandable that diction is sometimes going to be a problem.
Another problem, less serious, is that the expectations in the publicity material of some kind of gender-bending, off-the-wall production were never met. The production (directed by Janice Muller) has quite a traditional feel; there’s nothing to frighten the horses in its story-telling style. At one point one of the Kelly gang dons a dress, but I couldn’t grasp the meaning of this historical point (once again, defeated by acoustics).
My advice if you want to enjoy Ned Kelly: read up beforehand on the synopses in the program and take a torch to keep up to date on the progress of the scenes. That way it may be a fulfilling operatic experience.
In a strange way, despite the lack of comprehension of the meaning of each scene, Ned Kelly is a pleasurable experience. In the end, it was worth the hour’s coach ride from the city to be part of the Festival’s colourful history of new performances. But there is a lingering dissatisfaction that the question of the legacy of Ned Kelly – folk hero or cold-blooded killer? – was never answered.
It’s November 1, 2018 and the Perth Concert Hall is packed for Wendy Martin’s final Perth Festival programme launch. Anyone who has paid attention to Martin’s programming over the last four years will know that the Festival’s artistic director is a passionate advocate for contemporary dance. When the banner for STRUT Dance’s Sunset opens her 2019 line-up, however, the ripple of excitement is about more than dance.
It’s a historical moment. A local show is leading the charge.
Martin’s decision to open her final Festival launch with a home-grown show is part of a greater plan to showcase local work in this year’s programme. Alongside a terrific selection of international and interstate works, there are numerous shows and events by local artists and companies that are appearing this year under the newly-created banner, “Made in WA”. That list includes six Festival commissions.
Martin is immensely proud of the 2019 Festival’s local content. “It’s important to have a fantastically curated international programme, but it’s also important that, whichever place you’re in, the artists of that place are seen on the same platform,” she explains.
From the outset Martin’s vision was inextricably linked with WA. “When I [started at Perth Festival, four years ago] I said, ‘There are festivals in cities all over world. The thing that makes a difference is the place in which the festival happens.’ So when I arrived here, I saw myself as a detective, looking for clues and stories and threads to figure out, how I make a festival that really belongs in this place,” she explains.
Martin was immediately struck by what she describes as “the unbelievable list of artists who come from this place, both historically and now“. Her immediate response was to commission “Home” as the opening event of her first Festival, a free, one-night-only celebration of West Australian talent that included the likes of Tim Minchin, the John Butler Trio, Shaun Tan, The Drones, The Triffids and The Waifs.
The opening event of her second festival, Boorna Waanginy: The Trees Speak, was another home-grown special, and one which returns to this year’s Festival. Bringing together the talents of Noongar elder and director Richard Walley, and designers Zoë Atkinson and Sohan Ariel Hayes, under the direction of Nigel Jamieson, Boorna Waanginy sees one of Perth’s most treasured landmarks, Kings Park, transformed by light and sound.
Thus the seeds for the Made in WA programme were sown… but it was an idea that needed time to germinate. “As a curator, you have to know artists and they have to know you, and there needs to be a certain level of trust to be able to work on projects together,” reflects Martin. “So it’s taken this much time, three years living in Perth, to be able to commission all this new work.”
When it came to choosing which shows to commission under the new Made in WA banner, one company caught Martin’s eye early on. “From the time I began [at Perth Festival] I could not believe that The Last Great Hunt, who had toured the world, had never been in Perth Festival,” she remarks.
Martin wasn’t going to rush into anything though. “I had so many meetings, across the years, with Tim [Watts] from The Last Great Hunt. I kept saying, ‘Come on, give me something, I’d love to have you guys in the Festival…’ and then I saw New Owner [by The Last Great Hunt, commissioned by the Awesome Festival] and I loved it. If I’d have known about that show I would have loved to have had it in Perth Festival… but of course, it’s fantastic that it was in Awesome, which is an amazing Festival.
“[Tim and I] met about three times. He wanted to experiment with form and what I didn’t understand – because at that point I didn’t know him well enough – is that Tim is a wonderful storyteller, but he doesn’t start with the idea, he starts with the form of the production.”
And then The Last Great Hunt pitched the idea for Le Nor, a work that weaves together film and live performance, so that audiences witness both an on-screen story and behind-the-scenes action. “When Tim did his pitch for Le Nor I was almost crying, because I thought it was so magic, such a beautiful idea, funny and poetic,” Martin recalls. “Tim’s work, at its core has big heart … and as a programmer that’s one of the things I care about most.”
Another commissioned work that is close to Martin’s heart is STRUT Dance’s Sunset. Created in collaboration with UK choreographer and director Maxine Doyle(associate director and choreographer, Punchdrunk), in association with Tura New Music, Sunset is an immersive dance theatre work that takes audiences on a walking tour of Dalkeith’s Sunset Heritage Precinct. “Sunset is like a dream in terms of my programming aims,” she explains. “It’s a collaboration between a great international artist and local artists, it speaks to the history of this place, it’s a collaboration with more than one [local] artist and company – as well as STRUT and Tura New Music, Rachael Dease is the composer and doing the sound design, and Bruce McKinven is doing the set. It’s also a fantastic opportunity for the artists here to work with an absolute game changer. UK dance theatre company Punchdrunk have created whole new form of immersive theatre … to have someone like [Punchdrunk’s associate director and choreographer] Maxine Doyle in our midst, excited by this place… you couldn’t really ask for more.”
WA’s Tura New Music is involved in a second 2019 Festival commission, producing Cat Hope’s new opera, Speechless. In the case of Speechless, a response to the issue of children in detention that combines four soloists, a 30-voice choir, the Australian Bass Orchestra and Decibel new music ensemble, it was the motivation behind the work that appealed to Martin. “I love that Cat is an activist and a great humanitarian,” she reflects. “She was so disturbed by the decisions that the government was making in our name. So she felt the best thing that she could do is make a personal, artistic response. She read the Gillian Triggs report into children in detention and then figured out this beautiful concept which is her graphic score. The music she has written has kind of been written over the photographs and drawings that the children have done. In a way she’s giving these kids a voice by responding so directly to their art work. There are no words because those people have no voice. Cat is a really important Australian artist.”
Like The Last Great Hunt, Lost and Found Opera was on Martin’s radar from early on. Renowned for presenting unusual operas in unexpected but effective spaces, Lost and Found will be presenting its first commissioned opera, Ned Kelly, in a Jarrahdale saw mill. “Lost and Found Opera have been doing super exciting work,” enthuses Martin. “I think they have a brilliant concept and the fact that they now want to create a work from scratch – they have such a track record that you just have to trust that they’ll deliver. They’ve also got a great following… but I think the platform of the Festival will make it more recognisable.”
Much-loved local company Barking Gecko Theatre also has an established following but stands to broaden its reach by being commissioned to appear on the Festival programme. In terms of Martin’s aims, it was the cross-cultural nature of the work that caught her eye. “When Matt Edgerton proposed adapting A Ghost in My Suitcasefor the stage I was immediately attracted to the possibilities that Gabrielle Wang’s award winning YA novel offers up,” she remembers. “I was excited that Matt wanted to create the production out of deep cross cultural collaboration. It’s a rip-roaring yarn – a great adventure story of a young girl who goes to China and discovers her grandmother is a ghost hunter. It seemed to have all the right ingredients to be a perfect family show for the festival.”
Kwongkan is another Festival commission that is a cross-cultural work, and one that has fascinated Martin as she has watched it evolve. A collaboration between WA’s Ochre Contemporary Dance Company and India’s Daksha Sheth Dance Company, the work brings together Indigenous Australian and Indian performers in a ritual of dance theatre, live music, aerial acrobatics and film. “When the artists pitched the idea to me, they intended to explore the similarities between these two ancient cultures, both of whom dance barefoot, but over the course of three years … the thing that sat at the forefront of their concerns, was climate change,” she explains. “They realised that if we don’t do something now, there will be no trace, not just of ancient cultures, but of anything. So in a funny way, ‘Sand’, which was about touching the earth has now become, ‘Well if we don’t do something, sand is all we’re going to have’. To see the evolution of an idea has been exciting.”
It’s clear that witnessing the germination and blossoming of ideas intrigues and inspires Martin. “As a curator and commissioner of work, that’s the really exhilarating thing,” she remarks, “hearing an idea and being able to play some kind of role in those artists realising their vision by offering the platform of the festival.”
That platform offers greater visibility to the home crowd, but also, potentially, further afield. “I’m hoping that we’ll have international presenters and national presenters coming over to see that work, to consider it for their venues and festivals,” she concludes. “I think that’s a really important role that the Festival can play.
– Nina Levy
Perth Festival opens February 8 and runs until March 3. Head to the Perth Festival websiteto view the full program, including the six commissioned works from Western Australian artists and companies, and the rest of the Made in WA program.
Pictured top: Ian Wilkes and Isha Sharvani in Tjuntjuntjara, a remote WA Aboriginal community, during the final development of ‘Kwongkan’. Photo: Mark Howett.
Review: Lost and Found Opera, Charpentier’s Actéon ·
UWA Aquatic Centre, 12 September ·
Review by Rosalind Appleby ·
“Strip off,” cries Diana, “Strip off, we’re safe here.” The Greek goddess and her nymphs descend into the pool, jewels glittering against wet skin, their voices ringing sweet and clear across the water to the audience sitting poolside on tiered chairs.
Lost and Found Opera’s latest production of Charpentier’s 17th century miniature French opera Actéon is set in the University of Western Australia’s aquatic centre. It could only happen in Australia and only with Lost and Found who specialise in performing rare operas in found spaces. Perth audiences have come to expect provocative entertainment and world class music making from this company and Actéon didn’t disappoint.
The Greek tragedy, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, recounts how the hunter Actéon accidentally discovered Diana bathing with her attendants and was turned by the goddess into a stag to be ravaged by his hunting hounds. In this production Actéon and his hounds are university students carousing after a fancy dress ball. Part way through the orchestral overture they enter the pool area over a wall, carrying a stag head stolen from the dean’s office.
The overture is performed by a seven piece ensemble, next to the pool. Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen led from a keyboard and his arrangements take extensive liberties with Baroque tradition. The arrival of the inebriated lads signals a change from pastoral flute and harpsichord to swinging saxophone, piano and drum kit. It is seamless (thanks to Tuinen’s clever arrangements and Charpentier’s flexible basso continuo score) and adds to the merry abandon of Actéon and his pack.
More traditional Baroque orchestration is restored for the arrival of Diana and her nymphs, who spend the majority of the 40 minute opera in the water as they recline, stroll and sing with elegant refinement.
The medium of water as a platform for staging theatre has been exploited to wonderful effect by director Brendan Hanson. The water makes it easy for characters to literally sink into the background or stand on underwater platforms to deliver a solo, and the natural amplification of the water meant the 25 metre enclosed pool area sounded surprisingly intimate. Then there was the mid-aria splashing from Actéon which continued until he was satisfied the front row of the audience (clad in ponchos) were adequately wet.
The most ingenuous use of the water is as a vehicle for dance. Charpentier’s opera was based on Lully’s tragedie en musique form where the ballet numbers were considered as important as the singing. In this production the dancers are represented by synchronised swimmers (from SynchroWA) whose long limbs and graceful patterns were a more than satisfying substitute. The swimmers also function as lighting operators, using their waterproof torches and coloured floating globes to illuminate different areas of the pool at the appropriate moments.
It is a picturesque scene for Diana to bathe and it is clear the goddess, sung with regal warmth by mezzo soprano Ashlyn Tymms, trusts the privacy and beauty of the glowing pool. She and her attendants bathe topless and their sense of violation when Actéon arrives was expressed with visceral anger by Caitlin Cassidy as Juno. Actéon was sung with clarion brightness and shapely phrases by Russell Harcourt. His haute-contre (high voice) tenor with its (to modern ears) unusually high pitch reinforced a naive, self-indulgent characterisation. The chorus was sourced from Voyces chorale and their resplendent voices added much musical richness.
The production posed a few challenges: the vast space between the male chorus and the music ensemble created timing issues, though these were skilfully resolved each time by Tuinen at the keyboard. The English libretto was often difficult to understand and the final revenge scene wasn’t clear either; the pack of ‘hounds’ seemed to both honour and ravage Actéon as they held a funeral procession then proceeded to whip and sexually harass his body. It seemed hypocritical for Diana to mete out sexual harassment as a punishment for Actéon’s voyeurism. What was clear was the tragic impact of sexual harassment, whether delivered by accident or revenge. It is no accident that Lost and Found has staged this opera in the wake of #metoo and, as always, their message was powerfully enriched by the medium.
12 – 15 September @ UWA Aquatic Centre, Parkway, Crawley ·
Presented by: Lost and Found Opera ·
Based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, this new production will be staged in a swimming pool, featuring both international and local singing talent with performances from one of WA’s elite synchronised swimming squads.
UK-based Australian Countertenor Russell Harcourt takes on the title role of the noble Actéon, who while hunting with his hounds, comes across the goddess Diana (local mezzo soprano Ashlyn Tymms) bathing with her attendants. She catches him spying on them and uses her godly powers to enact her vengeance on him.
New meets old in this timely exploration of both men and women’s roles in modern society, this gripping piece explores the changing nature of consent and revenge, the coming of age and the limits of power.
Wendy Martin, artistic director of Perth International Arts Festival, talks to Nina Levy about the artists and audiences she has discovered in WA.
Wendy Martin is already halfway through her four-year tenure as artistic director of Perth International Arts Festival (PIAF), but, she says, the time has zipped by. “I can hardly believe it,” she remarks. “It feels like I’ve just started, it’s too fast for my liking.”
Originally a Sydneysider, Martin’s résumé includes stints heading up theatre and dance at the Sydney Opera House, and performance and dance at London’s Southbank Centre. Since arriving in Perth from London she has prioritised familiarising herself with the local arts scene and she’s excited by the companies and works she has found in the world’s most isolated city.
It’s Barking Gecko Theatre Company’s Bambert’s Book of Magic Stories that gets first mention. “I thought that show was one of finest pieces of theatre I saw last year,” she comments. “It was a beautifully conceived, designed, written, performed and executed piece of theatre. That’s what the very best of children’s theatre does, it’s as appealing to adults taking kids as it is to the kids. Seeing that show enabled me to engage in a conversation with [Barking Gecko artistic director] Matt Edgerton. We now have a project on the table, which is a Major Festivals Initiative project. We were able to get other festivals on board… so that’s really exciting.”
Another work for children that Martin names as a favourite is The Last Great Hunt’s New Owner, which was presented at the 2016 Awesome International Arts Festival. “The Last Great Hunt, [a collective of seven Perth-based theatre makers], is doing wonderful things,” she remarks. “I was away in May and the beginning of June and every time I spoke to someone from here they were asking, ‘Have you seen The Irresistible?’” Indeed, The Irresistible, presented by The Last Great Hunt and Side Pony Productions, was a critical and popular hit.
Martin’s first two festivals have included a number of works that take place in non-traditional venues, so it’s no surprise to discover that she’s a fan of Perth’s Lost and Found Opera, a company that presents “unusual” operas in spaces that are both unexpected and relevant in some way to the work. “I went to dress rehearsal in 2015 of Lost and Found’s Médée, that took place [in a former asylum cell] at the Fremantle Arts Centre, and it was stunning,” she enthuses. She regrets that she was away for their most recent production, Trouble in Tahiti, set in the kitchen of a private home in City Beach. “They’ve had massive success, there are stunning reviews for Trouble in Tahiti. So they are really exciting and we’re in conversation with them now.”
Martin believes that non-traditional theatre spaces appeal to audiences. “I think people love the adventure,” she remarks. PVI Collective’s Blackmarket, an immersive and interactive work programmed by Martin at the 2016 Perth International Arts Festival, is one example of that, she says. “People loved that show, on the streets of Subi, and the interaction with technology and humans.”
Another local artist who has caught Martin’s attention is James Berlyn. His work I Know You’re There was also presented in the 2016 PIAF program. Playing to an audience of just 16, I Know You’re There is a very personal reflection that invites, although doesn’t force, conversation with its viewers. “Later today I’m having a chat with James about a project that he is going to explore for us,” says Martin with a smile.
Talking to Martin, it’s apparent that, in spite of the relatively short amount of time she has been in WA, she has a strong sense of connection to the state and to the people who comprise the audiences for the Perth International Arts Festival. “Reflecting on the last two years, some of the things I feel most proud of are the opening events of the Festival. Home  and Boorna Waanginy  are both events that could have only happened in Perth, Western Australia,” she remarks. “The creative teams other than Nigel Jamieson are all artists from here.
“The richness of story in WA is really inspiring. When you talk to people in Sydney and Melbourne they want Australian stories. I feel very much that people in WA connect with the stories the of this place. In 2016, for example, when I was meeting people during the festival and after the festival, the thing that people seemed to respond to was a simple but beautiful project called ‘A Mile in My Shoes’. That was the sharing of people’s life stories, people that you mightn’t necessarily have the chance to talk to.”
Martin is also proud of the work that PIAF has done in the area of disability in the arts sector, particularly in 2016 when Claire Cunningham – a self-identifying disabled artist whose work combines dance, aerial techniques, voice and text – was artist-in-residence. “Claire Cunningham’s presence, her brilliance as an artist helped shift people’s understanding of living with disability,” reflects Martin. “In final days of the Festival, I was having a meeting with her, sitting at a table in William Street, and we had to abandon the meeting because so many people wanted to talk to her, and thank her for her work, or relate their own experience.”
It’s that interaction between artist and audience that seems to be at the core of Martin’s programming, and 2017’s “Museum of Water” encapsulates that concept. A free program of events, the 2017 edition ranged from a sensory walking tour of local wetlands to storytelling aboard a kayak. “The ‘Museum of Water’ is a two year project for us,” says Martin. “I wanted to bring that international project and give it a Western Australian twist because water is such an important story here. We are in the driest state, in the driest continent on Earth.”
Martin’s instinct proved spot on and even she was surprised by the results in 2017. “One Sunday morning we had something called the Swimmers’ Manifesto, where people got up on a soap box at Cottesloe beach. The sharing of really deep, emotional moments and stories in people’s lives was quite extraordinary… more than three or four people told stories that they had never been able to express and they had their loved ones sitting there listening to it, and they stepped down from the soapbox and broke down in tears. I hadn’t realised that water was going to be such a brilliant way in for people’s intimate life stories.
“One of things I am most keen on, as a curator of a festival, is that the people who the festival is for sit at the heart of it, that their stories and their concerns are as valuable as those of a visiting artist,” she concludes. “Creating projects like Home, like Boorna Waanginy, which engaged our Indigenous people, our scientific community and our children, those voices sit at heart of festival. So it’s about West Australian artists, but it’s also about the diverse communities and voices of the people of Perth. It’s really important to find projects and avenues that we can create with the community that resonate with their lives.”
Want a sneak peek at the 2018 PIAF line-up? Wendy Martin has just revealed four shows that will be on the program. Find out what’s in store here. The full 2018 program will be announced November 9 2017.