Bringing Opera Back in Perth – West Australian Opera’s Leaders on Overcoming COVID-19, New Productions & World Premieres in 2021By Gordon Williams
Perth’s West Australian Opera may be the remotest opera company in the world, situated by the side of the Indian Ocean on the other side of a treeless plain (the Nullarbor) that separates WA (as it is colloquially known) from the more populous east coast of Australia. That may partly explain its greater control over the more devastating effects of the coronavirus pandemic. Up until February 24th this year, WA had experienced 913 cases with 901 recovered.
However, Western Australia has had to deal with its own local measures and some short sharp lockdowns and, like many other companies, West Australian Opera (WAO) has been resourceful in maintaining contact with its audience. I spoke to WAO’s Executive Director Carolyn Chard AM and Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen about the company’s online responses to the global pandemic and gradual return to fully-staged performance this year.
Chard began by talking about “Ghost Light Opera,” a series designed to keep the company active during the severest restrictions last year.
“‘The 23rd of March – that’s the date in my brain,” Chard stated. “We said, ‘We’re going to lock down the theater from midday,’ so I…wanted to go into the theater to actually set up for ‘ghost light’ before that happened.”
The “Ghost Light” Series, named after the theatrical convention of leaving a light on, on stage, when a theater is “dark (not in use),” saw a number of initiatives, among them WAO presenting, through its website, one of four local artists singing a different operatic aria each Saturday night from the stage (so to speak) of Perth’s His Majesty’s Theatre.
“We had pianist Tommaso Pollio accompanying four wonderful singers – Emma Matthews, Fiona Campbell, Paul O’Neill and James Clayton. At a moment’s notice they all came in and we invited them one by one to sing anything they wanted but things of real communing. It was supportive, gorgeous and moving, you know four to five minute items each. And we did that every Saturday night at 7:30pm throughout the whole lockdown because that’s the time you would ordinarily go to the opera.”
WAO also started doing children’s singing classes online. According to the WAO website: “Lesson One: We introduce our workshop leader, Perry Joyce. Perry will explore the top 10 operas and introduce the musical concept of pitch with a series of vocal exercises for you to join in.”
Per Chard, “we made it all available free of charge because we…could get support from Healthways and Act Belong Commit, an initiative of Mentally Healthy WA.” WAO’s principal partner Wesfarmers supported Ghost Light Opera overall.
Other initiatives included an online performance of Gian-Carlo Menotti’s “The Telephone” with local singers, Chelsea Burns, Lachlann Lawton and Bernadette Lewis singing Lucy, Ben and Pam respectively.
Van Tuinen noted that “opera itself deals with technology and communicating. So, one of the things that struck me about the shutdown was how quickly we got used to Zoom but then how there were all these extra protocols around Zoom etiquette and the distances that are created and I mean I saw more of my colleagues’ houses during the shutdown than I’d seen working with them for two years in the office. Every time we met for our virtual staff social club on Thursday afternoon you would have to move to a different room of your house so that we could see different parts. That’s something I thought Menotti was really getting at when he was writing ‘The Telephone’.”
Chard also mentioned Marketing Coordinator Daniele Foti-Cuzzola’s “Cooking with Opera” whereby a chef from one of Perth’s fine restaurants (and Perth has many) would create a dish with operatic associations, such as Pasta alla Norma or Peach Melba.
“Daniele went around the many gorgeous restaurants in Perth obviously struggling with takeaway models and he found a retail initiative for them where he would go to the kitchen, the chef would put a meal together and they would have a discussion about the story behind it and then you could purchase the product,” Chard explained.
The offer was for a limited time, but Foti-Cuzzola’s interviews with the chefs are still available on YouTube and after the success of the inaugural season, WAO has just recently launched a brand-new Cooking with Opera series within the City of Subiaco.
“That’s the thing about having Generation X, Y, Z people on your staff,” added Chard, “who help you think outside the box”.
WAO’s other digital work includes “Lullabies for Babies” – “Your little ones will be transported on a journey to lands near and far in this tale of discovery accompanied by beautiful musical moments from classical repertoire, folk tunes and lullabies.”
“The beautiful thing with all this digital work,” remarked Chard, “[is] we could actually employ artists and give them their purpose and reason for being. They were able to keep doing what they do. It was something, when the world was collapsing around us, the fact that we could keep a spirit of what we do alive in the heart of the company.”
Then finally, WAO began to open up with “Standing Room Only” – a series of 15-minute lunchtime concerts for ticketed guests just before restrictions were completely eased. WA governor and former Australian ambassador to the US, Kim Beazley, provided Government House for the venue.
I wondered if WAO may have gained an additional audience from the pandemic. Did Chard and van Tuinen think WAO had gotten more listeners showing up online?
“We did grow audience throughout the Ghost Light,” Chard revealed. “I think everybody has reassessed the world and our place in it and I think if you had said to people before the pandemic, ‘What matters most to you?’ I’m not sure that the top 10 would have included the word ‘opera’. But I think we now understand very clearly that the arts are crucial to everyday life and that’s literally through all the activities people did – reading books, listening to music, watching Netflix, crocheting, knitting, painting, singing, and taking online classes.”
But WAO is back. The company recently hosted its annual “In the Park” summer concert, a highlight of the Perth summer where you can sit in the open air listening to the world’s great music while the “Fremantle Doctor,” the coastal breeze, cools off the city after a day of century heat. The event used to attract 10,000 attendees.
“We couldn’t do it in that way this year,” Chard added, “so we put it over two nights instead of one and we asked everybody to register online. We got about 3,600 people because we…put them all in seats.”
The days of letting everyone lounge where they like on the lawn are on hold, of course. “We had a lot of code and safety measures in place.” And, for overflow, the concert was also relayed through a couple of local cinemas.
But the company will be going back to 60 percent in the theater.
“We opened last October with ‘Così fan tutte’. Our rehearsal director Bruno Ravella was in London communicating with Margrete Helgeby Chaney in the rehearsal room in Perth. But this year, we’re doing other productions we couldn’t do in 2020 plus new ones. So, ‘Barber of Seville’, ‘Elijah’, ‘Marriage of Figaro…’”
But not just ‘standards’ I note, looking at the brochure – some enticing premieres as well.
Think of the responsibilities that must weigh on a company that is not only singular and remote but situated in a unique part of the world where the next landfall going west is Mauritius.
“I’d say that never leaves our consciousness,” stated van Tuinen. “Two and a half million people live in WA, a landmass similar to that of Argentina. It’s as quick to get to Singapore as it is to get to Sydney.”
So saying, two of WAO’s new productions are songwriters Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse’s “Koolbardi wer Wardong [The Magpie and the Crow], ‘ the first opera in the original Perth language, Noongar, and Tim Finn’s opera, held over from last year, “The Star Navigator (Ihitai ‘Avei’a)”, about Tupaia, the Tahitian “Man of Knowledge” who traveled with Captain Cook across the Pacific to New Zealand and Australia in 1769-70. Commissioned by West Australian Opera, New Zealand Opera and Victorian Opera and supported by the state government of Western Australia, “The Star Navigator” will also be partly in Tahitian, with monologues written by Celestine Hitiura Vaite.
We began this conversation talking about a company’s response to COVID-19, a virus that effectively shut down the world last year and we’ve ended by discussing productions in languages hitherto unheard on the operatic stage. You can only conclude that there is a positive view of opera’s future from Australia’s west coast.