The Opera School Melbourne students are hard at work rehearsing for their upcoming season of Don Giovanni.

On top of Richmond Hill behind glorious St Ignatius church lies a set of halls that house the only institution of its kind in Australia. Pedestrians passing by who hear glorious singing in the air might think it’s a choir rehearsal in St Ignatius but it is more likely to be the talented students of The Opera School Melbourne.

Since opening last year, TOSM has doubled its number of students and is fast gaining a reputation for innovation and excellence. Artistic Director Linda Thompson is proud of the development of the school so far: “I thought we’d be slower to reach this point. We really have the ideal number of students and it’s only our second year”.
Unlike training to be an accountant or teacher, an opera student cannot walk into a lead role the day after graduating from music studies. The intensive one-year program at The Opera School bridges the gap between studies and employment with a focus on gaining experience with performance. Events so far this year have included The Mozart Project at Richmond Town Hall, Italian Week and the clever fundraising concert A Wedding, where attendance was complimentary with the idea that guests pledged donations for various much-needed items on the wedding registry.
TOSM is very well supported by Australia’s opera professionals. So far this year students have been fortunate to have sessions with such luminaries as Merlyn Quaife, Suzanne Johnston, Sharolyn Kimmerley and Yvonne Kenny. Thompson finds that her colleagues are more than happy to support the students: “No one has turned us down yet! Everyone likes to talk about what they do and to pass on their experience, especially with such receptive students”.
On a rare sunny day in this wet, wintry August, rehearsals are in full flight for the annual TOSM mainstage production. Mozart’s Don Giovanni is being directed by Resident Director Cameron Menzies. Blocking a second act scene between Don Giovanni, Leporello and Donna Elvira, Menzies encourages the cast to look for the humour in the situation. A comfortable atmosphere of serious focus and amiable good will permeates the rehearsal hall.
Thompson supports Menzies in his work before taking a few minutes to discuss the production. “The students didn’t formally audition for their roles in the opera. We chose them based on their performances in this year’s projects and classes.” The lead roles have been double cast to give a chance to as many singers as possible. Each cast does two performances, including either the opening or closing night. “Cameron put the singers together”, continues Thompson. “We could have taken a bit longer but the families wanted to know which nights to buy their tickets!”
Don Giovanni will be sung in English, with no surtitles. “It’s an intimate venue”, explains Thompson, “no one had any trouble last year with The Magic Flute.” Stopping the conversation briefly to correct a line in the rehearsal, it is clear that Thompson is well acquainted with the text. “I played Donna Anna and Donna Elvira in a handful of different productions,” she recollects with a smile.
Guest artist Steven Gallop is to join rehearsals at the end of the week for his role as the Commendatore. Recently moved to Melbourne, Gallop is a colleague of Thompson’s. “We were both in the Young Artists Program at around the same time.”
Menzies offers insight into the staging before heading off for a lunch break. “The setting is 1959-61, before the age of Flower Power, the last period without ‘Women’s Lib’. There were social confines for women but men didn’t have the same rules.” Sounds like Don Giovanni by way of Don Draper. Menzies explains, however, that they are not doing Mad Men. “We just wanted a period of youthful innocence, where the design could have clean lines.”
The concept is inspired by a black and white Florence Broadhurst print of concentric circles. All of the sets will, in fact, be non-naturalistic black and white, with white furniture. Splashes of colour will come from the costumes, which will largely be 1960s vintage. “Overall we have the clean, stylized feel of the 60s without being kitsch”
The inspiration for the look and feel of the characters makes the staging sound even more tantalizing. “Our inspiration for Don Giovanni is a combination of Hugh Hefner and a young Mick Jagger,” continues Menzies, “someone just outside the realm of social acceptance. Anna is based on Jacqueline Kennedy, Elvira is like Brigitte Bardot, Zerlina is Jane Fonda in Barefoot in the Park.”
Filling the large National Theatre auditorium for the four performances could be a challenge for the relatively new organisation, although Thompson notes there is a groundswell of support. “There is a growing group of people who come to everything we do. In a few years they will be able to say ‘I saw them when they were on stage at the National.’”
For music theatre fans curious to see an opera this is the perfect chance as top price tickets are only a couple of dollars more than some amateur musicals. There is nothing like the sound of un-amplified singing with a full orchestra. Don Giovanni plays at The National Theatre 2-4 September