It’s here – Melbourne Fringe Festival kicks off this week with over 440 events and 150 venues, featuring 3,358 artists! One of the wilder shows being presented this season is the Offenbach Retold Triptych, a satirical look at modern society through comedy and opera in French, presented by BK Opera. From blind magicians, agoraphobia, incompetent criminals to vacuous bloggers, three worlds will collide when Offenbach’s operas are presented with brand new stories for an evening of enlightening fun. I spoke to director Henry Shaw about how he became involved with BK Opera, experimental opera and why he’s bringing opera to the Fringe Festival, and his opinion on the current state of the industry.

“In January of 2018 BK Opera ran an opera boot camp, and taught 4 French operas to a group of singers, but they didn’t have time to properly stage them, so I was brought in to take control of the production. I looked through the scripts and realised that they wouldn’t work with a modern audience, so I thought about ways to modernise the scripts and the presentation of the operas to create a style of theatre that hasn’t been tried much, taking musical compositions from operas and creating entirely new works around the music”, he said.

“I started with one that I was familiar with, “Le Chatte metamorphose une Femme” (The cat becomes a woman), having assisted on another staging of it in 2014. I took out all of the dialogue and started from scratch, rewriting all the characters and plot to fit around the original music. Over time it became “Breaking and Entering and Exiting”, a new play with music based on a heist gone wrong with Offenbach’s score fully intact.  That was my primary goal, to maintain the integrity of the music, while radically re-contextualising it to appeal to a theatre audience”.

For Shaw, the play is much more of a play with music rather than an operetta, which is a familiar structure for him, but not to the singers he has been working with.

“It’s been great working with people and watching them become more comfortable in roles that they normally wouldn’t be playing in styles of performance that they’re unfamiliar with. It is a structure that is familiar to me, but not to the singers so a lot of our rehearsals have been focussing on performance and acting. The characters are all based on modern character tropes, so this might be the first show to depict a YouTube vlogger personality on stage!”

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He’s faced some opposition to his work, but is presenting it at the Melbourne Fringe Festival because it’s very much a fringe idea.

“The community at large is very hesitant to altering the structure of opera. I like working with adventurous young singers, because they are willing to do something different. I’m hoping the fringe audience will set aside their notions of what opera is and see that it can be just as alive and involving as plays and musicals” Shaw said.

“These shows are my first real experiment in opera as modern theatre. I want opera goers to challenge their expectations of what an opera is. I know most opera companies are trying to make opera relatable to other theatre fanatics, but I think it’s the opera crowd that needs to embrace other types of theatre. I don’t want to make it sound revolutionary, because these ideas aren’t. They’re very simple and the plays are as well, they’re about ridiculous people getting into ridiculous circumstances and making wrong choices that make everything worse. I want an audience member to leave laughing at the ridiculousness of the entire affair. A great bit of comic theatre, not an opera. The opera is incidental”.

We got deep and meaningful discussing the state of the theatre and opera industry, with many of these thoughts becoming a future thesis for Shaw.

“Theatre only exists within a society. It is the active observer and the actively observed existing in a mutually beneficial relationship. The observer is entertained and enriched by the work that the observed creates. The observed survives and continues to create based on the support of the observer. The audiences often dictate the types of work that are created, if not explicitly (in the case of an individual sponsoring a particular production to be staged) then implicitly (reflected in the profit margins from ticket sales to different shows, higher margins dictate a production that should be repeated). Over time, an implicit audience can control the choices from a company, as profit margins get tighter and more reliant on appeasing the audience. Why take a chance on something new if it won’t yield a high return?” Shaw mused.

Shaw’s work often takes these risks that people aren’t ready to make, because it’s different, maybe it won’t sell, maybe it won’t review well, and it may risk a company’s, actors’ or his own reputation.

“This kind of thinking is perfectly understandable within the capitalistic framework of society; you repeat the actions that make money. If you don’t make money, you don’t make art.  The underbelly of this way of presenting theatre is that those with money implicitly make the choices on what they see, because they can afford to support their favourite types of theatre. This decreases the autonomy of the creators of theatre, because they don’t have control over what they create”.

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He thinks theatre companies shouldn’t be as reliant on the high paying audience members to survive – but is that practical? Is it a pipe dream?

“For one, it creates a power gap in the audience in terms of what is produced. The full ticket paying members of the audience are more important than those getting cheap $30 tickets resulting in those who can only afford the reduced prices not having their interests reflected onstage. So when companies lament not being able to pull in younger audiences, the obvious response is that they’re simply not making a product for them. In a capitalistic system, they can’t. In creating new types of theatre, I hope to reach those disenfranchised members of the public who aren’t reflected in theatre.

I think there aren’t really any opportunities for practitioners at the moment, because there isn’t a monolith idea of what opera is. It borrows from whatever a director wants and fills some vague guidelines as to what they can do, but the function and application of the theatre haven’t really been tested with modern audiences. There has been no development in the way opera is presented in 100 years, because there just aren’t many people challenging the form. There are certainly challenging directors creating fantastic work, but it’s all within the framework of the same style of theatre. Some productions may incorporate more dance elements or some sections of dialogue, but there are just some things that aren’t really changed.

Shaw has an incredible viewpoint on the future of opera, and some strong opinions on how it’s currently operating. To see whether his visions are realised in the Fringe Festival, and to broaden your horizons, get along to the Offenbach Retold Tryptich at the MC Showroom from September 25. Tickets and more info, visit: https://melbournefringe.com.au/event/the-offenbach-retold-triptych/

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