Welcome to Opera by Adam Goodburn
"So what do you do for a living?” I always dread this question. It’s that standard small talk line so that the other person can get some idea of what sort of person you are. “I’m a teacher.” The questioner smiles politely and says some throw-away response like, “Gee, how do you control those kids?” or “Yeah, must be great having all those holidays!” It’s a fairly safe response (and it is the truth) and far better than saying my other occupation. BACKTRACK 7 seconds …
“So what do you do for a living?” “I sing in operas.” The questioner smiles politely. “Do you get paid for that?”
“Yes.” The questioner now looks genuinely surprised, “Really?”
I can see it in their eyes; they’re not really interested anymore. They’ve already surmised that I’m some poor, struggling hack that occasionally dons a horned helmet and sings “Kill da rabbit” in an Elmer Fudd voice. And for the most part they’d be correct, except for the horned helmet part.
The reality is that there are a lot of people who don’t know much about opera and most of those people don’t really care for opera at all. The surprising thing is that I understand, because I was one of them. I was 15 when I saw my first opera; La Traviata. I hated it. It was long, in a language I couldn’t understand and the lead woman took 20 minutes to die of a respiratory illness and yet could sing full strength. It was a joke. It has taken me many years to overcome my first impressions. Jump forward to present time.
I’m sitting in an apartment in Sydney typing this story. “Why?” I hear you say…well, I’m glad you asked. I’m covering a lead role in an opera. “But wait!” I hear you say, “Didn’t you just say that you hated opera?” Yes, but you didn’t read the next sentence; I overcame that hatred. You see, I once suffered from a form of racism, call it ARTISM (sounds like Rainman should be making his entrance now).
Seriously, ARTISM is discriminatory or abusive behaviour towards an art form, in this case opera. Racism is based on ignorance, so is Artism. I hated Opera because I didn’t understand it; it’s basic human nature. I had to learn about opera in order to appreciate opera.
Where was I, oh yes, Sydney. This opera is the adaptation of Steinbeck’s novella Of Mice and Men and the libretto and music was written by Carlisle Floyd, and American composer. This is the first time this piece has been performed in Australia.
This opera is considered a modern opera, even though it was written 41 years ago. This is where I see opera heading. This piece is a wonderful blend of music theatre pieces like Les Miserables and Parade as well as traditional opera like Madame Butterfly. It requires vocal agility, strong performances and powerful story telling. Opera is developing with the times. It has adapted to meet the demand of today’s audience who demand greater visual stimulation; virtually a cinematic experience. It is no surprise that major opera companies are now filming their opera performances for cinematic release. This will have an obvious effect on how directors and designer plan operas in the future.
This leads me to my next opera, another American literary classic, Herman Melville’s Moby Dick. This will be only the second production of this piece in the world and it will be an Australian premiere. This is an epic story about the obsession to hunt down the famous white whale, Moby Dick. One would think that to distil this book into a few hours of audience viewing time would be a big enough challenge. But the demands of staging, directing, and performing this opera will match, if not surpass, any blockbuster musical production.
I will take you inside the belly of the beast that is called ‘Opera’. Follow me as we create an opera from day one. Who knows, maybe you’ll come out the other end having a better understanding.