In Conversation: Shoestring Opera

In Conversation: Shoestring Opera

The freedom of producing a rarely performed opera.

Matthew Toogood
Melbourne, Australia

In Conversation: Shoestring Opera

The freedom of producing a rarely performed opera.

Ahead of their Melbourne International Comedy Festival season, we talked to Matthew Toogood, the artistic director of Shoestring Opera, about the upcoming production of Offenbach's Le 66, and the freedom of staging a rarely performed opera. 

What made you choose Offenbach’s Le 66? It is a little known production in Australia - what drew you to it? 

When searching for repertoire for Shoestring Opera Melbourne there are a number of criteria that I look to fulfill. Firstly it must be a chamber piece; I'm not keen to reduce a full opera down to diminished forces. Though I have still revised the orchestrations for both Le 66 and our previous production Rita, thankfully I haven't had to sacrifice any original essence of the piece. Secondly the setting and narrative have to grab my interest - an audience will not be convinced if they are not engaged. At the moment we are looking at presenting comic-operas in order to build our audience base, but in the future we would be keen to branch out. Finally at the moment we work on a profit-share basis, so the cast is best kept to only a few singers, in order that everyone is compensated for their time and performance. 

Jacques Offenbach is perhaps the greatest exponent of this repertoire of opera-comique. Almost unknown to even the greatest Offenbach fans, Le 66 belongs to the period when Offenbach was writing for the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens (Salle Lacaze). In 1855 Offenbach obtained a licence from the Parisian Authorities for the use of this 300-seat theatre, located at Carré Marigny near the Exposition Universelle (1855). So successful was his venture that from 1855 to 1859 he premiered over 16 of his own theatrical works at the Salle Lacaze. The licence however (extending to his second theatre, Salle Choiseul) restricted the productions to a maximum of five characters on stage. So it is that 'Le 66' premiered at the Salle Lacaze on 31 July 1856 with a cast of three.

What freedoms do you have in producing a work that isn’t well-known? What challenges? 

The original french libretto (written by Pittaud de Forges and Laurencin (Paul Aimé Chapelle)) follows the travels of two tyrollean buskers travelling to Strasbourg. Upon meeting a colporteur (pedlar) near Stuttgart, Frantz learns that he has won the lottery with his ticket "66". For Shoestring Opera Melbourne's production I have translated the French libretto from scratch, since there appears to be no English translation written, and modernised the language without distracting from the original setting or storyline. Though the narrative has been tightened and 35 pages of dialogue cut down to 7, one plot flaw that I have intentionally left in as per the original, is the absurdity that while his wife lives in Strasbourg, Berthold is travelling first to Tirol to inform his wife's family that he isn't dead. Why he wouldn't want to tell his wife first seems rather absurd, but hopefully adds to the comedy of the piece.

A time-consuming procedure is certainly re-writing the orchestrations. Though I haven't actually had to change much, there was no score. Hence I had to source original individual parts, which were hand-written and full of mistakes and whole sections missing.

Finally simply getting an audience along to see a piece that they have never heard of is a challenge in itself. We rely a lot on word of mouth from people that go and see the show. So repeat performances are worthwhile if we can afford to produce them. For Rita we only had two performances, but people enjoyed it so much, that they actually came back to see the second performance!

Tell us about the humour in the show - what makes this the perfect operetta for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival?

We aim to keep our shows around the hour mark, which works extremely well for audiences perhaps not as accustomed to sitting through a 3.5 hour dramatic opera. As part of the Melbourne International Comedy Festival this fits the format of most other acts in the festival and hopefully will attract a greater audience to a different genre of comedy.

The comedy is derived from quite a simple plot line, absurdities and stereotypes. Our tyrollean buskers are dressed in dirndle and lederhosen, the characterisation of the pedlar is akin to a sleazy used-cars salesman, our set of the Blackforest in Germany is created by numerous borrowed Christmas trees, and there are some extremely funny musical devices within Offenbach's music. Even the orchestra at the first rehearsal was in stitches! 

You have worked extensively in opera as both a repetiteur and a conductor. What drew you to the working in opera originally?

I was mostly drawn to opera around age 20. I liked the collaboration and efforts of numerous forces in order to even stage an opera - backstage hands, orchestra, singers, chorus, set builders, costumes, makeup, and finally the cathartic response one experiences as an audience member watching it all unfold. As a pianist practicing alone all day, I think I yearned for collaboration and shared musical experiences.

What about being a pianist and a vocal coach helps you prepare for your role as an opera conductor? Are you better equipped to understand the score, or help the singers? 

Absolutely. There are of course conductors who conduct opera without really knowing much about the voice, but in my experience it becomes very one-sided and un-organic. When a conductor knows how to breathe musically, the singer feels very comfortable, as if the conductor is really "helping" them do their best. It gives the singer on stage the freedom and flexibility to take risks and create something even more special on stage.

I approach conducting opera on a similar level as accompanying Lieder. If the composer has done their job well, the text gives the drama, the pace, the breathing, the phrasing and from there you work on accuracy, ensemble, direction and balance.

What can your audience expect at your MICF performance of Le 66?

At Shoestring Opera Melbourne we are keen for audiences to enjoy themselves and feel relaxed watching a piece of live professional music-theatre. In being part of the Comedy Festival we hope to appeal to both regular opera-goers and entice a greater audience to the world of opera. We are extremely keen therefore on making the experience very accessible. Our ticket prices start at $15 for students (including tertiary), which is less than a movie ticket - and less than 4 coffees! Not bad for a live opera! The setting at the Athenaeum Theatre, upstairs in the Comedy Club, provides a very relaxed environment, whereby audiences are free to grab a drink from the bar while they watch, and they are close to the action - no need for opera-glasses!

In being a "shoestring"-sized group, our concept is to get back to basics - singers communicating through voice and character a narrative in an intimate and informal setting, but at a professional level. The need for lavish sets and costumes is superfluous when an audience is convinced by the performers themselves.

Ellen Leather, Stephen Marsh and Timothy Daly

Ellen Leather, Stephen Marsh and Timothy Daly