In 2017 West Australian Opera celebrates our fiftieth anniversary year. We are the only opera company in Australia who continue to perform under the same name, in the same theatre, with the same mission, since our founding. And that mission is to serve the people of Western Australia with opera of the highest standard.
In our history, these are the elements which have persisted. But around and within us, a lot has changed. What opera even means is being questioned in a way which would have seemed incomprehensible to management and audiences in 1967. Our first company production was Carmen, which in many ways is the ultimate “operah". Or is it? Might it not be a great forerunner of the musical? Every single number is a hit, there is dancing and influences from “low” musical genres like the Habanera, there is speaking between musical numbers - so it sounds to me much more like a musical than an opera.
What “opera” means is constantly up for re-definition. Since Monteverdi, opera has been an ongoing experiment, in seeing how many foreign bodies and styles it is capable of assimilating. And it seems that there is no upper limit to just how much it can absorb. The idea of opera is like a virus - it changes shape and definition with each passing generation. One irony in the current perception of opera is that it is often lambasted for being hidebound, “high” art, irrelevant. In some ways it has been taken hostage by established values of status, consumption and extravagance. But throughout its history - expressed in manifestos and operas by Gluck, Wagner, Berlioz, Britten, and other composers - it’s been the subject of intense cultural conflict, the site of its own culture wars. One of the challenges of my job as an Artistic Director is to balance two roles - that of custodian and that of reformer, honouring this long tradition of renewal from within. Opera is in a state of constantly shifting balance, and in the current environment, where the National Opera Review has been published, it’s a great time to look afresh at what opera offers our Australian culture.
I advocate three strands for this offering. I believe that we should nurture Australian artists, whether singers, directors or conductors, in a long-term sustainable perspective on their careers. We can do this through promoting Australian productions (as in Tosca and our new Opera Conference Merry Widow this year); casting Australian and local artists (in 2017 at WAO we have not one international imported artist); and most fundamentally, telling stories about who we are as Australians through new work. Last year we revived Ian Grandage’s The Riders, and although 2017 is a year for celebrating our custodianship of the core repertoire, we have new pieces in the works for 2018 and beyond.
I cut my teeth as a performer with new opera, at the Almeida opera festival in London in the early 1990s, where I conducted the premiere of Powder her Face, as well as new operas from China, America, and South Africa. And this involvement in new music continues to inform my work on the ‘standard’ repertoire, which I love equally. But let’s not forget - all repertoire was once new! And this is the lesson I learned working with new music - there is no hard and fast distinction between traditional and new music. Tradition should sometimes be exploded with new perspectives, newness can have its influences drawn out through interpretation. Each connects with the other in a ceaseless dialogue. And it’s this dialogue I want to celebrate in 2017 with West Australian Opera, in our anniversary year. We celebrate opera as an artform which starts from the simplest proposition - the human voice singing stories - and which proliferates into some of the wildest, most intense corners of human emotion. As opera practitioners we’re part of a dynamic tradition, not just in a museum. My mission is to carry on the experiment, to refract our contemporary sensibility and Australian-ness through the rich store of operas both new and old.