Melbourne Festival: vox pop

Robyn Archer has done it yet again, created another unique festival program, richly themed, grippingly lateral, passionate and inclusive for a wide range of audiences. Best of all Archer’s choices reflect the state of the arts mid-decade: exploratory, innovative, hybrid and with a potent interplay of the local and the global. Archer celebrates the voice with mass yodelling singalongs, competitive karaoke, intensive workshops with some of the world’s most adventurous vocal virtuosi, new generation operas by Australians and others, sonically designed multimedia performances, song recitals, live poetry and classics from Mozart and Schubert sung live in interpretive dance scenarios from great choreographers.

As Archer puts it, her festival is about the voice “metaphorical and literal.” In Alladeen, The Builders Association (NY, see RT#57, p28) and motiroti (UK) collaborate on a sophisticated, multimedia response to the Aladdin tale in terms of the new economic colonisation that transforms Indians working in call centres into masters of vocal disguise. In Victoria’s (Belgium) üBUNG 6 children onstage watch 6 adults at a dinner party onscreen and create the vocal soundtrack for the film—charming at one level, says Archer of this drama of mimickry and socialisation, but disturbing at another.

There’s also a strong strand of puppetry vis a vis the voice in the festival. Ronnie Burkett (Canada), the tour-de-force puppeteer for adults manipulates and voices his many onstage charges in full view of the audience in Provenance, an art mystery about the history of a painting. South Africa’s astonishing Handspring Puppet Company directed by animation maestro William Kentridge present Monteverdi’s opera The Return of Ulysses in a contemporary setting and in collaboration with the Ricercar Consort. Each character is worked by both a puppeteer and a singer. Melbourne’s Aphids will present their miniature puppet plays, A Quarelling Pair, including one by the American writer Jane Bowles.

Operatic voices are explored through an onstage interplay with dancing bodies. In Mozart/Concert Arias 1992 the wonderful choreographer Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker with her company Rosas (Belgium), 3 sopranos, director Jean-Luc Ducourt and Alessandro de Marchi conducting the Australian Brandenberg Orchestra, entwine Mozart and dance in a widely acclaimed performance. De Keersmaeker herself will perform Once, a new solo meditation on American culture from the Civil War onwards to the music of Joan Baez’s In Concert Part 2 (1963). In another interplay of voice and body, with 3 dancers, a pianist and the acclaimed British baritone Simon Keenlyside, the great American choreographer Trisha Brown transforms Schubert’s Wintereisse song cycle into a visual drama, integrating the singer boldly and seamlessly into the dance. “Not a note is lost”, says Archer.

The festival offers some intriguing perspectives on opera and music theatre in the early 21st century. For younger audiences, Windmill Performing Arts, Opera Australia and MIAF have combined to premiere Midnite, based on Randolph Stow’s novel. It’s composed by Raffaelo Marcellino with Doug Macleod as librettist. In the long-awaited “opera in 4 orbits”, Cosmonaut, a doomed Russian astronaut communicates with an Australian woman while the USSR crumbles. Cosmonaut is by composer David Chesworth to a libretto by Tony MacGregor and premieres under the direction of David Pledger.

The Busker’s Opera is multimedia virtuoso Robert Lepage’s take on John Gay’s 18th century The Beggar’s Opera (Ex Machina, Canada). As in the original, popular tunes of the day are deployed, “from hard rock to klezmer, delta blues to show tunes, rat pack to Gay’s originals” in a timely tale about a busker destroyed by the “cultural industry, copyright laws and heroin.” Archer says this is high quality trash, with outrageous but miraculously engrossing singing and heaps of bad taste. Musiektheatre Transparent’s Men in Tribulation (Belgium) is a new opera by Eric Sleichim for counter tenor, narrator, saxophone quartet and electronics to a text by Jan Fabre inspired by Antonin Artaud’s time spent with the Tarahumara Indians in central Mexico. The great Vivian de Muynck (previously seen in Australia with Needcompany and the Wooster Group) performs with experimental vocalist Phil Minton.

There’s a lot more on the program. Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach collaborate with Paul Grabowsky and the Australian Art Orchestra on Kura Tungar-Songs for the River, a large-scale reworking of the engrossing, moving and sublimely orchestrated Ruby’s Story (see www.realtimearts.net). Japan’s Granular Synthesis appear in Modell 5, an extreme merging of sound and visual image as the projected head of performer Akemi Takeya is subjected to multiple transformations on 4 screens and in surround sound. Very loud, very subtle. The Singapore-Australia co-production Sandakan Threnody is a powerful account of the consequences of war crimes (see review of the Singapore Arts Festival premiere, p47). And The Audiotheque: Night Voices is a live to air broadcast for a very live audience of Radio National’s The Night Air at the National Gallery of Victoria.

If you want to lift your vocal game, Institute for the Living Voice, originally out of Belgium, is a unique 11-day offering for singers and others to work with some of the world’s most remarkable voices, including David Moss, director of the project. Or yodelling or karaoke might be more your thing. Whatever, the arts pilgrimage that once coursed its way to Adelaide will again this year head to Melbourne, to celebrate voice newly embodied in the works of De Keersmaeker, Kentridge, Lepage, Brown, Keenlyside, Burkett, Moss, de Muynck, Granular Synthesis, Chesworth, The Builders Association, Marcellino, Archie Roach & Ruby Hunter and many, many more. KG

Melbourne International Arts Festival, October 7-23, www.melbournefestival.com.au

RealTime issue #62 Aug-Sept 2004 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2004