Of ears and vampires

Sue Moss: IHOS & Graeme Leak, Happy New Ears

In may this year IHOS Music Theatre Laboratory provided a mentorship program under the direction of visiting composer and performer Graeme Leak. Three emerging Tasmanian composers, Lisa Morriset, Joe Budgen and Rosemary Austen, were commissioned to develop scores for music theatre.

Morisset’s Sway, Bugden’s Death by Defenestration and Austen’s Eden’s Bequest respectively take a 50s song made famous by Julie London, the Freudian triad of loss, memory and desire, and a suite of poems by American writer Judy Grahn as their starting points for score and story.

This mentorship occurred in the context of a music theatre laboratory, which implies consideration of their projects from both musical and theatrical perspectives. These composers are at an early stage in their theatrical development. At what point in a mentorship program should new artists be challenged to move beyond the known and understood, to the place of heresy and theatrical inventiveness?

Sway, Death by Defenestration and Eden’s Bequest all have heretical potential. The shift from literal interpretation to a locale of invention, surprise and shock remains to be addressed by future mentors in association with these music theatre composers.

Graham Leak’s Happy New Ears provides a strong model of musical and theatrical joie de vivre. Taking rhythm and noise as the starting place, Leak contrasted elements of high and low, thick and thin, noise and silence to develop an innovative synthesis of sound, rhythm, and silence. Happy New Ears emerged from an intensive 10 day workshop program with the IHOS Music Theatre Laboratory.

Leak’s sense of space and theatre, coupled with his directorial skill, enabled the ensemble to explore sound and body as boundary and opportunity. The elements of subtlety and quirkiness invigorated the IHOS Music Theatre Laboratory which responded with a confident music and movement dynamic of lightness and finesse.

The ensemble performed a percussive body motif with tight synchronicity. Whoever missed the gradually increasing tempo of the pattern dropped out, generating a frisson of anticipation among the audience. The hilarious balloon orchestra was breathtaking in its conceptual simplicity. Leak’s direction provided members of the Music Laboratory with an insight into the less is more axiom of music theatre.

Leak’s strength as a composer is the aesthetic he generates from simplified sound sources including customised conductors’ batons, balls revolving on a plate and the ethereality of breath through copper piping. The Peacock Theatre resonated with the twirling of a delicate pseudo bull roarer. The audience suspended its breath, listening with new ears to spilling silence and music of the spheres.

Hector Berlioz’s song cycle Les Nuits D’été (The Summer Nights) Opus 7 (1834) provided the musical impetus for The opera Project’s production of The Berlioz—our vampires ourselves. Winter solstice wind roared around the timbers of the Long Gallery enabling an imaginative connection with Bram Stoker, Count Dracula and the shadow-seep of Transylvania.

The performance by Nigel Kellaway, Annette Tesoriero and Paul Cordeiro was preceded by weeks of warnings about operatic sensationalism, nudity, and adult themes. The other considered warning was: ‘beware, you will either love or hate this show.’

Kellaway’s production features his pale and trance-like appearance (a homage to Nosferatu?), the matching opulence of gown and jabot, the waft of perfume, and the performer’s intoxicatory responses to a Grecian urn brimming with scarlet rose petals.

The lure and fall of notes from Kellaway’s Bösendorfer is assured, and captures the lushness of Berlioz’s score. Les Nuits D’été is both fantasy and romantic song cycle. Sound mesmerises and tempts Cordeiro in his alternating role of victim and seducer. The performance is a pulsation of vulnerability and dominance. His languid looks, panting breath and sexual allure inevitably seek the double snarl of rose and wound. Tesoriero’s potent mezzo voice fills the performance space. She is an able partner in collusion.

Our vampires ourselves recreates and exploits the territory of fantasy and affirms familiar (homo)eroticisms. Opera is traditionally associated with the realms of desire, obsession, love and death. Melodrama invites parody and our vampires ourselves uses a panoply of theatrical clichés to enhance the ridiculous. The enactment of vampiric obsession through gorgeous music, stylised movement and over-statement hovers at the border of comfort-zone theatre.

There is room in this production to lull the audience, then introduce serial inversion to destabilise the familiar. If vampiric obsession is a parody then conversely it can be used as a theatre of relinquishment which involves letting go and settling accounts with both the parodic ease and the musical sumptuousness of a former century.

Happy New Ears, director/performer Graeme Leak & IHOS Music Theatre Laboratory, Sway, writer Lisa Morriset, performer Georgina Richmond, Death by Defenestration, writer Joe Budgen, singers Rachael Guy, Craig Wood, performers Alex Dick, Thomas Hogan, Eden’s Bequest, writer/composer Rosemary Austen, soprano Sarah Jones, performers IHOS Music Theatre Laboratory, Peacock Theatre, Hobart, May 31-June 2; The Berlioz—our vampires ourselves, The opera Project Inc., director Nigel Kellaway, scenarist Keith Gallasch, performers Paul Cordeiro, Kellaway, Annette Tesoriero, music Hector Berlioz, Long Gallery, Hobart, June 19-23

RealTime issue #44 Aug-Sept 2001 pg. 42

© Sue Moss; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 August 2001