Operatic dirty work

Keith Gallasch

Peter Oldham (camera), Nigel Kellaway, The Audience and Other Psychopaths

Peter Oldham (camera), Nigel Kellaway, The Audience and Other Psychopaths

Peter Oldham (camera), Nigel Kellaway, The Audience and Other Psychopaths

I thought she was rather attractive in a strange way…She had beautiful manners and a low voice and she smoked incessantly. She didn’t walk or behave in a butch way at all, she was well-bred and had a kind of elegance. Yet her loneliness showed in her face—a cloudiness, an ugliness really—which would go when she laughed, a strange low chuckle. …Sex with her was like being made love to by a boy. Her hands were very masculine and big and she was hipless like an adolescent boy. She wasn’t at all repelled by the male body, she was intrigued by it.
Ronald Blythe in Andrew Wilson, Beautiful Shadow, A Life of Patrica Highsmith, Bloomsbury, London 2003

A vengeful jilted diva (Karen Cummings), a manic female director (Katia Molino) and a drag queen extra (Nigel Kellaway) with a psychotic attachment to the persona of a Hitchcock killer clash on the set of a new film. In The opera Project’s latest music theatre extravaganza, hot on the heels of the popular success of Another Night: Medea (2003), the audience too are extras, cajoled and abused by the director as she shapes her deadly melodrama under the glare of the lights (designer Simon Wise) and through the probing eye of the camera (video artist Peter Oldham). A memorable work-in-progress showing 2 years ago and a slice offered at the Performance Space 2004 program launch revealed a wickedly funny, queer blend of opera, Fellini (or is it Wertmuller, or Caviani?) and Patricia Highsmith a la Hitchcock.

Using a combination of live and pre-recorded visual images the video work will not only suggest the cinematic environment of the narrative and what’s happening offstage but also blur the real and the actual in line with the characters’ fantasies. While the audience will see itself as seen by the camera, each night one male will enjoy the privilege of playing the leading man in the director’s movie-making.

And if that’s not enough to whet your appetite for blood and hysterics in a swirl of red roses and big screen camera gyrations, performance poet Amanda Stewart has co-written the off-beat libretto. No stranger to new music, Stewart is a member of the Machine for Making Sense ensemble and in 1997 she created The Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior with composer Colin Bright.

The musical score for The Audience & Other Psychopaths is by Sydney-based composer Stephen Adams. His participation is a welcome new dimension to The opera Project’s predilection for radical displacement of opera classics from the 17th to the 19th centuries into the 21st. Adams’ task is a very special one, to compose for the “disembodied voice.”

Director Nigel Kellaway says he’s always seen opera as “an intensely physicalised theatre form,” especially in the sheer physicality of the voice. One of the original intentions behind this work when it was first conceived, some 4 years ago, was to tackle the “disembodied voice” in performance. But the problem, as Kellaway saw it, was how to corporealise it so that the audience could treat the voice as a serious entity even if they couldn’t see where it was coming from. They could at least imagine the body and the place from which it was emanating. The solution is to offer a few character and narrative hooks. This woman is in the dressing room, refusing to come on stage. “Is she the ex-lesbian mother of the B-grade film auteur? Or a fantasy voice from the film director’s neurotic desire to be loved, loved, loved?” asks Kellaway.

The disembodied voice is performed by Cummings. In fact, save for a passage from a Rossini overture accompanying the filmmaking, the music and the soundscore for the work entirely comprises a pre-recorded Cummings singing Adams’ compositions and delivering Stewart’s text. Kellaway describes Adam’s creation as “a huge choral work for a single and multi-tracked voice.” No musical instruments are used.

Stephen Adams has a background in choral music, experimental rock bands and theatre, as well as training in formal composition with Peter Sculthorpe. His exploration of the human voice includes two major a capella works, Memory Pieces (1995) for the Sydney Chamber Choir, produced on CD by Tall Poppies and performed across Canada in 1999 by the Canadian Ensemble de la Rue, and Desires: Movements Toward The Divine (1997) for the Song Company, premiered live on ABC Classic FM Radio and performed on tour in Italy.

Adams says that his major focus as a composer has been on the voice whether solo, choir, in music theatre or digitally interpreted. In particular he’s interested in music’s relationship to other things, especially the texts of performance poets such as Amanda Stewart and Ania Walwicz. He likes “the obsessive quality they share about language, kicking between semantic overload on the one hand and discarding it on the other,” pushing language to the limits but “demanding it say things as clearly as possible.”

For The Audience & Other Psychopaths Adams recorded his own long vocal improvisations, wrote them down with modifications and gave these “relatively fully developed melodic lines” to Cummings whom he recorded. He edited and organised these fragments, changed the pitch here and there and began to shape the overall soundtrack for the performance. Some of the pieces “became independent lines and some of the sounds slough off and have a life of their own as Karen’s voice continues on.” As the performance progresses “the space gets more and more sonically cluttered with bits of her, as opposed to the opening where she’s in one naturalistic space, the dressing room. This shifts to become an aurally omnipresent soundscape.”

As ever, The opera Project will offer strong performances, this time from artistic director Kellaway whose extensive career in performance is founded on majors in piano and composition at the Universities of Melbourne and Adelaide, training in performance with Tadashi Suzuki and his Suzuki Company Of Toga and with Min Tanaka in Tokyo. Katia Molino trained in corporeal mime (and performed with Entr’acte Theatre), with Suzuki Tadashi in Japan, in stiltwalking and aerial techniques (working with Stalker and Marrugeku) and recently performed in Stalker’s Incognita at the Perth and Melbourne International Arts Festivals. Soprano Karen Cummings is committed to performing contemporary music. She has sung in opera, cabaret and recital, appearing as a soloist with the Victorian State Opera and Opera Australia and performing the premieres of several Australian works including Andrée Greenwell’s Laquiem at The Studio, Sydney Opera House (1999).

Outside Opera Australia and Pinchgut Opera’s delivery of the classics and rare productions of new works from Music Theatre Sydney, it’s The opera Project that music theatre audiences are increasingly turning to in Sydney for pleasure and provocation. Amidst the rude hubbub of New Mardi Gras 2004, The Audience & Other Psychopaths should provide lovingly crafted and memorable transgressions of every kind: “Archetypes to offend everyone in the gay community,” quips Kellaway.

The opera Project, The Audience & Other Psychopaths, part of New Mardi Gras, Performance Space, Sydney, Feb 10-21

RealTime issue #59 Feb-March 2004 pg. 43

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

1 February 2004