Gertrude Opera’s online lockdown festival explores new ways of telling stories with music, says Harriet Cunningham
How do you do opera during a stage four lockdown? In transforming their Yarra Valley Opera Festival into an online offering, Gertrude Opera have rewritten the rules for performers and audiences. Over 10 days they have presented three song cycles, a children’s opera, a mini-concert series and a live forum. Each event is ticketed, and the three main works are available at a specific time, with a live zoom event at the conclusion for post-show chat.
It’s a brave and possibly foolhardy compromise, but a creative one, in which three different approaches pose questions about what matters when you’re telling a story with words and music.
David Lang’s Love Fail takes its inspiration from the legend of Tristan and Yseult. Lang is fascinated by the more bizarre twists – magic sticks, love potions — which appear, like lichen on a tree, as the story is passed from one author to the next. The libretto splices these curiosities with poems reflecting on love and life by contemporary author Lydia Davis.
Lang’s score sets these words to spacey meditations sung by an ensemble of female voices (recorded separately then brought together digitally). Covid-19 brings the final twist: instead of a stage presentation, we have a video, created by Luke Leonard of experimental theatre company Monk Parrots, filmed in a paddock in mid-western America. There are no singers on the video and no engagement with an audience: more of a silent pantomime, or a fly-on-the-wall documentary.
Could this be the epitome of art in the time of Covid? It’s rough round the edges, sometimes distractingly so, with compromises and sensory jangles that, in any other year, would simply not do. But there are moments where the mesmeric soundtrack and the uncanny details – slipped without comment into everyday scenes of married life – hit some kind of sweet spot, generating a sudden flash of insight or beauty. This is a work in progress, not there yet, but intriguing.
Together Apart is an intimate, cabaret-style song cycle for four singers by Nicholas Gentile (music) and Lincoln Hall (words). It’s presented as a soiree of pieces to camera by isolated but fabulous performers. There’s no through narrative, just a mosaic of more or less messy romances. The performers, dressed to kill, sing direct to camera, hitting all the notes without fuss but sometimes missing that all-important emotional connection. It comes down to the performer’s relationship with the camera: can they use it to generate the energy they would otherwise get from an audience and fellow performers? Some numbers – like “Taken hold”, a duet between sopranos Georgia Wilkinson and Morgan Carter – demand your attention. Others fall a bit flat.
Ross James Carey and Merill Findlay created their song cycle, Kate Kelly, for the 2011 River Arts Festival in Forbes. In 2020, in the hands of Gertrude Opera’s artistic director, Linda Thompson, working with a trio of cinematographers and a cast scattered across the southern states of Australia, it has had a stunning reincarnation. This is the most sophisticated production in Gertrude Opera’s online offering and, for me, the most successful.
Each of the three performers is captured in their own, distinctive location. Bricky, Kate’s sometime husband (Andrew Moran), nurses his schooner of beer and regrets in a Sydney sandstone pub; shopkeeper Quong Lee (Michael Lapina) remembers Kate as he stands on the corner of a deserted street in Melbourne’s Chinatown. Kate (Emily Burke), walks along the side of a creek in Tasmania, all honeyed sunshine and lengthening shadows. This is not the opera of painted faces and sequinned frocks. It’s an honest, powerful telling of a quiet tragedy.
A big part of a regional opera festival is, of course, the surroundings, and Gertude Opera would normally offer intimate recitals in architecturally distinctive homes around the Valley. In their place, they offer “Ari-architecture”, a series of miniatures showcasing a 20th century building and a 20th century aria. Like Love Fail, it’s rough as guts, using drone footage and existing photography to underscore the music, but the discussions before each aria begins open up some intriguing ideas about opera and architecture and the sheer ballsiness of both.
With Victoria beginning to shed its lockdown weeds and – fingers crossed – the prospect of a vaccine within the next 12 months, this is a mode of Yarra Valley Opera Festival we’re unlikely to see again. I’m not sorry: I long to be back in the presence of live performers, and I’m sure they long for a live audience. But this warts-and-all journey of reinvention has been an important one, with discoveries and questions along the way.
Love Fail, Together Apart, Kate Kelly and Ari-architecture,produced by Gertrude Opera for Yarra Valley Opera Festival 2020, v 2.5. Streaming online until November 30.