West Australian Opera artistic director Chris van Tuinen is fond of an Italian greeting, “In bocca al lupo”.
It means, “Into the mouth of the wolf”; an ironic “good luck” equivalent to the English “break a leg”.
It also sums up the recent experience of the opera sector, with lockdowns and travel curbs forcing frequent changes of personnel in a business where specialisation is intense.
Yet 2021 produced “one of the most successful seasons ever”, and Van Tuinen is upbeat about 2023, with a mixture of world premieres and productions new to Perth under the banner: Hope, Passion, Wonder, Love.
“I think 2021 definitely saw us celebrating life behind the closed border,” he says, noting there was still anxiety about sitting in confined spaces.
“Programming a season during COVID can only happen if you have so much talent and I feel fortunate that WA has so many opera talents.”
The pool was deepened by international artists returning to Perth to bolster already plentiful stocks.
“Since 2021 we also made a conscious decision as an arts company to support the sector, so even if audiences were reluctant to return we did what we could to support the artists,” Van Tuinen says.
A return to main stage productions was the icing on the cake.
“That means more opportunities for artists, and taking Traviata (this year) it was a fantastic show, with fantastic singers and the audience came and we had a full house,” Van Tuinen says..
“We’re focused on quality, focused on sourcing that quality as close to home as we can, and focused on the best artwork.”
Challenges persist, with the company flying in principal artists for Puccini’s Tosca in July at 12 hours notice; one-third of the chorus were COVID-affected and the orchestra got through four concert masters.
“So we had to do what we did, but to get five from five performances was excellent,” Van Tuinen says.
“In 2022 there were not nearly the issues in the second half of the year as in the first half and I’m quietly confident that we can go ahead and do what we want to do now, and I think the other arts organisations do too, and the audiences are coming back.”
As a sign of better times, Bizet’s Carmen — postponed in February 2022 — will take the stage at the WACA Ground during Perth Festival in 2023, following a 30-year run of Opera in the Park.
Personnel have been retained from the 2022 company, including mezzo-soprano Ashlyn Tymms in the title role, with 150 singers and musicians and a total workforce of 200-plus.
“It provides an attractive space for Perth audiences, gives a new connection to opera, and scores and scores of people are working,” Van Tuinen says.
Opera in the Park was free, albeit ticketed under COVID rules, whereas tickets average about $40 for Carmen.
“I don’t think cost is a barrier if there’s value,” Van Tuinen says.
“We’ve sold more tickets now for the WACA than for the whole season of Traviata. We have twice the number of tickets as Traviata, we’re still two months out and there’s still interest.”
Other attractions for 2023 include:
- A Northern Ireland Opera production of Stephen Sondheim’s Into the Woods devised by Australian director Cameron Menzies and featuring WA-raised Traviata star soprano Samantha Clarke in a reimagining of the happily-ever-after of multiple fairytales.
It’s not grand opera, but Van Tuinen says he is “polyamorous” about repertoire. “I have no pretensions as to where good stories and great music come from,” he says. “This is one of Sondheim’s finest pieces and it deserves to be done by a company like ours.”
- Bach’s Easter Oratorio at Winthrop Hall is a side-by-side collaboration with University of WA in the mould of Mendelssohn’s Elijah last year, with Margarete Helgeby Chaney as director.
“I’m a huge fan of (WA composer) Lachlan Skipworth and I’ve wanted him to get involved in the music-dramatic space so we’ve commissioned him to compose companion pieces to go inside Bach’s Oratorio,” Van Tuinen says. “He’s going to leave the Bach and take the recitative (spoken) text and compose that.”
- Verdi’s Otello will be a revival of an Opera Australia production by the late-great Australian director Harry Kupfer, starring WA Opera’s very own star tenor Paul O’Neill.
On the question of diversity, Van Tuinen is pragmatic. “Opera tradition is voice first and we cast local,” he says, noting only a handful of Otello productions lately have used singers of colour. “It’s a legitimate question and I think we have got a long way to go,” he says. “We can ask the same question of women characters and diversity in creative teams. Do we want to be retro-fitting these 19th century masterpieces? It’s a problem for sure.”
- Returning to Puccini, a new production with Opera Queensland of La Boheme will be directed by rising WA talent Matt Reuben James Ward, who helmed Our Little Inventor this year and Noongar opera Koolbardi wer Wardong (Magpie and Crow) last year.
“We’re again focusing on the idea that we can be a home for developing not just singers but also others,” Van Tuinen says. “We think (Matt) is a talented guy and he’ll deliver a brand new show that will debut in Perth with Elena Perroni as Mimi.” Perroni, another WA-raised international star, will reprise a role she sang for Opera in the Park in 2018.
- Gina Williams and Guy Ghouse will continue regional tours of Koolbardi wer Wardong, taking in Bunbury in August, and will work on a new commission during 2023.
Wundig wer Wilura tells the story of star-crossed lovers who are condemned and their spirits enshrined in twin mountains outside York, forever separated by the Avon River. “It’s a story that’s been told for 3000 generations,” Van Tuinen says. “It’s a forbidden love story that predates Romeo and Juliet by about 40,000 years. It’s a love story Shakespeare would wish he’d written.”
This time Williams and Ghouse will write for an adult audience, with more complex music and a full-length production. “It’s a development for them,” Van Tuinen says.
Into the wolf’s mouth? The traditional answer is “Crepi!” — Killing it!