25 Years of Australian Opera

Neil Warren-Smith

Oxford University            Press, 1983


Read extracts, 25 Years of Australian Opera, Neil Warren-Smith

‘I think ‘generosity’ must be the operative word of that first Australian opera company. We were desperately aware of our insecurities, and of our need for one another both onstage and off—because for a lot of us, this was our first time away from home and a few of us felt very homesick. We each of us gave to one another what we had to give—whether it was experience or companionship or support. Over the years, as must always happen, petty jealousies and personal ambitions crept in as the company became more strongly established, and the prospects of making a career and attracting personal success in opera in Australia became more likely. But at the outset, we were free of petty bickerings and jockeyings for position.

The company’s first Don Giovanni was uncluttered and uncomplicated as a production, with each role clearly defined and beautifully sung. Altogether, I’ve sung in nine professional productions of the Don in Australia and New Zealand and, with the exception of Don Ottavio because I’m nobody’s idea of a tenor, I’ve sung all the principal male roles: the Don, Leporello, the Commendatore and Masetto.

With [Dennis]  Arundell’s production of the Don, I started to think about the roles beyond the techniques of singing them. My first comparison had to be Keith Neilson’s Leporello against my own amateur bumblings for the National. Here was a man who, because of his size, could never have played the total servant that I had. John Shaw’s Don was cynical and worldly, unlike my earlier one, William Cresswell, who’d been dashing and rather boyish. Shaw could dominate Neilson whenever he wanted to, because of his air of grandeur. I watched the relationship develop in the rehearsal room between these two characters and started to think again about how I would approach Leporello if the part ever came my way again.

Well, it came again—and again, and again…’

‘…Stefan [Haag’s] Flute! Even twenty-five years after it happened, mention of Stefan’s Flute either sends people into paroxysms of laughter (the performers) or makes them go white at the lips (the technicians). People who saw it enjoyed it enormously, though for no reasons Mozart would have approved of.

     Theoretically, unlike a lot of the mucked-round-with productions of Mozart I’ve been involved in over the years, Stefan’s concept was superb. It was totally true to that original woolly concept of the libretto. The philosophy of the opera is based on Freemasonry, the basic tenet of which is brotherly love, expressed through its own peculiar system of morality, which is veiled in allegory and illustrated by symbols. Stefan’s production respected its mysticism and enhanced its magic.

     It was in practice that the thing became a riot…The setting was a fantastical Egyptian somewhere-or-other with projected scenery, marble pillars and a lot of rocks. Supernatural characters like the Queen of the Night and the Genii, the three magic boys, were to fly and sing in mid-air: a truly magical Magic Flute. We had done all our rehearsing in odd little halls in Melbourne and Adelaide, and though we’d seen the set designs, we’d never met up with the actual thing, which turned out to be three steeply-raked surfaces set in a curved cyclorama. This cyclorama, on which the scenery was to be projected, was to be one of the wonderful features of this production. It had to be imported specially from Germany, because only in Germany, apparently, could they make a cyclorama as big as this in one piece with no joining seam… but when, after a long delay, this legendary thing did turn up, it was in two pieces and had to have a seam down the middle anyway. One thing it did succeed in doing was to block off any upstage entrances or exits…

     As the Speaker, I had to appear from behind a marble pillar and confront the hero, Tamino, with my recitative, demanding to know why he was encroaching on sacred ground. Since there was no way of getting me on unobserved once the curtain had gone up, I had to position myself behind my pillar during the overture, along with Stanley Clarkson, who was playing Sarastro, the high priest of Osiris who had to manifest himself a bit later than I did…Nobody had taken the rake of the rostrum into consideration when the pillars were made, so they had a tendency to lurch in a downstage direction. Standing still for twenty minutes so that the pillar you’re hiding behind doesn’t quiver does funny things to you, especially when you’re at an angle, and feel you’re likely to fall on your face at any moment. Your sense of balance goes mad and you feel as though you’re trying to hang on to something by the back of your head…

     …The Queen of the Night made her entrance. She was to be flown in from the side on a cloud, while upstage of her the moon was to be lowered from the flies. When the lights came up, there she would be, floating in mid-air, framed by the moon. Or that was how it was planned. It just didn’t work out that way.

     The stage hands shot poor Betty Prentice on too fast and stopped her too abruptly, the lights came on too early, and there she was, clinging on for dear life and rocking from side to side like a novelty swing at Luna Park, while the moon crept slowly down from above and stopped short of its mark. Stefan hissed to the man in the flies, an old J.C. Williamson’s stage hand who wasn’t really used to all this new-fangled carry-on and was more than a little deaf: “Lower the moon, Fred.”’   

From  Mucking About with Mozart


‘We performed our whittled-down productions to towns which, without this kind of touring company, were never likely to clap eye or ear to any kind of operatic performance. We went out not merely as singers, but as stage hands, porters and wardrobe assistants—well, you can’t expect a soprano to hump scenery—and just about everything else that goes to making a performance work. We manhandled the scenery into halls on arrival in a town and back into the van when the performance was over, the amount of actual slog we had to do depending on whether or not the local Arts Council committee had been able to line up some voluntary local assistance to help out…

     They were tough, those tours, but they were also superbly rewarding. There was an excitement bubbling up at you from those audiences that immediately encouraged you to give the best you possibly could—even when at times, the conditions were hopeless. After racketing around for hours, sometimes, in the big pantechnicon known with no affection whatever as the Monster, we’d arrive stiff and aching at a poky little hall that looked as if it would shudder to pieces if Don Smith were to sing at full volume inside it.

       For instance, we performed Rigoletto in Mount Isa at the height of the tropical summer in what amounted to little more than a tin hut. None of the scenery could be put on what was defined as the stage, because it had a ceiling barely eight feet above it. And this tiny place seated some ludicrously small number like 150 people. That night, something like 200 sweaty, uncomfortable bodies sat jammed hip to hip in that hot little hall, to see a group of singers in costumes in a setting of black drapes, with what lighting effects could be achieved by the few lamps…A thousand more people stood outside, unable to buy tickets, and listened to the performance in the street. Since the windows in the hall had to be left open to allow our paying patrons to breathe, the performance probably sounded every bit as good out there as it did inside. And the reception we got from our al fresco audience can only be described as an ovation.’

From Pioneers

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