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The Creative Issue – News for Creatives | November 19, 2019

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OQ and Circa blend circus with opera this October

OQ and Circa blend circus with opera this October
Kaylee Randall


It’s true that opera is often seen as conservative and old-fashioned. Even powerhouse opera countertenor
Owen Willets agrees that elitism sometimes reigns supreme across the genre. However, he also attests to the cutting edge nature of opera, stating that it’s always been on the cusp of what’s new.

Opera Queensland and Circa plan to prove this point exactly, blending opera with acrobatics in Orpheus and Eurydice coming to QPAC from 24 October to 9 November. Inspired by the classic Greek myth, Circa Artistic Director Yaron Lifschitz blurs the lines of tradition with eight acrobats sharing the stage with Willets and the powerful soprano Natalie Christie Peluso

In a chat with Willets, he had just flown in from London, jumping straight into rehearsals two days after arriving. Although the jet lag can be unforgiving, he said that the rehearsal process is one of his favourite parts of performing.

During rehearsals, typically, he’ll wake up a few hours before call time, have breakfast, and do at least a half-hour warm-up to get his voice ready. The company will rehearse for about three hours until their first break for lunch, before coming back to it for another three or four hours.

“You might have language coachings as well,” Willets said. “If you’re doing an Italian piece [for instance], you’ll just talk through the language and he or she will correct your pronunciation and check you’re putting the emphasis in the right places and check that you’re on the same page about the meaning. Sometimes the Italian can be quite complicated because it’s old, baroque Italian. The syntax is very different [from] modern language so it’s sometimes quite complicated to unpick. You can understand word for word what it means but often the syntax is so jumbled up for modern language users that it takes a bit of unpicking to actually get the sense of it.”

For Willet, the rehearsal process is all about discovering new things.

“Working with a new director, new conductor, potentially new singers, and in this production where we’ve got acrobats as well, it’s always just so exciting to discover new things and discover things together,” he said.

Willets has always loved music and took up playing the cello at age 17. When he needed a second study as part of a medical degree, he took singing lessons. He fell in love with singing and from then on, it’s all he ever really wanted to do.

He went to music college at the Royal Academy of Music and “took it from there.”

As an opera singer who has toured the world, performing in numerous productions, Willets noted that working with Circa’s artists is a “great joy,” and while it may seem like a surprising combination, it’s actually nothing new for opera. “Collaborations are pretty common [in opera],” he said. “There have always been composers, like Purcell for instance, [who] wrote loads of dance into his [music] so there would have been actors and dancers on stage. And I’m sure in those days there would have been people who were acrobats as well. I’ve done a fair amount where you collaborate with actors or dancers or acrobats or aerialists and all these different things and it’s one of the great joys, actually. It’s really fun.”

Still, this rendition of Orpheus and Eurydice is sure to be a showstopper and the blend between opera and physical performance is expected to mix seamlessly. OQ Artistic Director Patrick Nolan said, “Opera must embody emotions: An opera singer does that with their voice and an acrobat does that with their physicality.”

Willets agrees that the physical energy brought to the stage by the acrobats is unparalleled and truly exciting for him as a fellow performer.

“I always find when I’m working with people like acrobats or dancers [is] that they bring a different energy to the room. There’s a different way of working, a slightly different mentality about it that I think is really lovely. It’s a really wonderful energy that physical people, dancers, acrobats brings to the stage. So that’s really great,” said Willets.

“And also I just love watching all the acrobats. We get to take part in a little bit, in a relatively passive way, we do get roped into it and I love that,” he said, laughing. “I enjoy the physical side of things. I enjoy physical performances and physical productions where you have to do a lot of movement and some dancing [or] some sort of pseudo acrobatic things. Obviously there’s only so much you can do as a singer whilst still singing, but it’s great to be involved in that. And they’re lovely as well this group. A really lovely group of people and all very passionate about what they do.”

As the company gears up for the opening of Orpheus and Eurydice on the 24th of October, Willets is looking forward to that feeling of confidence in his role as Orpheus once it’s been practised and perfected. “[At that point] you’re not thinking, ‘Oh god what’s my next line?’, he said. “Once that’s all there, then you can just focus on the drama and communicating what you’re trying to communicate to the audience. [It] is just incredibly rewarding and exciting really.”

For Willets, there’s something thrilling about an audience in the dark where everyone’s in the moment and completely focused. For him, that’s what opera is all about.

As for the state of the arts, both in Australia and the U.K., he has mixed feelings. On one hand, he feels that there is a lot of experimental projects going on in opera. Still, there’s also the worry that this generation of concert-goers will die off without a younger generation having an interest in opera.

“I don’t think [that] is true because there always seems to be a new generation. But on the whole, at least in the U.K., they seem to come from a certain background. The audience isn’t that inclusive. It’s generally fairly middle-class which is a shame and more needs to be done to change that,” said Willets. 

“That goes back to education. [In the U.K.], they cut back on music education in primary school hugely in the last 20 years, even moreso in the last 10 years. I think that when financial problems hit, the first thing to go is the arts. Being taught music at school isn’t deemed to be essential. Maths, chemistry, the sciences, English, literacy, [etcetera] are obviously vital but the value of music and music education and participating in music is massively undervalued. And that’s a real shame and I really hope that people will begin to realise how essential it is.”

Of course, Willets hopes that anyone who comes to see Orpheus and Eurydice will have a thoroughly enjoyable evening in general but it’s also an opportunity for Brisbanites to show their support for the arts. 

“The actual story itself [of Orpheus and Eurydice] is quite a complicated one. One of the things that Gluck (the composer) was trying to do was to simplify opera, simplify the music, and also simplify the story so that there weren’t so many extraneous plots going on. Opera up to that point got pretty complicated, there were all sorts of subplots going on at the same time, whereas this is just a very simple classic story of love and loss,” he said.

“It poses questions about how we deal with loss and love and desire. You always come away [from opera] with a lot of questions and it makes people think about and question themselves about what love is and what desire is. So, fingers crossed we’ve done our jobs properly.”

Whether you’re a season pass holder at QPAC or you’ve never been to an opera, you might be surprised how relatable and timeless these stories are. Sure, opera can come across as snobby and out-of-date but see it for yourself and you might come to find that it’s more relatable than you anticipated.

The Details:

What: Orpheus and Eurydice by Opera Queensland and Circa

Where: Playhouse QPAC

When: 24 October to 9 November

Thursday 24 October, 7.30 pm
Saturday 26 October, 1.30 pm
Tuesday 29 October, 6.30 pm
Thursday 31 October, 6.30 pm
Saturday 2 November, 7.30 pm
Tuesday 5 November, 6.30 pm
Thursday 7 November, 6.30 pm
Saturday 9 November, 1.30 pm (Audio described performance)

How Much: $64 to $124

More Info: Sung in Italian with English subtitles. Runs for 90 minutes without an interval.

Website: Click here

Images supplied.