Coffs Harbour will be treated to a dose of Mozart in April. We catch up with CoOpera’s General Manager Brian Chatterton, to find out about their upcoming performance.
Give us some background on CoOpera itself.
The company was started in 1990, when I was Dean of Performing Arts at the University of Adelaide. A couple of good friends and I had just finished doing a performance of a new work in Adelaide called the Barossa Opera by a South Australian composer, Ralph Bidenway. In the process of putting that premiere work together, we decided that it would be good to set up a company that would give recent graduates from conservatoriums an opportunity for their first performance in a professional circumstance.
We had all been involved in opera education over many years, and there was a desperate need for work for new young performing arts people – especially when you consider between graduating in their early 20s and gaining serious employment with larger opera companies, there’s a further 10 years of professional development that has to take place. They are very difficult years for singers to fill in, so we thought there was a real opportunity to prepare a little company that would find work for these people while their voices were still growing, but in non-threatening smaller performing environments rather than in large opera houses, where the voice can be quite easily ruined if it works too hard too quickly.
Along with that, I’d been a musical director of several productions with the State Opera of South Australia in earlier decades and with them had taken performances out to regional South Australia. I knew there was a great love in regional Australia for scaled down but still live performances of opera. We tried to make those 2 principles coalesce into forming the company. Since we got started and people realised that we were half okay at it, the growth of the company has just been quite extraordinary.
We’ve been filling each year with performances with exactly the young people we were hoping would do the bulk of the work. That’s really how the company grew up – in regional South Australia for a couple of years first, with the help of the Arts Council of South Australia, then growing by performing across all states and territories with the help of Federal Government through its Playing Australia Regional Performing Arts Assistance Program.
Tell us about the performance you’re touring at the moment.
At the moment, I’m speaking to you from Armidale, where we did a performance last night. It was number 9 of 30 performances of Mozart’s very famous piece, The Marriage of Figaro. That production will be taken all the way from our home in Adelaide up to Port Douglas in Northern Queensland. In Coffs Harbour, we’ll be presenting a performance that is typical of the regional performances that we’re doing. It’s a scaled down version, in as much as there are 11 singers and we have an instrumental ensemble of 8 players.
This compares with the normal large opera presentation in an opera house of something like 50 people on stage, with a chorus and all that goes with it and an orchestra of 40 or 50 players in the pit. Obviously, if you’re going to tour regional Australia with as many performances as we’re doing, you can’t take that large number around; it’s just too expensive. You can cut out the bits that cost huge amounts and leave the essence, the spirit and the character of the original Mozart opera. We have a string ensemble with one or two woodwind very carefully scored, so that you hear the gorgeous colours of Mozart’s instrumentation but without the added numbers that are needed for the weight of the orchestral sound that’s needed in an opera house. On stage we travel with just 11 singers, where there are 7 or 8 quite major principal roles, and we bring 2 or 3 along to do smaller things and serve as understudies to the main principals.
The production itself is extremely comic. It’s one of Mozart’s greatest pieces, in that it mixes high comic entertainment with a lot of human pathos and very believable human emotions, hopes and desires – deriving from the fact that the story is about the challenge of aristocratic privilege. It was written in the 1780s, and the plays that Mozart set to music to become The Marriage of Figaro were extremely influential in Paris of the 1780s, which led to the French Revolution – all of which is about aristocratic privilege.
The piece that we have prepared shows those quite strong social issues, but also there’s a lot of old fashioned European comedy – particularly from Italy. It’s a gorgeous piece, because it shows the duality of it, particularly the serious part, but also the slapstick comedy as well. Mozart was one of the supreme geniuses of wielding those two aspects of entertainment into a very coherent whole. >
You’ll be performing at the Botanical Gardens in Coffs Harbour in April. What are you most looking forward to about this leg of the tour?
Well, we just love the northern part of the NSW coast. We’ve played in Coffs Harbour once or twice before, so we know the town. I just love the community and the weather! They’re all the great things about Australia … when you travel for a living like we do, you’ve got to love the country. If you don’t like the travel and you don’t like the country, then you’re not doing the right thing. But we all just absolutely adore it. So coming there will be great for artistic reasons, but it will also be great for getting a nice holiday feel.
Thank you Brian.
CoOpera will be performing The Marriage of Figaro in Coffs Harbour on Friday 29 April 2011 at the North Coast Regional Botanical Gardens. The performance kicks off at 7pm. For more information, call 6648 4188.