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The Opera Project: decadence and survival

Keith Gallasch

Andrew Morrish, Regina Heilmann, Nigel Kellaway, entertaining paradise Andrew Morrish, Regina Heilmann, Nigel Kellaway, entertaining paradise
photo Heidrun Löhr
Nigel Kellaway is a survivor—one of the few mature artists still working in contemporary performance in Sydney, such is the unnatural attrition of the field. But for how much longer? After directing, administering, performing in and consulting on a string of demanding shows over the last year (Little George, The Song Company; Interview with The Virtual Goddess, Rakini Devi (Perth); El Inocente, The opera Project; The Berlioz—Our Vampires Ourselves tour, The opera Project (Hobart & Brisbane); The Audience And Other Psychopaths,The opera Project, Sydney; Fa’afafine, Urban Theatre Projects, Sydney; Kiss My Fist, Performance Space, Sydney) his latest work, entertaining paradise, could be the last for quite a while. He really needs a break but the astonishing failure of the Theatre Board of the Australia Council to support Kellaway’s work for the third time running means that he has no major support for his key venture, The opera Project, over the next year. Welcome funds from the NSW Ministry for the Arts have always been anticipated to supplement those from the Australia Council, but recently they have become the company’s only source of support—and there’s no more of that for the balance of 2002. So make sure you catch entertaining paradise before Kellaway becomes yet another premature archival Australian arts object. While this country’s investment in the young, the emerging, the multicultural and the regional has revealed a broadening arts sensibility and begun to meet some important needs, our attention to the ongoing development and survival of the mature artist has been shamefully negligent. The current shortage of Australia Council artform funds means that there is never enough to go around. Too often we hear of artists being told that they were judged on their most recent work. This is ridiculous when dealing with artists with a substantial lifetime of work. Of course not every work can be a success or of the same high calibre, but artists like Kellaway prove themselves over and over with surges of invention and brilliance. Such is the nature of creation.

Kellaway’s enthusiasm for entertaining paradise is undimmed by his straitened circumstances. Inspired by the material and especially the structure of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Pre-Paradise Sorry Now, he is collaborating with sometime opera Project cohort, performer Regina Heilmann and, for the first time, the improviser Andrew Morrish. The Fassbinder, described by Kellaway as “a classic piece of German anti-theatre” was taken up around the world in the 70s and realised in wildly differing versions. “There is a kind of narrative made up of mobile, fluid scenes including part of the story of Moors murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady—from how they met as young people and up to the first 2 murders. There are 9 pas de deux dialogues between them. There are 20 contra scenes each with 3 people. They’re all about 2 people ganging up on a third, for example 2 prostitutes versus a transsexual prostitute; 2 fag bashers versus a homosexual...The scenes can be performed in any order. There’s a sense of scenes being replayed or re-assessed as information recurs in different ways.”

Ever one for a challenge, Kellaway is fascinated with “how to make a show working from limited information and with how a small kernel of an idea can develop.” Having Morrish in the team is another kind of challenge. Although Kellaway always sees the process of making work as improvisation, the prospect of having a professional improviser on stage, in performance, is another matter. Kellaway has a meticulous sense of structure which firms as the work emerges. Fortunately he’s found in Morrish a like-minded collaborator—an improviser preoccupied with structure. “I’ve never met anyone who can jettison material as fast as he can...if it’s not working he jumps to the next extraordinary facility for self-censorship. He’s very intuitive. I’m more calculating—I think before I do. Regina does, thinks and then does again differently.” Kellaway and Heilmann have been working as Hindley and Brady “with Andrew intervening quite left field...then we respond and rewrite our material and eventully jettison the Fassbinder text.”

While the Fassbinder has provided a formal springboard for entertaining paradise, Kellaway feels that the German writer’s preoccupation with the roots of fascism in racism, homophobia and cultural paranoia still warrant exploration, and we’ve had plenty of evidence recently in this country why this should be the case. The Moors murderers “were the products of Glasgow and Manchester slums—their limitations were forced on them. Brady did reform schools, jails. But he did well—he was a bookkeeper in a soap factory and wore a tie. He and Hindley met there, products of the class system. But the work is not about the Moors murderers. It’s about a neo-Nazi mentality—they talk endlessly about superior forms of life and those with no right to be here. It’s about the massive insecurity that makes people go for the weakest, that’s fascism.”

This is an opera Project venture, so what role does music play in the scenario? “High art is very scary for Ian and Myra and therefore is everything they fear. Especially when the singer is a counter tenor and Indonesian. This is paranoia about the elite artist.” Eleven songs make up 35 minutes of the show. There are Purcell art songs, an aria from Handel’s Rodelinda—“a burst of extreme energy”—and the 1910 Alban Berg Early Songs—“lush, decadent, cabaret quality and pre-serial.” Of Purcell’s “Sweeter than Roses”, Kellaway enthuses: “it’s like a Restoration soundtrack for a hard core porn movie, the foreplay, the sudden cum shot (“and shot like fire all over”) and then, marvellously post-orgasmic. It’s onomatopoeic, it’s in-yer-face, it’s the rattling-in-the-dark world of Hindley and Brady—not that they’d recognise it!” They cling to an Elvis songbook.

Kellaway, Heilmann and Morrish are joined by the remarkable young counter tenor Peretta Anggerek and the accomplished pianist Michael Bell in what promises to be a grimly thrilling experience, where the pleasures and horrors of decadence tangle, exploring, as Kellaway puts it, “the obscene limits to which intimate relationships can degenerate.”

The opera Project & Performance Space, entertaining paradise, Performance Space, Sydney, April 19-27.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 36

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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