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sydney chamber opera: opera’s other worlds

keith gallasch: interview, louis garrick, jack symonds

Louis Garrick, Jack Symonds, Sydney Chamber Opera
Louis Garrick, Jack Symonds, Sydney Chamber Opera

photo Samuel Hodge

However, in just a few years Sydney Chamber Opera has risen to deserved prominence with strong programming, quality musicianship, brave directors and very strong design. And opera fans have responded with great enthusiasm.

I met with artistic director Louis Garrick and music director Jack Symonds, articulate, passionate young men with a shared vision, though not without the humility that acknowledges the surprise they have felt at their success.

Garrick says that the pair knew that there was “a whole wealth of chamber repertoire that Sydney audiences simply weren’t seeing and had no connection with because not a lot of it was being performed.” If politicians declare Sydney a cultural capital, says Garrick, “then a capital should have a chamber opera company. It’s a basic requirement.” As for who was going to undertake such a venture, Symonds reveals that “it was pretty clear to us that nobody else was going to do it and we were naïve enough to think that we could.”

from wagner to chamber opera

In terms of motivation, Garrick admits, “It’s funny. I never had any interest in opera until I was at university. I play the piano and about halfway through my musicology degree, I started listening to Wagner as part of harmony training. That’s standard. And I got hooked. I remember feverishly learning Tristan and wanting to listen to it again and again because I found it such a rich score. Then, one by one, I went through all the Wagner operas. I’m inspired by Wagnerian processes and approaches to operatic form.”

I wonder if it’s the heightened sense of theatricality implicit in Wagner that attracted Garrick. “And the big idea of a through-composed opera where the drama is really music-led.” “On whatever scale,” adds Symonds, “so it doesn’t have to be Wagnerian.” Garrick points out that he didn’t “come from an opera background of arias and duets from the bel canto universe. I really came to it from a musicology form or structure point of view. After Wagner it was Berg and you go from there—Britten and all the major composers of the 20th century, all the fascinating operas. If you get into Britten, you get into chamber opera.”

Garrick’s familiarity with opera grew “when I took a uni job, operating the surtitles for Opera Australia—the bottom job in the whole opera pecking order—and seeing the standard rep over and over again, including the Mozarts, which I love, I think, it made me feel like I was dipping my toe in the opera world as well as learning the really serious repertoire.”

Symonds came to opera as a composer, “from the opposite end that most people do, from more modern pieces and went backwards. The first opera composers I ever got into were ones that I felt connected to in a general compositional way— Berg, Janacek and Britten. Almost every 20th century stream of opera, chamber or otherwise, can be traced to one of those three. And then, go backwards one step and there’s Wagner and that was, for me, a most extraordinary discovery. Like Louis, I don’t have a large interest in early Italian repertoire (Mozart’s Italian operas excepted) and baroque opera is not really my taste. Other than Wagner, I think the later Verdi and Mussorgsky are my picks.”

opera optimism

“What gives me so much hope is that since the 80s we’ve seen an absolute explosion of opera activity…Today we have, almost every year, a new opera that could really be destined for quite an extraordinary and lasting place in the repertoire. Last year we premiered such a piece, Written on Skin by George Benjamin. Harrison Birtwhistle’s The Minotaur is having its revival this year to packed houses in Covent Garden. In 2004 we had The Tempest by Thomas Ades, which is being done all over the world. Just one year before that we had Dr Atomic by John Adams. These are all very large-scale operas but they are sort of flagships for these composers. Benjamin and Ades have composed wonderful chamber operas…not abiding by the old adage that audiences will only respond to a conventional story told conventionally. With the right combination of ingredients and finding especially the right director for contemporary opera you can stage almost anything. And Sydney Chamber Opera sometimes does that. (LAUGHS)

vision and programming

We talked about the company’s vision, which is realised in direction and design with a strong contemporary feel. The pair point out that they didn’t start out with a manifesto. As students at university, they staged Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, which went well. Garrick recalls, “Getting the next production out onstage was a real challenge, but we did it: Notes from Underground by Jack based on the Dostoevsky novella. Next we did a chamber version of Janacek’s The Cunning Little Vixen, then a double bill, I Have Had Enough, a new piece by Jack and a Bach cantata. That was in our first year going from project to project.” For 2012 they presented three works: In The Penal Colony by Philip Glass (RT109), Peter Maxwell Davies’ The Lighthouse (see review) and a performance for the Biennale of Sydney. “The vision for the company and what we want to do with programming, it really percolated in that year. Now we go into the third year with a pretty tight focus on what programming direction we want to take.”

In 2013 Sydney Chamber Opera will present three works: Symonds’ Climbing Towards Midnight, a new Australian work that re-imagines Act 2 of Parsifal (during the Wagner Bicentenary) and directed by Netta Yaschin, designer Charlotte Lane; the Australian stage premiere of Britten’s Owen Wingrave, directed by Imara Savage, designer Katrin Wood; and a staged version of Kancheli’s song cycle Exil, to be directed by Adena Jacobs who directed Persona in Melbourne in 2012 (it is in the 2013 Belvoir season; see RT112), designer Eugyeene Teh. On the selection of works, Garrick says, “It’s important to us to have a balance in programming between new, recent and established work. Just doing new work all the time, that’s not us.”

climbing towards midnight

I ask Symonds about his Climbing Towards Midnight, at once a standalone work and a response to Wagner’s Parsifal. He believes “the difficulty for a lot of people with Parsifal is not the music but the content, the implications that can be drawn from it, especially in its attitude to religion and race and women. That’s a shame because lots of the ideas in it are fascinating and barely talked about. The central part of Act 2 is never discussed, except for the famous aside, when Parsifal cries “Amfortus Die Wunde!” (Amfortus, the Wound!).

People have the impression of Parsifal as big, ritualistic Holy Communion ceremonies that occur in the outer acts. How could you tip the balance and find a new Parsifal as it were with just this fragment of the opera? The idea I had was to shear it of everything but that text, using Wagner’s own text in English translation and withdrawing any overt references to Christianity as well. This was really enticing compositionally because what it left was an abortive relationship between two people desperate to transform each other but not knowing how. From that basis I built an entirely new composition on those ashes as it were. So, in a sense, all of the music is Parsifal, but none of it is. At the top of all my sketches, for instance, the Parsifal music is there but you never actually get it. It becomes so transformed by something else that it’s almost unrecognisable sometimes. If you know the Parsifal music, you’ll hear it but it’s not at all a pre-requisite to know it or the story in order to enjoy the work. It’s not a parasite on Parsifal.”

The opera is scored for two singers—soprano and baritone—and four instruments—viola, cello, bass clarinet and piano which Symonds describes as “a very dark ensemble but it’s fascinating that when these dark instruments strain to play very high, it’s an extraordinary sounding thing…very beautiful and expressive.” He says his construction is not in the Wagnerian manner but “is mostly informed by the expressionist miniature form as practised by Schoenberg, Webern and my favourite living composer George Kurtag.”

owen wingrave

Later in the year the company will present Britten’s Owen Wingrave, a dark tale of ghosts and pacifism, originally made for television. Garrick and Symonds think it’s a good challenge to stage, and ripe for reassessment—“it’s quite tough and unlyrical and it’s complex.” Symonds adds, “but is extremely rewarding and has some of Britten’s most original thinking and, in my opinion, most beautiful writing, especially for the winds and brass and percussion.”


I ask Symonds what drew him to Georgian composer Giya Kancheli’s Exil. “For me this is his greatest piece, the piece where all the concerns from the first few decades of his career come together in a single, very focused work. It has an enormous amount of latent narrative in it. A third of the piece is biblical psalm, The Lord is my Shepherd, and the rest of it is quite extraordinary post-Holocaust poetry, mostly by Paul Celan. That juxtaposition is so powerful and so dramatic in the way it’s set and in the way that he asks and answers questions, it seemed to me a natural thing to draw that out for an audience, to represent it in some way. Its fate is often be to be performed as the last piece in a concert of new music in a concert hall, very un-atmospherically. To me it cried out to be experienced [as opera] and I think, for its Australian premiere, it deserves no less.

The contemporary music scene in Sydney boasts strong creative partnerships: Ensemble Offspring’s Damien Rickerston and Claire Edwardes, Chronology Arts’ Alex Pozniak and Andrew Batt-Rawden, New Music Network’s James Nightingale and Philippa Horn, and Halcyon’s Alison Morgan and Jenny Duck-Chong. Another duo, Louis Garrick and Jack Symonds, is enriching Sydney’s contemporary music world, rewarding the city’s adventurous theatre and opera-goers with an expansive vision of music theatre.

Sydney Chamber Opera , 2013 program,

RealTime issue #113 Feb-March 2013 pg. 36-37

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

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