“I think once you’re hooked, you’re hooked for life.”
John Bell could be talking about Shakespeare, for which he is best known – but he’s talking about opera, a more recent addiction. He’s just started rehearsals for Opera Australia’s brand-new production of Puccini’sTosca, set in Fascist Rome and starring Cheryl Barker.
Bell grew up in Maitland, with no access or exposure to opera. It wasn’t until he moved to Sydney, to study at Sydney University, that he had his first taste. “I didn’t become hooked until fairly recently,” he says “mainly through listening to it and falling in love with the recordings of it, and then coming more and more regularly to see it.”
Bell saw both the previous Opera Australia versions of Tosca – the well worn John Copley production, and the controversial 2010 version, which elided the final scene. A couple of years ago, having cut his opera teeth on an Oz Opera production of Puccini’s Madame Butterfly and a Victorian Opera production of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, Bell petitioned OA artistic director Lyndon Terracini for a shot at the main game – and proposed Tosca.
Composed by Puccini after his wildly popular La bohème, Tosca is a titan in the opera canon now, but it was famously divisive when it premiered in 1900, and in the years following. Even in the ’50s, musicologist Joseph Kernan famously called it a “shabby little shocker.”
Bell recounts this anecdote incredulously: “I thought, ‘How can you say that?’ I suppose when it’s done in its original period – with period costumes and all that – it can come across as melodramatic. People associate that kind of costuming and that era with melodrama – and [Tosca] could swing that way.”
With this in mind, Bell wanted his version to be something contemporary and real that audiences could relate to – while at the same time being operatic in scale. He settled on Mussolini’s Italy, taking the audience on a journey from an imposing cathedral interior to an internment camp that is more like Auschwitz than the original setting of Castel Sant'Angelo.
“I was thinking about the German occupation of Rome in 1943 – when the Nazis moved in and formed an alliance with the Fascists – and the story [ofTosca] fits like a glove. Then I saw Rossellini’s film Rome, Open City  – and that story was so close to Tosca that it just clinched it for me.”
Based on Victorien Sardou’s play of the same name, about a love triangle between a opera diva, a painter and a police chief, Puccini’s Tosca was his first foray into realism, rather than romance, in its depiction of violence. “It calls for as much acting ability as you can bring to it,” says Bell, who enjoys working on this dimension with performers like Barker and Greek soprano Alexia Voulgaridou (alternating the lead), whose singing of their role is already masterful.
“I think audiences are wanting to see more acting applied – rather than the old ‘stand and deliver’ kind of opera… There’s no point in saying it has to be entirely naturalistic,” he qualifies, “because we’re standing and singing! But we can keep nudging closer and closer to reality. And because the music is so truthful and passionate, I think people get swept up by it. You kind of enjoy the fact that it’s operatic, and not documentary realism.”
Bell is consistently drawn to contemporary stagings of ‘essential’ tales (most recently in his grungy, beer-stained production of Henry IV). “They remind me that we’re all part of the human race and we’ve been around for a long time,” he says simply. “It’s kind of comforting.”