Given Cosi Fan Tutte's traditional setting in 18th Century Naples, Melbourne's Italian hub, Lygon Street, seems like a natural choice for a more contemporary interpretation of the opera.
We are not totally specifically in Carlton but are certainly referencing the Italian community who are such a large part of the fabric of our state. Opera has such a repertoire of works that are perennially popular because of their sublime music and are frequently programmed as audience favourites. Cosi Fan Tutte certainly falls into that category. For me, part of the challenge of approaching well known and well loved works is to find a new slant, something that will offer new insight to the piece for people who know the work well and something that allows new audiences an entertaining entrance point; I would never update a work just for the sake of it.
This new setting of Cosi fits it extremely well. We are setting the work in the 1960s when there was a clash of conservative and more radical lifestyles. Our Cosi sees two very sheltered young women in relationships with two equally conservative young soldiers discover that there can be more to life than settling with one partner for life when their boyfriends adopt disguises as Indian love gurus to test how faithful they are. These disguises allow a greater freedom in their behaviour and unleash feelings they never suspected. This is exactly what happens in the traditional setting (except the boys dress as Albanians) but viewing it through the lens of an updated scenario allows us to see the ongoing relevance of the story today. The opera is subtitled ‘The School for Lovers' and after all, learning about love and fidelity is something that will always continue to be part of the fabric of our lives.
Was there a lot of research involved in recreating 1960s Melbourne?
Yes, my designer Christina Logan-Bell and I have referenced a lot of material about the look and behaviours of the specific area of society we are concentrating on and have had enormous fun forming that into a viable theatrical setting. I had a great success in West Australia with a production of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, which clearly referenced some well-known figures and aspects of that state. I was always cautious of updates until that production when I saw how it brought the humour of the piece into sharper relief and truly embraced the spirit of the work rather than trying to force humour into something that looks like it belongs in a museum.
You have already directed a production of Cosi Fan Tutte for the Victoria State Opera (now Opera Australia). Is it challenging to reinvent a classic that you know so well?
I love the opportunity to revisit work. I always find new things in these great classics. Different performers bring different interpretations and skills, and as times change, necessarily, so do productions. My first production of CosiFan Tutte was in a traditional 18th Century setting and that enabled me to explore the work within that genre. I've always been pretty horrified by the inherent sexism of the title of Cosi Fan Tutte (All Women Are Like That) and believe this update, during the sexual revolution, has enabled me to adjust the balance.
Cosi Fan Tutte is often regarded as one of the best introductions to opera and one of Mozart and Da Ponte's greatest achievements. Do you agree that Cosi Fan Tutte is one of the most accessible operas?
It is a really accessible piece, made even more so by our update. The music is unbelievably glorious and complex, the story flies along with all sorts of twists and turns and being quite a small ensemble piece – six characters plus a chorus, means that you follow the stories of each character with great ease.
Can you tell us a bit about your performers?
We have two casts alternating performances. Cast one is Danielle Calder, Victoria Lambourn, Roy Best Philip Calcagno, Andrea Creighton and Roger Howell. Cast two is Emily Xiao-Wang, Angela Hogan, Paul Biencourt, Nathan Lay, Nicole Wallace and Ian Cousins. They are a wonderful team, not only great singers, but a great and inventive acting team, several of them experienced music theatre as well as opera performers. For many of them it is their first experience of Cosi Fan Tutte, which is also helping to bring a great freshness to the production.