In the red corner, an irresistable force: director Graeme Murphy, more famous as a choreographer of contemporary dance (OK, Australia's most famous). In the blue, an immovable object: Giuseppe Verdi's monumental 1871 masterwork, a landmark of the repertoire with all the inertia of an Egyptian pyramid. How will Murphy transform this bastion of the "park and bark" style of opera where singers march into position, then stand and deliver?
"I'm trying to make the movement fluid," he says. To help that feeling, he's plumbing a miniature river Nile across the stage, along with multiple travelators that keep the chorus in constant motion. His enemy is the "static pomposity" of the work; the battlefield should be spectacular.
The original clash of forces in Verdi's drama is the choice forced on the military commander Ramades between the slave Aida and his duty to the king and to his daughter. "I loving the fact that he's so conflicted," Murphy says. "We have a man whose dream of power is to rescue Egypt, but who has fallen in love with a slave, and he has to decide which he wants more. The story is about power and politics getting in the way of true romance. Everything is set in the temple, in front of the king, and the characters' moments of privacy are so few. It's akin to today's politicians who have be careful of who they kiss and where they sit. And amid all the pomp and ceremony and warmongering, people are trying to get on with their lives and the fulfilling part of being in love."
Another clash high in Murphy's mind is the traditional tension between an opera and the ballet within it. "Ballet is usually put in as a diversion, not to advance the plot," he says. "I'm trying to make it at least part of the action. I've added dance in places that it might not normally be found." He hasn't always had the mandate to do this: a decade ago he was choreographer but not director for Saint-Saens's Samson et Dalila starring Placido Domingo at the Metropolitan Opera. The New York Times noted that Murphy's "dance sequence and its minimally clad performers underlined a healthy interest in sex among the pagans." Murphy admits that the reason for including a ballet is often "for the entertainment of the male spectator," but he wants the dance movements in this production to reflect "the emotional weaving of three very different people with three very different agendas."
People who think of contemporary dance as incomprehensible sequences of random bodily jitterings might be surprised that its most eminent pioneer loves a good yarn. "People foolishly think that abstract dance work exists, but it doesn't," he insists. If we see a body moving, we perceive a story behind it. "And a story is only a good story if you care about the people. You could just observe them playing out their nasty little games trying to get what they want, but I want to make an audience care, I want to make them cry, I want them not to worry about sitting in a hard seat or getting to the bus." Fortunately, all 1,500 seats in the Opera Theatre are well cushioned, so grab one before they sell out, and feel the emotional force of Murphy's production.
This article was originally published in Time Out Sydney.