After an epic season in Sydney, The Magic Flute descends on Melbourne as the flagship spectacular in Opera Australia's autumn season. But will "the club" approve?
Lyndon Terracini, Opera Australia's artistic director, is as bright and bold in speaking about his vision for Australia's largest performing arts organisation as Julie Taymor's famously extravagant costuming.
"The audience we want to connect with is a contemporary Australian audience, and that has to include as many people as possible," he tells Time Out. "It's a democratic society and we need to be as democratic as possible."
He's on an evangelical mission to broaden opera's appeal as a visual and narrative art form, making it accessible to audiences not necessarily conversant in musical conventions of classical opera.
"People from the club have criticised it," says Terracini of Taymor's Magic Flute, "because we perform it in English, because we've cut the overture and a lot of the music so that it's now two hours including the interval, and because it's highly visual."
"The club" is what Terracini's calls those opera enthusiasts of an academic bent who, according to him, have for years assumed that Opera Australia was an enterprise run solely for their benefit. They have figured prominently as the villains in the narrative of institutional transformation that Terracini has been promoting at Opera Australia, notably in his much-publicised Peggy Glanville-Hicks address, in which he railed against a "sense of patrician entitlement" detected among certain members of Opera Australia's subscriber base.
Though he has wound the rhetoric back a little, he still insists that "the club" is no mere strawman. "I know, because they've written to me," he says. "They say, 'This is an opera and you can't treat it like that.'
His response is to point out that, actually, The Magic Flute is not an opera. Mozart and Schikaneder called it a Singspiel, which is what we call in English today a musical. When premiered in Vienna, 1791, the opera was performed in a suburban theatre and sung in German, not in Italian, the official language of opera at the time. It was, he says, a musical for children and families.
Terracini encourages us to see this production of The Magic Flute, with its more open approach to interpreting the canon, as a company-defining production.
"The Magic Flute is like the sun at the centre of our solar system, the other productions are like planets, they all refer back to The Magic Flute."
So, in Graeme Murphy's production of Turandot, for instance, we see similar visual effects in the large puppets and costuming, while in The Barber of Seville there's the same broad comic style as informs Andrew Jones's Papageno. The Merry Widow, too, although at the other end of the spectrum demographically, being aimed at an older audience, is also performed in English and echoes Taymor's lavishness in the costuming.
"First and foremost, it should be for people to bring their family and have a wonderful night in the theatre," says Terracini, "with some beautiful music, but also in a highly visual production."
Opera Australia's Melbourne Autumn Season:
Turandot: Apr 10-May 11
The Magic Flute: Apr 21-May 12
Barber of Seville: Apr 30-May 17
The Merry Widow: May 16-27
State Theatre, 100 St Kilda Rd, Melbourne. All tickets $57-$250.