Ahead of Victorian Opera’s first production for 2015, The Flying Dutchman, Heather Leviston met some of the soloists at a media call on a few days after she attended the company’s wider presentation on the art of opera at Deakin Edge. Heather’s reports on both suggest that Victoria Opera can look forward to another exciting and successful year. As she tells it …
After four weeks of rehearsal it was the first time that Oskar Hillebrandt and Lori Phillips, Victorian Opera’s Dutchman and Senta, had been in the Palais Theatre. Swathed in scaffolding, this Art deco setting for many notable opera performances in the past looked as though its glory days were becoming a distant memory. It was clear that the stars of The Flying Dutchman found its faded charm more interesting than alluring – possibly “a bit daggy” as Richard Mills has described it. Doubtless they will find his assurances regarding the exceptional quality of the acoustics amply justifies the decision to resurrect the Palais for the launch of Victorian Opera’s 2015 season. The sea air might even help to conjure up the spirit of Wagner’s Dutchman.
Sitting on the foyer stairs we spoke about the training of singers, making a career in opera, operatic roles, Wagner and Victorian Opera’s innovative production of The Flying Dutchman. Hillebrandt is a celebrated Dutchman, with a world record 400-plus performances under his belt. An affinity with the role, partly based on a long-standing love of the sea in its wilder, more elemental form, and partly on his veneration for the surging drama of Wagner’s music, has sustained his enthusiasm over the years. Even in mufti Hillebrandt is a compelling figure. Although suffering from a heavy cold, his compact frame still radiated youthful energy. There is something of the sailor’s weather-beaten look in his keen blue gaze and tanned face. When referring to his one and only foray into operetta at the beginning of his career he briefly burst into song, his beautiful sonorous voice showing no trace of the “grippe” that was plaguing the company.
As well as all those performances as the Dutchman, Hillebrandt has sung over twenty other Wagner roles, many from the same opera: three (Wotan, Albrecht and Gunther) in The Ring, and five in Die Meistersinger, including Hans Sachs, his favourite role along with the Dutchman. He and American dramatic soprano Lori Phillips share a background in Italian opera. Hillebrandt’s teacher, Josef Metternich, was a renowned Verdi singer as well as being a distinguished Dutchman. In fact, Hillebrandt has been told that he has “the perfect voice for Verdi”. Phillips urged me to listen for the baritone’s wonderful aria from Nabucco (on YouTube).
Lori Phillips may not have as many runs on the Wagnerian opera board as Hillebrandt, but does have many performances as Senta to her credit. Her repertoire has consisted mainly of some of the weightier verismo roles (Turandot has been her signature role), Verdi and more contemporary works. Senta and Brunnhilde are relatively recent additions. When comparing this production of The Flying Dutchman with several others in which she has sung Senta, she praised Roger Hodgman’s direction for its dramatic power and a sense of theatre that is true to the work.
In describing their approach, she says, “We’re trying to tell the story in the best way we can, the most logical way given the circumstances of this ghost-like leading character whom this young woman has fallen in love with, or is infatuated with… to try to make that seem more real. I try to approach Senta from a standpoint of a feeling of Fate, of knowing what her fate is even though her fate turns out to be ending her life prematurely. She’s determined, and she’s devoted to this idea of salvation, of everlasting life, of a life after…. She’d rather live a spiritual life that is full and complete rather than live a life on earth that is lacking, that is missing something.”
Different productions have enabled Phillips to discover subtle new facets of Senta’s character. Bradley Daley’s approach to the role of Erik has allowed them to establish a different kind of connection between these two characters. She calls him a “wonderful Erik” and “a great actor”, adding: “He and I found a couple of different things in that relationship that I hadn’t really seen before. Sometimes the Erik/Senta relationship can seem one-dimensional and this became a much deeper relationship with us. I think our scenes come to life because of that.” She argues that conflict between other strong characters heightens the whole situation and the Dutchman’s plight.
When speaking about his role during The Art of Opera presentation Daley’s passion for the music and the story was clear, despite the fact that “the tenor does not get the girl”. Assessing Erik as “a good person [about to] lose his friend and soul mate to Satan” he viewed this as a high stakes fight. There will be plenty of dramatic tension in this production.
We are lucky that the collapse of an opera project in Miami enabled Lori Phillips to take over the role of Senta for Victorian Opera. Her experience in opera houses around the world, including Metropolitan Opera Company where she made her debut as Senta in 2010, will be an inspiration to members of the company. A charming, attractive woman at the height of her powers, she is also a generous communicator who has much to share.
As for Oskar Hillebrandt, well, who could be a better role model, not only for those with Helden baritone aspirations but for anybody keen to study the finer attributes of a singer? He is almost as legendary as the role he portrays. As well as being able to sing all his Wagner roles on cue he has the experience of singing more than two hundred roles from operas by all manner of composers in the major opera houses of the world under important conductors. What a treasure trove of operatic knowledge and expertise.
Recently, commentators have put forward arguments as to why opera lovers should travel interstate rather than overseas to hear excellent live performances. It would be hard to find a better case in point than Victorian Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman.
To celebrate Victorian Opera’s Tenth Anniversary and launch its 2015 season an almost capacity audience, largely comprised of subscribers, filled Deakin Edge to hear Artistic Director Richard Mills discuss the year’s offerings and listen to some samples. In certain respects it was a continuation and elaboration of the National Opera Review held the previous week. Representatives from the Victorian Opera had aired their views in private to the Review Panel before the meeting proper, so it was of particular interest to hear what Mills and Managing Director of Victorian Opera, Andrew Snell, had to say.
It was refreshing to hear both leaders of our state opera company acknowledge the challenges that opera companies face and show the kind of creative and practical leadership that is necessary to meet them. According to Andrew Snell, in a time when opera companies are under the spotlight, innovation, accessibility and collaboration are driving forces.
The Flying Dutchman will no doubt get the season off to a flying start. Innovation includes special 3D effects that Mills claims Wagner would have loved; major collaborations are with Deakin Motion.Lab, who are providing the digital scenery, and the Australian Youth Orchestra; and accessibility comes in the form of an operatic masterpiece performed by outstanding artists at affordable ticket prices.
As he articulated his vision for Victorian Opera: Opera = work, Victorian = for the people, not even a heavy cold could prevent Mills’ tireless devotion to opera and education from shining through. In the conversation with Phillip Sametz, it became clear that his own capacity for work is truly awe-inspiring. Not only are conducting and training orchestras such as the AYO part of his vocation, he also composes and arranges much of the music performed in Melbourne and the five regional hubs that have signed up to collaborate with Victorian Opera. Mills believes there is no point in taking mainstream productions to regional centres since “You can’t recreate the magic of the opera experience”. It is better to nurture the love of opera and singing through direct participation.
Mills shares many of the values of his predecessor, Richard Gill, in seeking to build new audiences by writing for them and teaching them to sing. Like any politician worth his salt, he knows the value of getting out there and involving the community as fully as possible. Regional hubs (Mildura, Wodonga, Wangaratta, Shepparton and Bendigo), schools, VOYCE (Victorian Opera Young Chorus Ensemble), Young Artists programs, information nights such as this one and a mix of old and new works are all essential parts of keeping the Art of Opera alive and well. Add to this mix the policy of commissioning new work by Australian composers and you have exciting prospects for the future. The Riders was certainly among my operatic highlights for last year and four new works have been included in this year’s program.
The samples offered from The Flying Dutchman, Remembrance, I Puritani, Sweeney Todd and Seven Deadly Sins, featured Bradley Daley and a line-up of highly talented young artists. Yes, we have a musical: the third Sondheim. This has been a controversial topic in discussions about the choices made by Opera Australia. Mills admits that, “You have to be careful about what musicals you do if you’re an opera company … you need works of substance with high literary value.” Sweeney Todd is considered to be a complex work of considerable artistic merit that requires properly trained singers. According to Mills, it also provides an opportunity for singers to hone aspects of their craft such as acting and diction.
Last year, Mills’ devotion to Bellini resulted in a concert performance of his favourite: Norma, which he regards as “the perfect marriage of text and melody”. Obviously, many shared his opinion. Last year, Norma sold out quickly; this year we have I Puritani in Hamer Hall starring Australian La Scala diva Jessica Pratt and currently one of the world’s most renowned bel canto tenors, Celso Albelo.
Despite these attractions and the success of previous endeavours, Mills pointed out that opera is not a money-making business. It took a Medici to put opera on the map with Monteverdi’s Orfeo. Opera needs the support of all kinds of patronage as well as judicious programing of diverse quality works. Judging from the description of what is on offer this year and Victorian Opera’s recognition of the importance of collaboration, it appears that our state company will do its bit to ensure that opera continues to flourish in Victoria.
Heather Leviston’s review of The Flying Dutchman will be published soon after opening night.
The image is from Victorian Opera’s production of The Flying Dutchman.© Martin Philbey