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William Tell takes aim at Melbourne – for the first time in 140 years

Ben Neutze

It’s a pretty safe bet that you can hum the overture from Rossini’s 1829 opera, William Tell. Even if you don’t know that you know it, the tune of the galloping finale is almost certainly burnt into your psyche, thanks to the Lone Ranger.

But the opera itself has been largely neglected and hasn’t been seen in Australia in more than 140 years. It tells the story of the Swiss marksman who, according to popular culture, could safely shoot the apple of somebody’s head. But more significantly, he was a leader for the people of Switzerland in resisting the invading Austrian forces.

William Tell has been a bit of a mystery until the 1980s, when it slowly made its introduction into the repertoire of major houses,” says Athenian-born, London-based director Rodula Gaitanou, behind Victorian Opera’s new production of Rossini’s epic. “It’s only the last five years, I’d say, that people have shown an intense interest in the work.”

According to Gaitanou, the opera is one of Rossini’s masterpieces, even though he’s best known for lighter fare including The Barber of Seville. So why hasn’t it been top of the list for opera companies?

Rodula Gaitanou directs 'William Tell'
Photograph: Charlie Kinross

“It’s a big challenge to put on, and It can be quite intimidating,” Gaitanou says. “It’s quite an epic piece – it’s quite long, it’s got a lot of chorus, a lot of ballet. And it’s a proper French opera in the French style. It was his last opera, and he wanted to leave behind him the grandest of his work.”

Gaitanou is thrilled that the opera is finally making a comeback given its dramatic richness and relevance. Her production takes on the epic sweep head-on: there’s a huge cast, led by Argentinean baritone Armando Noguera, and 67 players in the orchestra.

The design is influenced by modern dystopian film and TV including The Hunger Games and The Handmaid’s Tale. But that doesn’t mean Gaitanou is reinventing the piece; instead she’s focused on telling the story and keeping the pace cracking along. She says people should experience it as they might experience a film and become immersed in the action.

“One of the challenges is this: to present something that people don’t feel is just another silly operatic plot,” she says. “Which is very often the case in opera – you have all this convoluted plot, the story’s been told with fantastic music, but the story itself isn’t very strong and you have to come up with ideas to fill the gaps. But with this we have a piece that doesn’t have many gaps.”

William Tell in rehearsals
Photograph: Charlie Kinross

If there’s anybody who understands how the operatic repertoire works – and seen how directors may choose to fill those gaps – it’s Gaitanou, whose father was formerly the director of the Greek National Opera.

“He used to take me and my sister to every night of the opera,” she says. “By the time I was ten I’d seen 20 Traviatas, 20 Rigolettos; I was very familiar with the artform.

“The characters were my childhood heroes. I believe that the operatic character is quite supernatural. It can deliver something that’s very, very close to us but in a grand way. The moment that you think you can relate and identify to these characters, they become really big because the means of expression are these extraordinary sounds, which take you to another dimension.”

Of course it’s incredibly rare that operas can crack into a fairly narrow repertoire of frequently performed classics, but there’s a hero at the centre of William Tell who should have the potential to inspire new audiences.

“It’s a very good story and because it’s being presented in this country after such a long time, I feel the responsibility to create the show that’s impactful,” Gaitanou says. “I think if the audience can engage with the story, they can engage with the depth of the characters.”

William Tell is at the Palais Theatre from July 14 to 19.

Check out our hit-lists for the best art and the best theatre, opera and musicals in Melbourne this month.

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