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A pop-up space is an apt locale for this smaller-scale work all about transformation
Opera Australia is best known for flashy, large-scale productions in flashy, large-scale venues. The company’s home is the Sydney Opera House, and for one month every year it performs in a huge outdoor theatre using that architectural icon as its backdrop.
But that poses a particular challenge for the country’s leading opera company: how do you program any experimental or boundary-pushing chamber work when you’re expected to constantly deliver spectacle and sell-out seasons in bigger venues?
Opera Australia’s solution isn’t to seek out a smaller theatre but instead to transform its own expansive scenery workshop in Surry Hills into a makeshift theatre for a series of chamber operas over the next three years. It makes for quite an impressive space – you can see forklifts, the welding station and other pieces of set-building machinery from where you’re seated in the 300-seat pop-up grandstand. Designer Mark Thompson has made the most of this space, building an impressive, moody multi-storey set, which feels at home in the workshop and reaches higher than the stage at the Opera House’s Joan Sutherland Theatre would ever allow.
And it’s apt that this transformed space should be home to Brian Howard’s 1983 opera, Metamorphosis, based on Franz Kafka’s novella about a salesman called Gregor (Simon Lobelson), who wakes one morning to discover he’s transformed into a giant insect. Howard uses a libretto by Steven Berkoff, who had adapted the story for a play in the 1960s, to tell this curious, metaphor-laden tale.
Director Tama Matheson has created an evocative production that conjures up the darkness and sly humour of Kafka’s story. It mightn’t always go as deep as you’d hope, but that’s partly down to Berkoff’s libretto, which doesn’t really dig into Gregor’s family relationships.
It’s also not always helped by the lack of surtitles. The opera is performed in English and most of the singers have decent diction, but there are chunks of text that are inevitably missed.
In many ways, this isn’t the type of show you’d usually see on an Opera Australia stage. Not only is the content surreal and macabre, Howard’s score is almost as challenging to the audience as it is to the musicians. It’s of the contemporary, loosely atonal variety, but it drives the action and drama of the story beautifully, creating an otherworldly soundscape using percussion, bass clarinet and electric guitar. It’s rare that you hear a score so in step with the libretto in every moment, and conductor Paul Fitzsimon draws all of this drama out of his small orchestra.
Opera Australia has assembled a fine cast of local singers, led by Lobelson as Gregor. He dives headfirst into the physical challenges of the role, throwing himself around Gregor’s small, top-floor bedroom and swinging upside down from the fixtures. That he’s able to maintain a strong vocal line on top of this is hugely impressive.
But it’s Taryn Fiebig who delivers the most captivating performance, as Gregor’s mother. She’s entirely committed to the character, her diction is crystal-clear, and her singing is heart-wrenchingly emotive. Christopher Hillier is a strong match as Gregor’s father, while Adrian Tamburini and Benjamin Rasheed both draw sharp characters in smaller roles.
Julie Lea Goodwin was to play Gregor’s sister, Greta, but was forced to drop out at the last minute due to sickness. Tabatha McFadyen, who had been participating in a program for young directors, observing and assisting Matheson, stepped in at the last minute to play Greta with a day’s rehearsal. She hardly missed a vocal or dramatic beat on opening night, picking up the part with astonishing speed and vocal dexterity, and demonstrating heroic professionalism.
The only complaint you could make is that there’s not a great sense of Greta’s own transformation, which is essential to Kafka’s story; it feels a little tacked onto the end of Gregor’s tale. It would be interesting to see if it were more apparent with Goodwin in the role.
There’s not a great deal to fault in Howard’s opera – and Matheson’s production ensures it delivers plenty of thrills – but it has serious pacing issues. It runs just under two hours, but it really could achieve all it does dramatically – while expressing its musical perspective – in half that time. But you could say that about plenty of operas.