Driving Miss Blanche
Filmmaker Bruce Beresford is also at home on the opera stage, writes Miriam Cosic
MAYBE it’s because he’s 67 and Australian, but Bruce Beresford isn’t as prone as some opera directors to baroque flights of descriptive fancy. After all, his generation of Australian manhood valued understatement. ‘‘ It’s going to be pretty realistic,’’ he says, when asked about his new production of Andre Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire for Opera Australia, but doesn’t elaborate.
It must be tough making an opera out of the Tennessee Williams play, which was so definitively depicted by Marlon Brando and Vivien Leigh in Elia Kazan’s 1951 screen version. ‘‘ There’s nothing I can do about that,’’ he says. Will we recognise the film in the opera? ‘‘ To some extent.’’ Beresford, of course, is one of our most accomplished film directors. His films, made over a 35- year career, include the emblematically Australian The Adventures of Barry McKenzie , The Getting of Wisdom , Don’s Party and Breaker Morant . Tender Mercies and Crimes of the Heart , both nominated for Academy awards, and the Academy- award- winning Driving Miss Daisy , were all made in Hollywood.
What is less well known is that Beresford has also been a regular director of opera, mostly in the US, ever since he was invited by Gian Carlo Menotti to direct La Fanciulla del West for the Spoleto Festival in Italy in 1989.
He directed the premiere of Carlisle Floyd’s Cold Sassy Tree in 2000 for Houston Grand Opera, a new production of Robert Ward’s 1961 work, The Crucible , in 1999 for Washington, and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in Oregon. He has also directed classics: Verdi’s Rigoletto in Los Angeles and Strauss’s Elektra in Adelaide in 1991, his only operatic outing so far in Australia. It’s quite an engagement with this most flamboyant of art forms for a man whose films have been marked by stoicism, a kind of emotional taciturnity that could only have been nurtured in Australia during the early post- war years.
Beresford was born in 1940 and grew up in Toongabbie outside Sydney. There was no radio in the house, and no music, because his father couldn’t stand the noise, though Beresford does remember his parents owning a Winifred Atwell record that they used to play from time to time.
In his teens, he began to listen to the ABC in his bedroom, either when his father wasn’t at home or turned very low so it couldn’t be heard. Classical music came as a revelation to him and he became obsessively interested almost at once.
‘‘ I remember buying a huge book which had wooden covers, called The World of Music ,’’ he says. ‘‘ I bought it from a travelling salesman who came doorknocking in Toongabbie. And I read it from cover to cover, from A to Z. It gave me a lot of insight because there was analysis of musical styles through history. I’ve still got the book, it’s in my study.’’
He gestures inside from the back veranda of his house, where he is sitting overlooking Sydney Harbour in the early winter sunshine. The study is lined with music, not film, memorabilia, including signed photographs of famous musicians framed with portions of scores.
His enthusiasm didn’t extend to formal music study, however. ‘‘ I didn’t think that was possible,’’ he says. ‘‘ I don’t really think I would have been able to do it: I can’t draw or anything, either . . .’’
It was a battle for him to see films at the local cinema, too. His mother used to say ‘‘ Only servants go to films’’, which was a remarkable prejudice for the chatelaine of a housing commission dwelling. The neighbours, Beresford says, used to call her The Duchess. ‘‘ I always had terrible rows with them about how many times I could go. Originally it was once a month and then I finally got them to once a week.’’
At the University of Sydney, where he studied arts, a new world opened for him. ‘‘ For the first time I met a whole lot of people with similar interests,’ he says.
‘‘ There were people who were wild about music, theatre, films . . . And I made a lot of friends there, most of whom I’ve still got. At university I suddenly felt that I was no longer strange.’’ It was a gifted generation. Actors John Bell and John Gaden were his contemporaries and he shared a flat with Bell.
He joined the campus theatre group but never got any roles, he says, because they all went to Bell and Gaden. But he did start making short films. He went to concerts and occasionally saw opera productions, mediocre affairs at the Elizabethan in Newtown, which didn’t inspire him. ‘‘ I really got completely obsessed with it when I got to London in 1963 and went to Covent Garden, and I thought, ‘ Oh my god, this is the greatest art form ever’.’’
He remembers in remarkable detail the first opera he saw there, Peter Grimes starring Jon Vickers. ‘‘[ Benjamin] Britten’s a genius, a genius!’’ he says.
‘‘ It was so moving, the opera, so melodic and so beautiful. It was intensely realistic — the set, the whole thing. It was set in the courtroom and everything was done in scrupulous detail. And I remember whole groupings which suddenly moved to reveal Grimes standing there.’’
It was difficult for an Australian to find work in London when he first arrived: the arts were union dominated and a closed shop as, indeed, they were in Australia at the time.
He worked as a relief teacher for a while, filling in where needed, then went to Nigeria for two years as an editor with that government’s film unit. He returned to London when the Biafran war broke out and landed a job with the British Film Unit, which was not unionised.
He stayed for more than five years, until 1971, reading scripts, preparing budgets and recommending which films should be made. Ridley and Tony Scott and Stephen Frears received grants.
‘‘ Now I see names on television and so on and they were people we helped get started,’’ he says. ‘‘ And I learned a lot because we were making low- budget films and I had to work out how you could do them on [ the] limited money available. I learned all about cutting corners and making it look good. I learned all the techniques. And, of course, I was working with people, like the Scott brothers, who were extremely brilliant and I learned a lot from them.’’ The rest is cinema history. Opera came later, when he had already made his name as a film director. He met Menotti at a cocktail party in Spoleto, and the Italian composer and festival director invited him to come and direct an opera there.
‘‘ He said, ‘ Are you that film director who is so interested in opera?’ And I thought, ‘ How did he know?’ ’’ Beresford says. ‘‘ Initially I said, ‘ No I can’t; I’ve had no musical training.’ And he said, ‘ That’s got nothing to do with it, you’re not conducting it. I need directors.’
‘‘ I did Fanciulla for him. I loved it, it was great fun. We had a very realistic set, which is what I like.’’ It wasn’t a turning point, however.
‘‘ I didn’t get carried away with it, but then I think someone must have approached me in America. I did The Crucible for the Kennedy Centre. It’s a wonderful opera; I suggested doing that here.’’ Opera Australia wanted something smaller and more marketable.
Beresford’s involvement in
about through British conductor Richard Hickox, who led the musical forces on the that Beresford directed in LA in 1999. When Hickox became music director of OA, he approached Beresford to do an opera in Sydney.
Film directors are in vogue in the opera world. Peter Gelb, for example, began as he meant to continue when he took over the Metropolitan Opera in New York in 2005, inserting a quickturnaround surprise into the institution’s staid programming: a new directed by Anthony Minghella, of fame, from the English National Opera. The opening night was projected on to outdoor screens so anybody who cared to could get a cutprice look at the new style of opera in town.
And when the intendant of the new Valencia Opera House in Spain, Helga Schmidt, was preparing its opening season, she persuaded Milos Forman, of fame, to direct a Czech jazz opera’’, , built around pieces of old movie footage. It added an edgy contemporary work this year alongside the Verdis and Wagners conducted by such establishment music stars as Zubin Mehta, Daniel Barenboim and Lorin Maazel.
Beresford, however, has regularly swapped the camera for the opera stage. Ken Russell did a spectacular set in a Tokyo brothel during World War II; it was produced in Melbourne in the 70s. Franco Zeffirelli did several across Europe and North America.
John Schlesinger did a few too,’’ Beresford says. He did an absolutely outstanding
at Covent Garden, poor guy. It got so
kavalier Madam Butterfly
The English Patient Amadeus
Well- Paid Walk
Rosen- badly reviewed, he collapsed and was in hospital. I went and saw it thinking, Oh god, this is going to be a shambles’ and it was the best
I’d ever seen! It seems wasn’t Beresford’s choice for his hometown debut.
He would have liked to do or Floyd’s OA management preferred the Previn. It’s good,’’ Beresford says. I’d seen it in San Francisco.’’ The premiere of in San Francisco in 1998 was conducted first by the composer, then by Patrick Summers, and directed by Colin Graham. It had mixed reviews, but has had several revivals that have ironed out some of the original wrinkles.
Renee Fleming sang Blanche in the first production: She] was actually too young and glamorous for the role,’’ Beresford says, because when she comes in, she doesn’t really look clapped out. She’s really quite dishy.’’
Rodney Gilfry was Stanley. The New Zealandborn, Sydney- based baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes reprised the role in Washington, Austin and Vienna, and will sing it in Sydney, alongside Yvonne Kenny as Blanche.
Of Mice and Men.
He’s very butch,’’ Beresford says of Rhodes, who has, of course, made his name as much for his buffed, barely- clad body and brooding presence as for his effortlessly mellow voice in macho roles from Don Giovanni to Joe de Rocher in another contemporary American opera, Jake Heggie’s .
Beresford says he would have done more opera if his film schedule had allowed it. Operas are booked in four or five years ahead of the season, and films require full- time commitment of a year or more. The time- scales don’t synchronise easily. In fact, I lost one very good film because of this opera,’’ he says. The script was by Nora Ephron. They said to me, The actors are only available in July and August, and if you can’t do it then, we’ll have to get another director’.’’
He has cinematic plans. The day after our conversation, he was off to China to check locations for his next film, about Eric Liddle, the Olympic runner who was one of the two protagonists of .
After the war, Liddle spent the rest of his life in China as a missionary. The script is by another Australian, David Williamson, but the production is American. Beresford has also delivered his script for
and there is talk of another music film, about Rachmaninov, written by an English friend of his, Tim Prager. Forget that, that’ll never happen,’’ Beresford says. They keep talking about it. Fantasy! A lot of these film ideas come and go.’’
Dead Man Walking
Chariots of Fire
Home run: Bruce Beresford, main picture, is directing the opera A Streetcar Named Desire in Australia; left, Rodney Gilfry and Elizabeth Futral in rehearsal before the opera’s 1998 debut in San Francisco