Driv­ing Miss Blanche

Film­maker Bruce Beres­ford is also at home on the opera stage, writes Miriam Cosic

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Arts -

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

Street­car came

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

Madam But­ter­fly


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.




The Cru­cible,




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

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