Toast to cut­ting-edge opera

Herald Sun - - ARTS & ENTERTAINMENT - SI­MON PLANT

THE Mel­bourne Fes­ti­val does not have a mo­nop­oly on cut­ting-edge theatre mak­ing.

This week­end, 90 min­utes north of the city, the Nagambie Lakes Opera Fes­ti­val is turn­ing on a con­tem­po­rary opera that has been hailed as bold and vi­sion­ary wher­ever its played. But The Dif­fi­culty of Cross­ing A Field, at Mitchel­ton Win­ery, is no sim­ple buy-in.

Gertrude Opera, or­gan­iser of this inau­gu­ral bou­tique fes­ti­val, got ac­claimed US di­rec­tor Luke Leonard to de­liver this “slav­ery-era mys­tery” for an Aus­tralian au­di­ence. And from the mo­ment he be­gan re­hearsals in Nagambie, a place renowned more for horses and wine than theatre, he made sure the dark tale set on a Deep South plan­ta­tion res­onated with his 14 mostly lo­cal ac­tors and singers.

“It's about a dis­ap­pear­ance and it is a puz­zle,’’ he ad­mits. “You have to do a lot of care­ful read­ing to fig­ure out, ‘What the heck does this mean? What’s go­ing on?’ Then, when you ‘see’ it, it’s so con­crete, so pow­er­ful.’’

The Dif­fi­culty of Cross­ing A Field is best de­scribed as a cham­ber opera with David Lang’s in­sis­tent score for string quar­tet weighted against an al­lu­sive li­bretto by Mac Well­man.

“It’s full of sus­tained dreams and spells with a lot of ten­sion, a lot of beauty,” Leonard says. And to ex­press it fully, this “very vis­ual” di­rec­tor en­cour­aged his cast to move in a par­tic­u­lar way. “To be con­scious of how their weight shifted, how they folded their arms, how they held their heads. They did what I asked. They trusted me.”

Leonard was es­pe­cially en­am­oured with opera singer Dim­ity Shep­herd who takes the lead role.

“Such a joy to work with,” he re­calls. “So pro­fes­sional and fo­cused. Dim­ity made my job so easy.”

The Nagambie Lakes Opera Fes­ti­val will have arias and cho­ruses ring­ing through winer­ies, cafes and court­yards from Fri­day to Sun­day, as well as some high com­edy from Max Gillies (do­ing Gil­bert and Sul­li­van) and Bryan Dawe (pre­sent­ing a Very, Very, Very Short History of Opera).

“We want the fes­ti­val to en­gage, chal­lenge, pro­voke, ex­cite and en­ter­tain,’’ or­gan­iser Linda Thompson, of Gertrude Opera, says.

Wine­mak­ers in the Strath­bo­gie Ranges (Tah­bilk Win­ery, Mitchel­ton Wines, Fowles Wines) have signed on to host events that “celebrate the joys of singing, theatre, so­cial­is­ing, eat­ing and drink­ing”.

Other high­lights in­clude a mas­ter­class with so­prano Ch­eryl Barker and a Nigella Law­son spoof star­ring Rox­ane His­lop.

A scene from The Dif­fi­culty of Cross­ing a Field.

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