Toast to cutting-edge opera
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.