The Courier-Mail - QWeekend
The lure of the Lorelei
Dreaming up an anarchic opera cabaret with feminist dimensions was the start of a wonderful creative collaboration for Ali McGregor
Women often get a raw deal in opera so soprano Ali McGregor was determined to do something about that. She came up with the concept of Lorelei, an anarchic opera cabaret with feminist dimensions about the famed clifftop siren of German folklore who supposedly lured sailors (all men) to their deaths on the rocks of the Rhine River.
After determining the concept McGregor formed a creative team to put her show together including composer Julian Langdon, who has created original music and writers Casey Bennetto and Gillian Cosgriff who came up with the lyrics, which are in English. That’s a nice change from most operas. Director and dramaturge on the project is Sarah Miles. The production will be presented by Opera Queensland (in conjunction with Victorian Opera) in the Concert Hall at QPAC in March as the state company’s first main stage performance of 2021.
Melbourne-based McGregor, 47, who is married to comedian Adam Hills, explains that when the team first sat down to work on the show they had a kind of motto which was written on a whiteboard to inspire them.
“It was this - I like my men like I like my whisky, on the rocks,” she explains.
“That line never made it into the show but it gave us something to work with.”
What transpired from the creative process is a sassy production with a feminist message that wowed audiences and the critics in Melbourne when it was staged by Victorian Opera in 2018.
It was chosen as part of Opera Queensland’s season 2020 but the production was cancelled due to the pandemic.
Opera Queensland artistic director and CEO Patrick Nolan was, however, determined to keep it in the schedule for 2021.
“We didn’t think twice about reprogramming Lorelei,” Nolan says. “It’s funny, the music is beautiful - sensual and enchanting in equal measure and it stars three of the most exciting female performers working in Australia today. Its upbeat energy is just what we need to see after the year we’ve had.”
The three stars are sopranos McGregor and Antoinette Halloran and mezzo soprano Dimity Shepherd. The trio are friends and have worked together many times before. Like McGregor they all have solid opera backgrounds.
McGregor was a principal soprano with Opera Australia from 2000 to 2005 and played various roles in Don Giovanni, The Magic Flute, The Mikado and other main stage productions but wanted to cut loose from traditional opera.
It was this - I like my men like I like my whisky, on the rocks
In 2005 she created the show The Opera Burlesque to popularise the art form. That show debuted at The Famous Spiegeltent in Melbourne and later at the Adelaide Fringe Festival starring McGregor, Shepherd and Halloran.
McGregor went on to do solo shows and her variety show, Ali McGregor’s Late-Nite VarietyNite Night, has become a fixture at the Melbourne Comedy Festival featuring talent including Hamish and Andy, Danny Bhoy and Eddie Perfect, among others.
That show has also been performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Lorelei is perhaps her most ambitious project and critics have described it as “sumptuous” with impressive contemporary sets and costumes by Marg Horwell (the gowns are dazzling) and lighting by Paul Jackson that is masterful according to McGregor.
The show is performed with a live orchestra of a dozen musicians under the musical direction of Phoebe Briggs.
The narrative tells the story, in song, of the Lorelei, three sirens of song who sit atop the cliffs and in this retelling there are three singing sailors to their watery graves like the famed sirens of Greek mythology, the ones who tempted Odysseus and his men. The Lorelei myth has been explored culturally in music and genres and there
is even a rather spooky poem on the subject by Sylvia Plath. Her poem Lorelei begins: “It is no night to drown in …”
McGregor says she happened upon the story of the Lorelei some years ago.
“When I was studying music in the UK a big part of our training was in German lieder (song) and the story of the Lorelei came up every so often, especially the famous poem by Heine,” McGregor recalls. “I was always captivated by the imagery. So I started planning a cabaret on the legend but that never eventuated.”
Then she heard the music of Julian Langdon one night and had the idea of having new music written by him on the Lorelei theme.
But while Lorelei the opera cabaret is about the Lorelei legend, it has been contemporised into a tale of female empowerment breaking free from opera stereotypes of women as victims or femme fatales. They are Lorelei, hear them roar. That kind of thing.
Patrick Nolan says the really attractive thing about this production is that it “subverts the traditional siren’s tale”.
McGregor recalls that something very dramatic happened when they began working on creating the show.
“The day of the first workshop at the Victorian Opera was the day the Me Too scandal broke on Twitter,” McGregor explains. “That sparked conversations and we realised we had a chance to discuss that in the work we were creating, without being too heavy handed. There are little lyrical references to that and there are other messages.
“We also subvert the idea in the legend that women’s beauty and sexuality can be blamed for men’s downfall. We also have the Lorelei asking themselves … why are we even bothering to lure these men? Why don’t we just not sing this once and see what happens? They may crash on to the rocks anyway. So it may not have been the Lorelei’s fault all along.”
So this is a witty feminist retelling of the legend with a satirical touch and some “fruity language”. It’s just 75 minutes long, mercifully short for an opera but just the right length for an opera cabaret. Though it’s in English there are will still be surtitles to help audiences follow what’s going on although even the surtitles have been tweaked to reflect the sassy humour according to McGregor who says they “have a bit of fun with them”.
She says the ending is a bit of “a cliffhanger” which makes sense. After all the Lorelei do lure men to their deaths from atop a cliff. Or so the legend goes. McGregor and friends have rewritten the legend with a touch of French farce to boot. Sounds like fun. ■ Lorelei, March 6 to 13, Concert Hall, QPAC, $55 - $105; qpac.com.au