No Plain Jane

Theatre reviews and musings (mostly) from Adelaide

Tag: State Opera South Australia

Review: Ode To Nonsense

Slingsby's Ode To Nonsense, photo by Andy Rasheed

Nicholas Lester and cast. Photo by Andy Rasheed.

Previous to seeing and reviewing the show, I spent a significant amount of time with the company in rehearsal. You can read my documentation of that in parts one, two, and three. This experience undoubtedly coloured the way I saw the work, so take from this what you will.

Edward Lear (1812 – 1888) was one of the first writers to create work specifically for the entertainment of children. His nonsense drawings and writings have lived on, endearing themselves to many new generations of children, while his paintings and illustrations of wildlife and landscapes command ongoing respect from a whole different audience. Ode to Nonsense is an ode to the life of Lear, from Adelaide theatre company Slingby, in conjunction with the State Opera of South Australia.

A significant departure for the company, this work moves from the intimate work Slingsby are known for – both in terms of performers and audience – into a production with a cast of eighteen and an audience of 1000.

Walking into the old Her Majesty’s Theatre under a garland of green flags and fairy lights, director Andy Packer and designer Geoff Cobham have created a world that speaks from the same world of their previous works. With much of the usual suspects in the creative team, including Quincy Grant as the composer, visually and aurally the work seems to capture the spirit of Slingsby that has brought the company such acclaim. In Ode to Nonsense though, there is something that doesn’t quite gel, and we are left with a work that is curiously flat.

Lear (Nicholas Lester) has returned to his adopted home of San Remo with his perennial servant Giorgio (Adam Goldburn) to see his love Gussie (Johanna Allen) – not that he could ever admit to that. While Jane Goldney’s libretto has found moments of great heart in these scenes, and moments of joyous frivolity in the embracing of Lear’s nonsense, the gap between these moments is never truly bridged, and so audience members are never truly immersed in either world: Ode to Nonsense never reaches beyond the proscenium.

It’s a work that perhaps is captured in nearly-theres. In exploring the world of Lear and his friends, Goldney’s work alternately suffers from under-exposition, requiring a solid knowledge of Lear’s life and work, then over-exposition with too much stake in explanation placed in a single song. Taken in isolation, Goldney’s scenes under Packer’s careful touch of direction paint insightful snapshots of old friendships, of never embraced romance, of the triumph of embracing worlds and words that cannot be truly grasped or explained. Built up into a narrative, though, neither Goldney nor Packer have solved how to stop the strands unraveling.

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Ode To Nonsense blog two: in the rehearsal room

On a Wednesday morning, the third day of Ode To Nonsense rehearsals, I enter the rehearsal room for the first time. I received a message from director Andy Packer the night before, telling me he was looking forward to having me in the room, but just so I was aware, the repetiteur – the rehearsal pianist – won’t be there that day due to unexpected family circumstances.

A rehearsal room for an opera without a pianist. It’s perhaps not the most auspicious start for me in observing the process.

But on the rehearsals must go, and so I sit at a table at the back of the room – covered with books about Lear, collections of his nonsense and his paintings – with notebook and pen, ready to watch and learn. Without the use of the piano, the company focuses on the small sections of unsung text from Jane Goldney’s libretto. Perhaps never more than a dozen or so lines, the space without the piano is giving Andy and the cast the space to focus in on these sections: on intent, tone, and character.

Working with the three principles – Nicholas Lester as Lear, Johanna Allen as Gussie, and Adam Goodburn as Giorgio – Andy constantly asks questions: “I wonder if …”, “There could be … ” “Perhaps …” The process feels like a constant conversation between him and the performers, his suggestions through words, their suggestions back through performance. As he explains things, he tells the cast he is using this time to develop a shorthand language with them, so when they’re in the theatre it will only take a few words to remind them the ideas they found in the rehearsal room.

I get a kick out of watching Stage Manager Stephanie Fisher and ASM Marie Docking take reference photographs of the prop arrangements with their iPhones – the future is now – but then problem solve in delightfully low tech ways. A letterbox is mocked up from an old box and some paperclips. When the letters won’t stay put, a bit of gaffa tape over the front solves that.

I feel somewhat awkward sitting in the back of the room, not quite sure of my place or what I’m doing or if anything I scribble down in my notebook makes sense. But everyone in the room is endlessly welcoming. During lunch, the cast sit and talk about operas – particularly contemporary performers, composers, and directors – and when I’m back at my table I write down a list to go home and listen to. Listening to passionate people talk makes me want to find out more, in a way I hadn’t been interested in before. I end up downloading Damon Albarn’s Dr Dee at the suggestion of Andy, and then find myself singing the songs. Completely unexpected.

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An Ode To Nonsense Blog One: pre-rehearsal discussion with Andy Packer

Over the next month, I’m going to be spending some time with Andy Packer and the team at Slingsby as they prepare for the world premiere of Ode To Nonsense, their new opera for families, presented with State Opera South Australia.

While Andy has been working on the show for twelve years, it all started to come together this week in the rehearsal room. I spoke to Andy last Thursday, and will speak to him again before opening, as well as writing about spending time in the rehearsal room, before seeing the show and writing a review with all this perspective.

I know very little about opera, and have spent very little time in rehearsal rooms outside of student productions. I’m not sure what will come out of this process yet, for me or for him, but I think we’re both curious and excited to see what will result.

Andy is an artist it is always wonderful to speak with. His energy and passion is infectious, his joy for his work delightful to witness. Slingsby premiered in 2008, its premier performance The Tragical Life of Cheeseboy going on to tour internationally “220 times in 40 venues in 25 cities on 5 continents”. While still young, it is greatly respected and an important piece of the puzzle that makes Adelaide a leader in the creation of work for young people.

An Ode To Nonsense is the fourth work for the company, and is based on the work and life of Edward Lear, perhaps most well known for The Owl and the Pussycat. Lear has always been a presence in Slingsby, though, with the company taking their name from his The Story of the Four Little Children Who Went Round The World:

Once upon a time, a long while ago, there were four little people whose names were Violet, Slingsby, Guy, and Lionel; and they all thought they should like to see the world. So they bought a large boat to sail quite round the world by sea, and then they were to come back on the other side by land.

It was twelve years ago – before Slingsby as a company even existed – that Andy “fell in love with Lear’s work.” It was from that point, he described, he’s been “working away, trying to find the right way to celebrate both his work but also his life, and what I think maybe we can all glean from his existence.”

Andy originally conceived this as a small cabaret show based on The Story of the Four Little Children … with a development showing in 2005. From this showing, though, Andy realised “it was a bigger story.”

It was while directing Motzart’s Bastien and Bastienne that he decided opera was the right form for the story.

For me, as someone who doesn’t have an education in opera, this striked me as an interesting choice. So much of opera is caught up in the heritage features of the art form – it’s not at all surprising the opera Andy was directing for State Opera was by Motzart.

“The thing that is great about opera,” he told me, “the thing that I fell in love with, is there is no other artform where you can change gears emotionally quite so quickly, because the music is driving the story.”

“There is a moment in Ode to Nonsense where Lear is being teased by Gussie and Giorgio: they’re teasing him about one of his nonsense recipes. In the recipe it says take the ingredients and place them in another room, then bring them back and then throw the whole lot out of the window, and they’re singing that and being cheeky, and he’s singing that and repeats the same text and basically talking about throwing himself out the window. And only music can make that clear to you. It’s the same words, seconds later, but because of the music it has a much deeper and quicker emotional resonance. What opera’s particularly good at is taking the personal and making it epic. Making it a big philosophical story as well as being a personal story.”

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Adelaide’s Lament: Pent-up Frustrations

However much I talk about youth issues in Adelaide, it is in many ways a city where it is great to be a young maker of things – because the generation above us is missing.  They’re living in Sydney or Melbourne.  It’s much easier to find yourself noticed or to raise your voice above the din when there isn’t much of a crowd which needs to be broken through.  But how is this impacting on the younger and emerging generations of artists?  Is the cultural drain, coupled with a lack of venues where independent artists can present – and where audiences interested in independent work can attend – and Adelaide’s insularity having a negative impact on the quality of art produced?

In both Brisbane and Sydney this year, I saw work by people who were once based in Adelaide, but now these writers, directors, actors, and stage managers, live and create work in other cities for other audiences.  This work ran the gauntlet from among the best (The Seagull) to among the worst (Woyzeck) I saw this year, but the point is I couldn’t have seen it at home.  I don’t blame them – I’m not planning on sticking around forever – but this has a two-fold effect on the cultural ecology of Adelaide.  Not only are we losing these artists and these voices, we’re also losing the effect these artists can have on the generation who follows them: the knowledge base and the talent which can be shared is lost.

It is, of course, a self-perpetuating cycle.  The “brain-drain” creates its own pull, the more creative people that leave, the more others feel they need to leave, too, to find new opportunities,  be them creative, employment, or creative employment orientated.   Then, particularly in the case of arts administrators, as people start to return to Adelaide to raise their families, having worked interstate almost becomes a prerequisite for many higher level jobs.  There is, it seems, even the perception that you must leave in order to advance in a career in Adelaide.

It is not only the artists who leave, it is the other people interested in punctuating their lives with arts and culture outside of the festival context.  The more these people leave, the harder it is for artists to find audiences, and the more artists leave to move interstate.

The pull of the Adelaide artists in Sydney or Melbourne grows ever stronger, the pull of Adelaide grows ever weaker.

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Adelaide Critics Circle Awards 2011

The 2011 Nominees for the Adelaide Critics Circle Awards.  Recipients in bold 5.12.11


Individual Award 

  • Guy Barrett for the RBS Morgans International Piano Series
  • Tamara Lee, actor, That Face (five.point.one)
  • David Mealor, director, Buried Child (State Theatre Company of SA)


Group Award 

  • five.point.one, The Eisteddfod
  • Soundstream Collective
  • State Opera of South Australia, Moby Dick
  • State Theatre Company of SA, Holding the Man


Emerging Artist of the Year 

  • Robert Bell, actor, The Pillowman (University of Adelaide Theatre Guild)
  • Charles Sanders, artistic director, Early Worx
  • Nigel Tripodi, actor, A View from the Bridge (University of Adelaide Theatre Guild)
  • Alex Vickery-Howe, playwright, Molly’s Shoes (Accidental Productions)


Independent Arts Foundation Award for Innovation 

  • Chris More, video and set designer, The Girl Who Cried Wolf (Windmill Theatre)
  • Jason Sweeney, sound designer, Three Sisters, The Eisteddfod
  • Adam Synott, animation and sound, Side To One (Craig Bary and Lisa Griffiths)

Visual Arts Award: Amy Joy Watson

Individual Award – Amateur Theatre 

  • Megan Dansie, director, The Pillowman (University of Adelaide Theatre Guild)
  • David Roach, actor, Red (Independent Theatre)
  • Russell Starke OAM, actor, Breaker Morant (Therry Dramatic Society)

Group Award – Amateur Theatre 

  • Therry Dramatic Society, Breaker Morant 
  • University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, A View from the Bridge 
  • University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, The Pillowman 

Lifetime Achievement Award: Barbara West

Some  quick questions: why are two amateur actors nominated in the “professional” categories?  What exactly was innovative about More’s video/set and Sweeney’s sound?  (I didn’t see Synott’s work.)  Are there not enough visual artists in Adelaide to make a nomination list?  Why is the State Opera credited with Moby Dick, but not co-creators the Dallas Opera, the San Francisco Opera, San Diego Opera and Calgary Opera?  Why is Windmill credited with The Girl Who Cried Wolf, but not original production company, the Arena Theatre Company? 

Thoughts: La Sonnambula

Or: Musings on an opera, from someone going for the first time.

La Sonnambula

For my first foray into the world of opera, I and a group of friends made our way to La Sonnambula by State Opera South Australia.  I mainly enjoyed the evening.  The design was gorgeous, the singing outstanding, the event fancy, but I came away feeling no connection to the (near non-existent) plot.

Designer Richard Roberts uses a wooden box set to create a simple canvas for all locations to be suggested though the use of set pieces and lighting.  The three wooden walls are made of separate slats, moved to create entry/exit points or to represent tree trunks in the forest scene, before the back wall is entirely removed and replaced with a turning mill in the second act to great effect.  Built upon the near-constantly revolving stage is a wooden platform, sloping down towards one corner, which helps to add a dimension of movement to this otherwise very static piece.

Roberts’ simple set creates a winsome frame for the performance, with scope and setting further added by Matt Scott’s lighting.  Scott subtly uses the lights to indicate passage of time – as the warm yellow of sunset melts away into the blues of dusk – and place – the forest of act two sees the stage awash in green.  Light focus is also used to heighten the tension of the romantic escapades.

La Sonnabula was written by Vincenzo Bellini in the bel canto tradition, which means “beautiful singing” (thank you, program).  The music is beautiful, with particular note going to the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra’s string section, superbly lush under the refined singing of the cast.  Emma Matthews in the titular role is stunning, her high soprano voice playing over the music with ease as she seems to not pause for breath.

But, when you combine such beautiful music to what is really a terribly stupid plot, the piece fails to have any emotional resonance.  With such a strong commitment to the beauty of the music, even at times where there should be tension or stress between characters, Bellini never lets go of an elegance or a refinement which allows all emotions to skim along the opera at the same level.

Sitting in the gods, we had a good angle to take in both the staging and the surtitles without neck cramming.  I was shocked at how many syllables Italian seems to have.  Or, perhaps more accurately, how many syllables opera can add to a simple sentence.  It was some ways confusing: we are always reading a step or two in front of the action, and it was sometimes hard to differentiate which character was singing which line.

I spent much of the production surprised as to why the performers weren’t dancing.  When I sit in the Festival Theatre, it’s for the ballet more often than not, and with ballet being one of my great loves, I very strongly associate orchestras with the ballet.  I don’t think I’ll be forsaking my love of ballet (or theatre) for the opera anytime soon, but if the opportunity came up to go again I wouldn’t say no.

And now: A new adaptation!  La Sonnabula Abridged (and in English) 

The Players:

Amina – An orphan, and therefore the prettiest girl in the village. Loves Elvino.

Elvino – The wealthy catch of the village.  Loves Amina. 

Count Rodolfo – A count. Loves women.

Lisa – An innkeeper.  She wears red, so you know she’s a hussy.  Loves Elvino.

Teresa – Amina’s adoptive mother.

Alessio – A bit part.  Loves Lisa.

Notary – Old man, comic relief.

The Villagers – Slightly off their collective rocker.

Act One

Scene One: A pretty Swiss-Alpine hamlet.

Lisa: Nobody likes me, everybody hates me.  Why doesn’t Elvino love me like I love him?

Alessio: I love you Lisa.

Lisa: You’re boring.  Go away.

Villagers: Yay!  Amina’s getting married to Elvino!  She’s our favourite!

Amina enters.

Amina: Thanks villagers!  You rock!  I love you adoptive mother, because I’m an orphan.  Thanks for the music Alessio, sorry you got such a raw deal with Lisa.

Elvino enters.

Elvino: Sorry I’m late!  I asked my dead mother’s grave if we can marry, and she said go for it! Read the rest of this entry »