October 07, 1989

Puccini Springs to Life

Filed under: Archive,Music


Murray Bramwell talks with General Manager, Bill Gillespie, and singers, Marilyn Richardson, Michael Lewis and Geoffrey Harris about State Opera’s latest production, La Boheme.

Not only has State Opera been moving out of the red, but with La Boheme, which opens at the Festival Theatre on Thursday, it appears to be in the pink. After the upheavals of the past several years,the company radiates a sense of calm and pleasing confidence. Just over a year after his arrival from the Pittsburgh Opera , Bill Gillespie has applied the kind of rational management that MBA graduates know about, but more importantly, his persistence and commitment to the company has re-established its stability and reputation nationally.

Having announced a surplus of $103,000 at the end of the fiscal year in June, State Opera have carved a quarter off their debt to the State Government which floated a three year loan rather than sink the company. Gillespie has secured significant levels of sponsorship, cut his ticket prices and looked hard at repertoire choices. Even before he arrived in Adelaide, the company’s board had announced a programme which included favourites like last year’s Carmen and, more recently, Fidelio and La Boheme.

Fidelio was in many ways a litmus test. The first of the productions to be staged in the Festival Theatre instead of at Her Majesty’s (formerly the Opera Theatre) it was performed in German with surtitles, ran a shorter season with larger houses and used sets on hire from the Australian Opera. Gillespie was pleased with the results – subscriptions were up, audiences rallied quickly to a shorter season and appreciated the chance to see a major work.

With La Boheme the company is even more bouyant. As Gillespie observes, even those who have little acquaintance with opera find Puccini irresistible and this production, on loan from the Victoria State Opera has already proven to be a strong one. Originally devised by the distinguished British director, John Copley, the recent Melbourne season featured Kiri te Kanawa as Mimi.

The cast for Adelaide is almost entirely new and not only is it distinguished but it will give local audiences a chance to hear some of its own as well as singers such as Marilyn Richardson, who, some years ago, performed regularly in Adelaide. Ms Richarson has received warm notices for her four performances as Mimi in Melbourne and will return to the Festival next year for the lead in Tristan and Isolde. Baritone, Michael Lewis, singing in his home town for the first time in seventeen years, will play Marcello, Adelaide-based tenor Geoffrey Harris will sing the part of Rodolpho and Roger Howells, Schaunard. Conal Coad will sing the bass role of Colline and Beverly Bergen, presently preparing to shift to mezzo-soprano roles will play Musetta, a part that she has sung often before, for the last time.

The State production is being directed by Lindy Hume.”I am thrilled that she’s coming back to Adelaide,” Bill Gillespie enthuses.”Lindy was John Copley’s assistant when he first did the production in Melbourne in 1985-86 so she has worked closely with him over the years. When he wasn’t available at this particular time – he has an engagement in San Francisco- he suggested we talk to Lindy about coming to stage it here, that he would feel comfortable artistically with that. So we are going to see a Copley production but it has been restudied by Lindy and she will be credited in the programme as director.”

“There will be differences in this production from the Melbourne version and the ABC broadcast. Lindy is terrific to work with and she’s really getting into the roles. These are not superficial ‘stand-here-and-sing’ sort of rehearsals.”

The singers agree. Michael Lewis originates from South Australia but has not sung here since the early Seventies.
“It’s been a long time between drinks. It is strange that I have not been back to Adelaide sooner and that, even though it is one of the top box office operas, I’ve never sung the part of Marcello in La Boheme before. So this is a bit of a double whammy for me.”

“There is a very good feeling of camaraderie and enjoyment in what we are doing and that’s the vital key to the success of this piece. The whole opera is built on the friendship between Rodolpho and Marcello and when all four of the friends are together there is a sense of comradeship , we become a team- four guys thinking in one way rather than four individuals each going their own way.”

I’ve just finished working with Lindy in The Pearl Fishers in Sydney. It was very successful and I’d have to say it was the happiest show I’ve ever been on. Judging from this production, I’d say it stems from the way Lindy works with people. It’s very easy going.”

Geoffrey Harris makes a similar observation. “Lindy is very encouraging of a communal sense. It happens naturally but it enhances the production. Life is beginning to imitate art here !”

Michael Lewis sees the uniformity of experience in the cast as important. “We are all roughly the same age and have all reached a fair level of competence in our careers. It is magic that we are all on the same stage. It makes a production so much better when you don’t have those unfortunate tricks of casting where you get various people at various levels in their career -so there is often an unevenness.”

Soprano Marilyn Richardson, also, sees the work itself as encouraging this chemistry. “Unless you want to be really radical with Boheme, there is a limit to what you can do, and what you would want to do with it. The interest for me lies mainly in working with different people because it is fascinating how different temperaments bring different things from the same music. Lindy Hume has worked on that. ”

“I also have to say that Boheme is that kind of opera. Everyone loves doing it. It is almost as happy-making as Mozart. It has a youthful quality about it.”

Michael Lewis is quick to emphasise the freshness of this particular production as well. “We are taking the spirit of the Melbourne production but not the letter. I am pleased about that. John Copley would do that anyway. I’ve worked with him many times and he would always mould the work with the people that he has. he did that it in Melbourne and this is a different group of people so it is a different work. I think this is going to better than Melbourne in many ways.”

“When I saw the schedule,” Geoffrey Harris admits, “I wondered if we had enough time. Now it seems we have a luxurious amount of time, everything is going so quickly. Everyone has their own ideas and we just do it.”

“I think,” he adds with a smile,” We could put it on next week if we had to.”

“Bonhomie Helping la Boheme” The Advertiser, October 7, 1989, p.15.

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