Metamorphosis at the Scenery Workshop, Opera Centre
Hamish, Theatre Travels' new music correspondent, spoke with Tama Matheson, director of the upcoming Opera Australia production of Metamorphosis. This edgy new production is being staged in the Scenery Workshop of the Opera Centre (where the sets and scenery are usually made) to allow audiences a new, intimate experience in a 'reclaimed' theatrical space, yet retains its power and expressiveness throughout. Have a read of Hamish and Tama's chat below and scroll all the way for a behind the scenes look at the theatre space and costume design:
Most people will be familiar with Kafka's novella Metamorphosis on which the opera is based. Why do you think it was adapted to opera and does this medium add anything to the story?
Well look, it was adapted first as a play by Steven Berkoff which is quite well known. It's still done all around the world. It was ideal for Berkoff himself who likes to do big expressive gestures and all sorts of strange physicalisations so that was why I first think it was turned into a drama. And then Brian Howard -- I'm not actually quite sure the genesis of it. He obviously saw it or read it and thought it would work really well as an opera. I believe it's as simple as that. He thought this would work as a kind of modern, weird, expressive, abstract, fractured, decent drama with the rather chromatic and very atmospheric and broken strange music that he writes. [The music] suit[s] very well to this very peculiar and wonderful story which is so hyper-real and then hyper-fantastic at the same time. So I guess that's why. Also, I will say that opera sort of exist in a world of extraordinary things happening when emotions and ideas are at such a pace that may require music to express them. And of course Greg turning into a bug is pretty odd. So I think [the story] lends itself quite well [to opera].
How would you describe Brian Howard's score?
It's a tough one. I mean, it's not melodic. Don't come expecting melody. What he does is create these marvellous, strange, broken atmospheres. So the music creates almost the filmic feel around the whole thing. So I'm almost thinking of it as a play with music -- a play set to music. So the interesting thing about it is that whereas in most opera you suddenly get a big chorus or you get a big aria, and the music imposes itself on the drama and sort of squashes the drama away, this [opera] doesn't do that at all. The drama keeps going up at the top as the play does. And the music provides this rather marvellous and very strange underpinning, and it exists in this kind of psychotic sound whirl. He's trying to give you the inner feelings of Greg and his family whose whole life is fracturing and falling apart. So it is a very dissonant score, but the dissonance makes sense with the drama. So don't come expecting traditional opera. Come expecting something that is highly expressive.
Now this opera is being staged in Opera Australia's scenery workshop. What's unique about that space and has it changed your production in any way?
Well it has in that it's a small space. It's one of those found spaces. "Reclaimed space" is what they're calling it. It's a bit like Carriageworks in Sydney or the Power House in Brisbane, of the Tate Modern in England, where you take an old factory or something that's not a theatrical space and turn it into one, and you make a virtue of the griminess and grubbiness and the dirtiness of it, and the sense of dilapidation which suits this opera so well. The whole world is crumbling around [the opera's characters] so [the opera] fits in this dirty, grimy undercarriage of opera Australia almost. I think what it does is give you a sense of the whole experience of it. It's like you're sitting in their world, not just watching it on a stage through the proscenium arch. So I think that's what those interesting spaces do. They add an interest to the audience. It changes things in that one is restricted with what one can do. We ha[ve] a set that is sort of upwards instead of backwards because it goes up into the air in three levels instead of stretching back to the back of the stage (because it's a very condensed space). We still have to have an orchestra pit because there's an orchestra and there's not really another way of doing that -- well I suppose maybe put them in the set -- but you sort of have to rethink how you make a stage. But at the same time, there's proper seating and you are sitting in there looking at a stage. So it's just altering the form all the format of opera slightly. I suppose the most interesting thing is taking it out of the Sacred Opera House and these sort of sanctified houses of concentrated reverence and putting it in a sort of more realistic framework so people can sort of go: "Oh, opera is about real life as well." I think that's what's interesting about it and as a result I think you can play with more reality; act with more reality. [The actors] can't "do" the big opera postures and grand romantic gestures that mean nothing. They have to play as though they are really real because it would just seem absurd in that very real space to do sort of big arms out and strutting and all that. It has to look real. I think more than anything it has changed the way the singers are acting.
Why do you think it is important for audiences to see Metamorphosis?
Well, there are a number of answers to that. One is that [the story] simply sits at the centre of the twentieth century literary canon, and Vladimir Nabokov, the author of Lolita, thought that it was the most important piece of literature of the last century. It says so much about the alienation of modern life; the feeling that there are vast, impersonal forces controlling us; and the romantic idea that we all have this narrative of hope and striving towards some good. The notion that everything is moving towards some predetermined end is completely exploded in this piece. It speaks to the modern consciousness and the modern understanding about our place in the world very, very strongly. So just the importance of the work as a seminal piece of literature -- as a seminal piece of human thinking -- is never to be underestimated. And then you get to see it with music as well which adds this other dimension of mystery and enigma and strangeness. It’s just a great show. And what I want to do is make the show entertaining. It’s not serious. It is a comedy. Kafka was a comic writer in his time -- his friends thought he was comical. It’s become very earnest over the years because people have realised it symbolises so much. But we are going for the humour of it and want the symbolism to come out more effortlessly rather than pushing it. And so it will be great fun at the theatre. It will be a very unusual, secret place to sit in, but you will come out I hope edified as well. It’s got a full gamut. It’s got a little bit of everything: entertainment, edification, and the excitement of the surround of this found space.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS
Favourite production you have ever seen?
Scottsboro Boys, London
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Dream show to direct?
The Music Man
Plays, operas, or musicals?
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
What’s next for you after this show?
Straight off to Kuwait and then Malta and the London. So three shows one after another.
Tickets are limited so click here to get yours today!
Tama Matheson - Director
Metamorphosis - September 26-29, 2018, Sydney
Workshop in Progress. Image supplied by Opera Australia
Costume Sketch - Image supplied by Opera Australia