Review by Kate Gaul
The Bondi Pavilion has undergone a complete makeover courtesy of Waverly Council and plays host to a renewed Bondi Festival annually around mid-winter. It includes the usual crowd-pleasing Ferris wheel and oddly out of place ice rink. But once past the commercial crap there’s a considered and compelling line-up of performance and performative events. Rachel Chant – the festival’s director – demonstrates a talent for shrewd programming and none better than the commissioning of Blush Opera to create a response to Bondi Beach, the water the setting sun and the sand.
After not having been near Bondi for the pandemic years I was struck once again with its sheer beauty during daylight hours and how the atmosphere magically transforms at dusk. Blush Opera is an indie outfit dedicated to developing the performance aesthetic of opera through commissions and collaboration. I’m a long-term admirer and I eagerly await the next surprising project to emerge. And so, to the beachfront it was for a 30-minute immersive program of interwoven classics and original vocal work for a female ensemble of 6 voices (the Sirens) accompanied by clarinet (Sandra Ismail).
A circle of blue and white LED lights indicated where this performance was to take place (Lighting Designer Gordon Rymer). The work was scheduled to begin at 5.30pm and over the 30 minutes of the production the sun quickly set. Nature provided the major lighting changes. Working site specifically is always a challenge, especially when nature is your major design partner. The simplicity of the human lighting intervention was elegant and adequate to the requirements of the production. The most stunning moment occurred when – to end the performance – the Sirens walked towards the sea slowly being engulfed by the darkness all around. Beautiful.
The blue and white of the environment was echoed in the silky idiosyncratic costumes (Designer Aloma Barnes). Long and flowing these gowns were a nod to perhaps more conventional opera wear but the odd shapes, dangles and patchwork design resonated with the idea of a Siren as an untamed half bird half woman. The women wore hair loose and were variously adorned with shimmering makeup which caught the light as they moved, bare foot, across the sand. Moving and singing on dry sand isn’t easy but director Nicole Pingon cleverly choreographed the group to form duos, trios, and choruses. The committed Sirens appeared to move effortlessly.
The audience had the advantage of sitting on a series of steps if they chose and this arrangement did provide the musicians with a mass to partially reflect their sound. But the program invited audiences to wander around the performance space or rest at a chosen vantage point. This free, 30-minute experience transformed the beach into an ephemeral musical canvas where not one audience member leaves with the same sonic experience.
Vocal arrangement is by Blush Opera’s Co-Artistic Director (and fine composer) Paul Smith. This arrangement comprised original work and arrangements of Die Forelle (Franz Schubert), Sunken Cathedral (Debussy), Ophelia's Mad Scene "A Vos Jeux" by Amboise Thomas, "Look! Through the Port" from Billy Budd (Britten), "The Seal Man" by Rebecca Clarke and "Sure on this Shining Night" by Samuel Barber. The Sirens were given voice and nuance through this choice of repertoire and elevated from the cliched versions of the luring sneaky voices from Homer’s “Odyssey”. Neither were they innocent nymphs. Here we are not exploring traditional Siren-esque themes of vanity and seduction, or stereotypes about women being helpless, and how the need to feel "unique" makes people vulnerable to flattery. “Songs of the Sirens” does resonate around traditional gender expectations and how they can trap people, pushing them to perform isolating, lonely roles. So, whether you attend to the visual and aural beauty or the thematic resonances of the repertoire, this is an intriguing event.
Jermaine Chau’s rich mezzo voice is a clarion call in any ensemble. She keenly and evocatively draws us into the dramatic world of the music. Jermaine – it should be mentioned – is also Co-Artistic Director of Blush Opera and is a woman of intelligence and vision. Alice Girle impresses with confident and expressive acting and always commands our attention through her interpretations; Aleta Shang is pulls heartstrings and draws the eye with her ability for stillness and fine modulation; Wiradjuri Woman Georgina Powell is building an impressive operatic portfolio and is a singer to watch; Libby Cooper is a talented and spirited delight in this context bringing her usual light and life to all she undertakes; Hannah Greenshields conveys resilience and the other-worldly through her powerful soprano voice; emerging artist Laura Wachsmann completes the ensemble.
“Songs of the Sirens” is a definite highlight of this year’s Bondi Festival. Bring on the next Blush Opera program!