Midway through last year’s Fringe Festival I found myself sitting in a high school auditorium, waiting for a show to start. Everything in the school was so clean and new that you wanted to gag at the slick paintjob that had coloured everything in shades of milkshake-cream and brain-dead blue. This wasn’t the Fringe World that I knew. Where was the grunge? Where was the quirk? Where was the strange and fascinating oddity? I was about to see OperaBox’s latest production a 19th century Italian Opera, Anna Bolena.
In the pit, the orchestra was playing, and on stage the singers were singing, and then suddenly a singer was singing something different (gasp! They had skipped a chunk of music and were out of sync with the orchestra!!). As conductor Chris Dragon discovered, “In opera, there are so many things that can go wrong. You’ve got so many singers and everyone’s doing it by memory, and on stage there’s all the action and drama – you have to be ready for something to go wrong. And when something does go wrong, your mind is just moving so quickly trying to figure out what to do.” Dragon played it cool and kept the orchestra going; the singer started improvising. Eventually they figured out what they were supposed to be doing. No huge drama.
As terrifying as it must have been for the musicians, this flash of reality reminded me why this was a Fringe show, and not another standard production of another standard opera. This production was pushing at its limits. From the surreal use of experimental camerawork to the very ambitious programming, this was about as Fringe-worthy as you could get.
A year on and Dragon is preparing to conduct OperaBox’s new production of Ariadne auf Naxos. I spoke to the young conductor about the history of OperaBox, the direction of its latest productions, and his recent experiences at his role.
In 2011, Perth’s classical music scene was both significantly smaller and considerably more conservative. As Dragon observed, when OperaBox was founded, “one of the problems we had in Perth was that some companies did the same kind of production over and over again. Audiences can get bored of this eventually, and this had happened here.” Back then, there was no other opera company other than the state-funded WA Opera.
“We’re setting ourselves apart from the major opera companies by doing opera in a fresh, new way, and by doing operas that aren’t commonly done,” says Dragon. “Our production of Anna Bolena was the modern premier in Australia, and this production of Ariadne auf Naxos will be the WA premier.” Whilst operas by Strauss or Donizetti are actually quite common, the decision to perform their lesser-known works is a distinguishing feature in an otherwise quite homogenous landscape; or it would be if WAO hadn’t taken significant steps over the past two years to expand its repertoire to include new commissions (The Rabbits, The Riders), or if companies like Pinchgut (who perform historically informed Baroque operas) or the Sydney Chamber Opera, (whose entire program is contemporary) didn’t exist. In Perth, the other indie opera company, Lost and Found, has been performing more obscure and uncommon works.
But unlike its bigger competitors, OperaBox is a not-for-profit. It’s mandate is different, as everyone involved is working for free, and the goal isn’t to sell as many tickets as possible. “What makes OperaBox unique among opera companies is the way it provides a platform for young artists to develop by creating a professional atmosphere for artists. For aspiring singers in the WA Chorus, this gives them the opportunity to not only take on the big roles, but also to work with professionals, like the director (Kathryn Osbourne), or the conductor (myself). For orchestral musicians, playing opera scores is incredibly difficult – and not something that’s easy to get experience in as a university student. OperaBox provides them with the professional platform to develop their skills.”
Even Dragon, now the Associate Conductor at the Colorado Symphony, cut his teeth for the industry when he was invited to conduct OperaBox’s 2013 production of Rigoletto. “I remember clearly conducting Rigoletto – it was one of those things where because it was a completely new art form, and I hadn’t worked with singers that much, it was quite a daunting experience. Until then I’d primarily been an orchestral conductor, where you’ve got maximum of 60 minutes of music to put together. With an opera, it’s a minimum of two hours-worth of conducting.”
Since 2013, Dragon has been booked for professional international gigs, but has been returning to Perth every year to conduct OperaBox’s main production. “Now that I’ve done it for a while, I feel very comfortable working with the singers, putting the opera together, and putting my own interpretation on the piece. There are a lot of cast members who I’ve been working with over a number of seasons and we’ve developed a good relationship. They can tell straight away when I’m not happy, or if there’s something not right.”
For this year’s production, OperaBox’s board consulted Dragon and asked him if Ariadne auf Naxos was doable or not. “And of course I’m crazy enough to say yes – a Strauss opera! Musically it’s not as big as Elektra, Salome, or even Der Rosenkavalier, but Ariadne auf Naxos still has that Strauss sound, with his rich luscious melodies. The orchestra here is actually much smaller than usual so it’s more intimate. But it also means you can really notice it when someone’s not playing, as everyone has an independent line.”
In Ariadne, the story gets meta from the very first act. Our introduction to the characters pairs with an insight into all the preparation that goes in before a production. In the second act, the audience must wrap their heads around an opera within an opera, where the characters from the first act perform their own opera with a comedy troupe. Despite the seeming convolutions, Dragon assures us it is “very accessible” – and very funny besides. “People should not be put off just because it’s an opera,” he says. “I think it is just people’s perceptions of opera – that it is not accessible – that is completely untrue. It should be the same as going to any movie or anything like that; it should have the same relation.”
At a time when opera as an art form is under intense public scrutiny over its reputation of ‘irrelevance’ and disengagement with the wider community (or so findings from the Federal Government’s National Opera Review late last year indicate), companies are frantically trying to position themselves as both niche and audience-friendly. The balance of tradition with innovation isn’t being navigated as well as it could by some, but the newer companies seem to be more successful at bridging gaps. As Dragon says, “This is by far the hardest thing that OperaBox has ever tried to do. It’s hard for the singers, it’s really hard for the orchestral musicians, and it’s crazy hard for me to conduct.” OperaBox might not do perfectly slick production like $2 million of government funding will buy at WA Opera, but they certainly do ambition well – and for that I have nothing but respect.
Words by Ruth Thomas
Photography by Very Serious
OperaBox’s opera ‘Ariadne auf Naxos’ opens 9 September and runs til 16 September. Tickets available here.