By Julia Schwab
The average university student will only interact with Winthrop Hall as an exam venue, or on the day of their graduation. Although it is impressive to walk past every day, it can fade into the background as students’ vision tunnels to assignments and exams. But in May, Winthrop Hall proved itself to be the spectacular space it was all along.
WA Opera’s production of Elijah, an oratorio based on the life of the 9th century BCE prophet by German composer Felix Mendelssohn, transformed Winthrop Hall into a cathedral full of light, sound, and colour. The effect was truly awe-inspiring and left audience goers transfixed as Mendelssohn’s beautiful music was skilfully performed by UWA students and WAO professionals, expertly conducted by Christopher van Tuinen.
An oratorio is traditionally performed in concert form – a series of pieces performed onstage by an orchestra, a choir, and soloists, and although they often follow a story or theme, there is usually very little drama or narrative drive – think a music concert as opposed to a play or musical. But van Tuinen’s and director Margrete Helgeby Chaney’s vision of staging Elijah almost like an opera has, in my opinion, created a fantastic production.
The traverse staging and use of every nook and cranny of the venue allowed every audience member to become close to the action of the soloists and chorus, and to feel as if they were in the thick of it, too. The symphonic chorus singing from all corners of the hall coupled with the focused sound of the symphonic orchestra sent the music spinning, as the space showcased its fantastic acoustics. And, of course, an important key to the heart of the production was the stunning lighting design by Mark Howett. Illuminating every part of the hall in brilliant light, the design made the space feel magical, evoking everything from the first light of dawn, to a bloodbath, to an answer from God – this last one being particularly beautiful, as bright light shone down through the stained-glass window and bathed the characters in a soft glow.
This production featured wonderful performances from professional soloists Lisa Harper-Brown, Chelsea Kluga, Paul O’Neill, as well as UWA students Wilson Kang and Abbie Radford. The West Australian Opera Chorus and the UWA Symphonic Chorus, directed by Andrew Foote, created a beautifully blended and focused sound, navigating the complex harmonies with ease, and delivering enthusiastic performances. The UWA Symphony Orchestra, conducted by van Tuinen, showcased some of the finest UWA musicians in a performance full of skill and unity. And finally, jumping in at the last minute after the original performer was injured, the performance of up-and-coming Lachlann Lawton as the title character Elijah showcased his immense talent – and I’m sure both avid opera fans, and those who couldn’t care less about Mendelssohn but were dragged along, will be keeping an eye out for him in the future.
Van Tuinen has succeeded in connecting the audience more intimately to the music and story of Elijah and showcasing the immense talent that UWA students have to offer professionally. The experience of Elijah has also opened my eyes to what a space, in the right hands, has to offer a production. Whenever I take an exam in Winthrop Hall from now on, I hope I can channel a little bit of that magic.