Coming to a local near you: Figaro in 45 minutes
At the Taxi Club in Darlinghurst, the show is about to begin. The small downstairs bar is packed with pub goers and a sense of anticipation hangs in the air. The pianist appears. She sits down and begins to play, softly at first. From the back of the room, Stuart Maunder saunters in, dressed in smart black pants and a smoking jacket, chatting to the audience as he moves towards the stage…
Murray Dahm, founder/director of Opera Bites, which puts on 45-minute miniature versions of the world’s favourite operas in pubs, laughs when asked what it felt like to direct the man who for years was Opera Australia’s Executive Producer. “People assumed that I was being directed by Stuart – I had to explain that, actually, it was the other way around!”
The show, Noël, Cole and Gertie in the Middle, a selection of Noël Coward and Cole Porter songs performed by Maunder and colleagues Simon Ward (baritone) and Katie McKee (mezzo), is a tantalising taste of what is to come in February and early March this year, when Opera Bites presents a festival of five miniature operas: The Barber of Seville, Carmen, The Marriage of Figaro and Madama Butterfly at the Taxi Club, and Die Fledermaus at Old Government House in Parramatta.
Dahm, who directs Opera Australia’s OperaEd and Wotopera programs, has long dreamed of finding ways to reach an audience beyond the 500,000 people who attend Opera Australia’s productions each year. His involvement in education – he teaches opera courses at WEA as well – brought home the extent of the misconceptions about the art form. “The stereotypes are that opera is in a foreign language, that it’s boring and that it involves screaming fat ladies with helmets on their heads,” he says. Trying to conceive of ways in which to expose people to it in a safe way, he and a few like-minded colleagues came up with the idea of doing opera in pubs.
Opera Bites is staged fully costumed, with minimal scenery, an electronic piano and all the props required to make an opera work. To Dahm, who condenses all the works in the company’s repertoire, retaining a sense of story and drama is crucial. “Anyone can do highlights; that’s not what we’re about.”
Opera Bites’ core ensemble consists of a small troupe of singers and musicians looking for opportunities to perform. Mezzo Victoria Greenway is a science teacher who helped at her school, Miller Technology, with Opera Australia's first Wotopera initiative; tenor Peter-John Layton works for the Environment Dept, soprano Rae Levien (married to Dahm) also creates and sews costumes, and pianist/musical director Zsuzsa Giczy(“our orchestra of one”) works for the Con.
Dahm never formally studied music and still doesn’t read it. A Kiwi, he completed two masters’ degrees in Ancient History at Auckland Uni and took singing lessons before landing a few roles in what was then Auckland Opera, now NBR New Zealand Opera. “I had a good ear and a good memory, so learning music by rote and remembering it on stage was no problem.”
After a sojourn in the UK, he and Rae settled in Sydney, where they worked for Rockdale Opera before forming Opera Bites. “I was bitten by the opera bug a long time ago. Directing it is just further infestation,” he says.
The company had its first outing at the Taxi Club last year, after one of its singers performed at the Genesian Theatre and was seen by a Taxi Club director. “They wanted a three-course dinner and theatre for $55. OB subsequently performed a sold-out Gilbert & Sullivan show there, and the Coward/Cole show – 14 songs and dialogue – followed on from that. In October last year OB also performed a Fledermaus and Butterfly at Undara in North Queensland. It had an excellent audience reception, and so has the concept of the 45-minute opera. “If you don’t like it, it’s only 45 minutes and then you can run away. But we’ve had an amazing reaction.”
OB Outback performances are not in conflict with Oz Opera, Dahm says. “We’re much smaller in scale; we have no orchestra and we perform in pubs while they perform in theatres and theatre-like spaces.”
Rehearsals take place in the lounge room of Dahm and Levien’s house. In the run-up to Christmas last year, 60 rehearsals were scheduled there. Costumes and props are stored in the spare room and the garage, and the couple are the company’s chief props and fabric buyers. Dahm translates the scores into English and he’s in all five upcoming festival shows, directing and singing.
Opera Bites funds its productions with the income it earns from pub gigs. For the time being the four founding members perform, write, direct and design for free. “We’re in it because we enjoy it and we want to do it and we’ve been encouraged by discovering that there is such a passion and demand for it. We do pay other singers a small fee.”
After this month’s festival, Dahm would like to do a collection of 45-minute one-act operas from the 19th century. “They’re never performed because one of the bizarre rules of theatre is that double bills don’t work, except if it’s Cav and Pag. “
And the company is looking at other pub possibilities. “As long as they’re prepared to turn off the jukebox so we can sing. If we can help to open up people’s minds to opera, perhaps then if they get the opportunity to see an Opera Australia performance, they won’t be afraid of the unknown.”