Sydney Opera House

OA/Peking Opera collaboration

OA/Peking Opera collaboration creates mutual understanding

Earlier this year, for the first time in the companies’ history, Opera Australia and Peking Opera combined forces to present a concert at the opening ceremony of the 11th Meet in Beijing Arts Festival. The event, attended by Prime Minister Julia Gillard, was also part of the celebrations of the Year of Australian Culture in China.

OA artists Amelia Farrugia, Sian Pendry, Martin Buckingham and Christopher Hillier, as well as a cast from Peking Opera, were supported by the Beijing Symphony Orchestra. Simon Kenway conducted the Western opera program.

OA presented a stage design that was built in Beijing with the help of locals, and an OA production and technical support team went over to make this possible. The team included Matthew Barclay (producer), Annie Reid (stage manager), Cliff Bothwell (production manager), Bernie Tan (lighting designer), John O’Donnell (sound designer), Teresa Hinton (Wardrobe/Wig/Makeup) and Sue Olden (project manager).

Soprano Amelia Farrugia, who performed parts of three new roles for the occasion – some Mimi, some Violetta, some Gilda – found the event inspiring. “It was a very exciting event to be a part of, and I was thrilled to have shaken Prime Minister Gillard’s hand, but I’m really happy to be home with all my luggage!” she told Allerta! a few days after returning to Sydney.

Like many singers, Farrugia finds flying a challenge. “I wore a mask to try to avoid the effects of the air-conditioning, but unfortunately it didn’t help.”  To add to stress levels, in Beijing her sinuses became infected. “The night before the performance I was in the shower, steaming and making sure it didn’t drop on to the vocal chords. Never mind. We survived.”

In Beijing there was, of course, the language issue to deal with. “Many of the Chinese participants didn’t speak English, and none of us spoke Chinese.” The OA artistic team did “a magnificent job” keeping everything going in sometimes very difficult circumstances. “A lot of sign language was used!” Farrugia laughs. And there were a couple of Chinese translators who followed cast and crew around and did a wonderful job. “If it hadn’t been for them I don’t think we would have made it to the stage.”

Thanks to the language barrier, attempts at interaction between the OA and Chinese cast proved challenging. “We said hello backstage and that was more or less it.” How stage management operated in these conditions? “Let’s just say a lot of waving took place.”

Of course, those who kept their heads about them and remembered to use technology, triumphed. Says Farrugia: “Sian Pendry found a Chinese application on her Iphone. She’d type in “chilli sauce” and the Chinese characters for it would come up; she’d show it to the waiter, and he’d say, “Ah yea.” And go off to get it. I was really pleased to be eating out with her a few times!”

For Farrugia, the most positive aspect of the collaboration was that the OA team had a taste of what Peking Opera does, and vice versa. “The excerpts sung by the Peking Opera were extraordinary, fascinating. So completely different from our style of opera.”

She hopes that the concert will help to build relationships between Australia and China. “Clearly there’s a market for classical music in China. It’s a matter of making sure that people understand what opera is about, much like we have to do here in Australia. Chinese people don’t know Western-style opera because they didn’t grow up with it. We don’t understand their culture either. We found it very interesting to learn about each other.”