Amid the current ache of separation many of us are feeling – from loved ones, from art, from music – a new performance piece promises something of a salve. Making its Australian debut as part of this month's Yarra Valley Opera Festival, To My Distant Love is a telephone opera performance of Beethoven’s only song cycle, An die ferne Geliebte. For one person.
The poem, written by Alois Isidor Jeitteles, a writer and friend of Beethoven’s, talks of separation and longing – and hopes for a reunion. It was written more than 200 years ago, but couldn’t be more apt right now.
Created by New York company On Site Opera’s artistic director, Eric Einhorn, it’s a personal performance in which a singer (participants choose from soprano, tenor or baritone) becomes, for around 20 minutes, your separated love. The phone format allows participants to choose the location – at home, the garden or even at a (nearby) park. To get into the mood before the phone call, participants will also receive email love letters in the lead-up. Australian audiences can also choose between German or English performance; the former having even been localised.
The poetry, says Einhorn, is “a little too applicable in these difficult times”.
“The idea to perform these pieces came to me when I was thumbing through my personal score collection, attempting to find inspiration,” he says from New York. “When I landed on my Beethoven score, and I remembered the content of the poetry, everything started to come into focus quite quickly.”
In the US, where the work made its debut earlier this year, audiences couldn’t get enough of the concept.
“Beginning the story even before the phone call put audiences in a wonderful mindset for the performance, and allowed them to slip more easily into their role as 'beloved’,” Einhorn says. “Some audience members even responded to the email love letters with their own loving words. It was a level of audience interaction we are rarely able to achieve in a more traditional performance format.”
And allowing participants to untether from computer screens makes a change from the now-standard live-stream.
“We wanted to give audiences the opportunity to ... get lost in the power of the operatic voice and the beauty of their chosen site,'' says festival director, Gertrude Opera’s Linda Thompson. ''It’s really an opportunity for people to be in the opera themselves. It can be a passive thing or, as has happened in the States, you can get really immersed and go and sit in a park.”
Initially wary of another online-only event, Thompson and her colleagues have curated a digital event that aims to offer more than simple live-streams; as a contemporary festival, the driving force has always been to do things differently. “Although it’s all a big experiment,” she says, all too aware of the dangers of digital fatigue.
Usually held over 10 days around the Dandenongs and the Yarra Valley, this year’s festival will still feature Australian premieres, an opening-night gala and performances from artists (in their homes) from around the world. Oscar nominee David Lang’s a capella chamber opera love fail, which weaves the medieval tale of Tristan and Isolde with a contemporary love story, will make its Australian premiere. A co-production between Gertrude Opera and experimental New York theatre company Monk Parrots, the work also features video and digital effects from director Luke Leonard.
Together Apart, by Australian composers Nicholas Gentile and Lachlan Hall, is an operatic song cycle incorporating elements of jazz, pop and music theatre, exploring human relationships, and Merrill Findlay and Ross Carey have created an Australian chamber opera based on the life of Ned Kelly’s sister. Kate Kelly will feature three singers accompanied by violin, accordion, cello and clarinet – while being based in three different states.
Curating a festival is a logistical challenge at the best of times, but this year Thompson says it has been “a little brain-bending for us live-theatre animals.” Suddenly stages and venues are out the window and Thompson has found herself dealing with streaming services and cinematographers. But embracing digital has also had its upsides – the company had been shifting to digital processes for some production elements.
“The digital aspects have widened the scope for things like the preparation of music, with singers downloading backing tracks, and being able to add effects and soundscapes,” Thompson says.
One event that wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-pandemic festival is the Ariarchitecture series. A marriage of the ideas of “home”, where we are all currently stuck, and art, five private homes of architectural significance will become the backdrop for performances of arias from contemporary operas. As well as a chance for a stickybeak at some notable houses, Thompson says there’s a connection between groundbreaking houses that were controversial when built and contemporary opera, which can also polarise audiences.
“There’s also a connection between architecture and design for opera; a lot of architects are also opera designers – for example, Peter Corrigan has designed three operas for us,” she says.
Thompson has also introduced a “Shout a Stranger” ticket, which allows participants to buy an extra ticket, which is then given by ballot to someone in need.
“That was my idea for where we find ourselves now,” she explains. “I hate talking about money and the company in the same breath but … I wanted a way to let people be involved, who, literally at the moment, cannot afford a ticket. We’ve already sold quite a few of those, which has been really nice.”
Money and the arts is something likely to come up at the festival's Q and A, in which a panel of experts from the arts, law and economics will discuss “Opera and the nature of work – is it a real job?”
Thompson concedes some nervousness about being the only music festival of its kind going all-digital, but says it’s been positive for Gertrude Opera.
“I think it's reinforced how our flexibility is our strength. Unlike big companies who have complex planning in things like The Ring Cycle or major outdoor events, we have been able to ... think more about how the connection is more important than the forces behind it – you can think small, in an operatic sense, by just thinking about the individual at home.”
Yarra Valley Opera Festival, October 16-25. www.gertrudeopera.com.au for full program.