This blog entry deepens insight into how the artistic and academic collaboration of Voyage to the Moon was conceived. It comprises three brief commentaries by the respective leaders of the tripartite partnership: Carl Vine, Artistic Director of Musica Viva; Richard Mills, Artistic Director of Victorian Opera; and Jane Davidson, Performance Program Leader at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions, 1100–1800.
Richard Mills called me in January 2013 to see if there was a way our two companies could work together. Victorian Opera had developed an enviable reputation for mounting unusual but very successful new opera productions, but had no experience in touring interstate. Musica Viva has 70 years’ experience in touring performers around the country, but no infrastructure to create performances with a heavy theatrical element. A mountain of synergy was waiting at the juncture of these two companies, and three years later we can finally enjoy the result.
It took many months to fasten on the idea of a baroque pasticcio opera – an original operatic scenario using carefully chosen pre-existing baroque music to plump out its drama. This way we could keep the size of the touring party to a known, manageable level and ensure the highest quality of source music while still presenting a production with exciting new characteristics. More months rushed by as we sought a team of writer and director who had the requisite time available, could work together well and would be utterly committed to the project. After a few false starts, but to our good fortune, the team emerged in just one person: the incredibly talented playwright and director Michael Gow.
From the outset, Michael was enthusiastic about the pasticcio, had a great love of baroque opera in general and considerable personal knowledge of the field. Even at our very first program meeting he mentioned an interest in using ‘Moon’ imagery in some way during the production, and that he was looking at a passage from Ludovico Ariosto’s epic sixteenth-century poem, Orlando furioso. This notion matured into a fully-fledged original theatrical treatment that, through a series of workshops with the wonderful cast we’d assembled, became custom tailored for the personality and talent of each singer.
It is a great thrill for all of us to be working together and to find ourselves in virgin territory, on our way to the Moon.
In many ways this project has been a marriage and reconciliation of unlikely elements – a chamber music presenter and an opera company, a single concise work synthesised from many different elements by the great baroque expert Alan Curtis and director Michael Gow; an epic source, Orlando furioso, reframed as a chamber opera, a cosmic scenography reframed as a single set touring production, and baroque extravaganza distilled into a concentrated chamber format.
The development of this work has presented many challenges for all concerned – and the major setback of the untimely death of Alan Curtis at a crucial period of the work’s evolution was only overcome by the skill and determination of all involved. I would like to record my collegial appreciation and thanks to Professor Jane Davidson and her team at the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions for her and their unfailing support in the exercise of fully and accurately rendering the artistic intentions of Alan Curtis in the finished score. This has been a happy and productive marriage of scholarship and practical research that has had, I feel, a felicitous outcome.
The singers have, from the inception of this idea, resonated the practice of their baroque and classical forebears by real engagement in the evolution of the dramatic and musical text – so that in the final outcome they claim a special ownership of their roles – as they would have in earlier times.
The eighteenth-century notion of opera as a sharply etched drama of the passions – each character being defined by the geography of the work’s emotional landscape – has been a fertile ground for discovery and rediscovery of some abiding truths of the human condition – expressed through music which, although of its time, has the capacity to speak in accents which communicate to our contemporary sensibility.
This Voyage to the Moon has been also our collective voyage of discovery – I hope you enjoy what we have found.
The Centre’s Performance Program has developed a broad range of research projects from staged theatrical and musical performances through to the enactment of social and cultural rituals. Some have considered formal stages such as in the courtroom or at public execution sites, while others have been domestic or religious performances, taking place in private, intimate settings. This open approach to definition has provided opportunities for the development of these fascinating projects.
Much of the Program’s research output has included reflective practice or rehearsal and performance experiences alongside more traditional written commentaries and evaluations of historical performances. Also, and crucially, this Program has been central to the development of the Centre’s arts partnerships, with mutually developed works coming to fruition on the stage, through the written word and in conferences and collaboratories that have generated much international debate. This partnership with Victorian Opera and Musica Viva Australia is one such fertile collaboration.
We were enthusiastic to explore pasticcio opera as a mode of communicating the emotions of the eighteenth century. Specifically, we wanted to understand what challenges and opportunities the pasticcio genre presents to a creative team, and how performers approach the task of communicating baroque emotions to contemporary audiences.
Over the last year, we have been documenting a wide range of creative activities surrounding the opera. Early in the process, Michael Gow worked on writing the libretto, while Alan Curtis, and later Calvin Bowman, sourced, arranged and composed the music. Several workshops, held throughout 2015, provided opportunities for the creative team to meet and collectively build the new production, incorporating the ideas of librettist, arranger/composers, musical director and singers. Music and text moved back and forth between these group workshops and Gow and Bowman’s solitary revisions to the libretto and the score in an ongoing cycle. Once the score was complete, singers and instrumentalists began to learn their parts and develop their roles. At the same time, work on the set, lighting and costume design gathered pace. Rehearsals early in 2016 saw a new collaborative phase as the whole creative team finally came together to bring the opera to the stage.
To understand these diverse activities, researchers conducted interviews, observed workshops and rehearsals, and analysed the emergent score and libretto. Talking with the creative team helped to uncover their ideas about the relationship between sounds, stories and emotions and their distinctive contributions to the project. Observing collaborative work helped to uncover important creative strategies that are often given little thought outside the rehearsal room. In these ways, the researchers have listened to this new work emerge, hearing how words and notes become invested with emotional significance and how the final production is woven from multiple strands of activity.
Now that the opera has almost reached the performance stage, the research team is keen to engage its audiences in questions about emotional impact and affect. Surveys, iPad studies tracing emotional response and brief ‘voxpop’ interviews as well as fuller post-performance audience engagement events will help us to understand responses to the opera and highlight the important moments in terms of narrative, musical and overall dramatic scope. This work will all contribute to a new book we are developing on Voyage to the Moon.
The Voyage to the Moon researchers are Jane Davidson, Joe Browning and Frederic Kiernan, based at the University of Melbourne. Jane Davidson is Professor of Creative and Performing Arts (Music) at the Faculty of the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music, The University of Melbourne, and Deputy Director of the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions (CHE). Joseph Browning is a ethnomusicologist and postdoctoral research fellow at CHE specialising in the shakuhachi, central Javanese gamelan, and ethnographic approaches to Western art music. Frederic Kiernan is a PhD candidate at the Melbourne Conservatorium of Music and research assistant at CHE.