On Saturday to Rockdale Town Hall to see the Rockdale Opera’s production of Smetana‘s second-most famous work – assuming Ma Vlast to be the most famous.
This is only the third time I have been to a Rockdale Opera production.
The first was Donizetti’s La Favorita in 2002. Andrew Byrne gives an accurate-enough account here . As Byrne said, “somehow it ‘worked’, despite serious limitations in several areas.”
D always cites that production and my going to it as proof that I am mad (for opera).
The second time I went alone. It was G&S and it was a bit of an epiphany: amateur G&S, like four-handed piano works, is more rewarding for the participants than for the spectator/auditor. The fact that others obviously enjoyed it only made it worse for me. I can quote the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes and much more beside from the G&S corpus but I now have the anti-zeal of the apostate. Even professional G&S is these days a stretch for me.
Back to Smetana and last Saturday.
In many respects, a trip to Rockdale Opera is like a trip back in time, to an earlier, more participatory era. A more detailed account can be found in Leonie Bell’s history of the company.
There are some trends.
First, the chorus. Even in the 1990s David Gyger commented that its numbers were decreasing as its average age increased, and that seems still to be the trend. I imagine it is hard to gather together a group of amateurs who will gather for all the necessary rehearsals with no greater ambition than being in the chorus. It is a big commitment.
The orchestra, described by Andrew Byrne in 2002 as numbering about 20 and “valiant” is now even more valiant, at about 12, made up of strings 2:1:1:1:1 (vln 1:vln 2:vla:vc:cb) and one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and percussion.
The town hall has been renovated. The main noticeable improvement for the audience is that the rear portion of the seating is elevated on risers. As Leonie Bell’s history recounts, the renovation of the Town Hall was preceded by a disaster where the entire accumulated costume stock of the company, mostly sewn by its long-time director, was by misadventure destroyed as asbestos-contaminated.
Tickets, $30 in 2002, are now $45.
It is obvious that the company has a very loyal and longstanding audience – by no means confined to relatives of the performers, though possibly made up of former performers and their friends. At interval I had a momentary double-take when I heard a very familiar voice: Silvio Rivier, SBS personality and long-time ubiquitous voice over man, is an alumnus of the company.
The main principals acquitted themselves well, sometimes in the face of some adversity. I most liked Blake Parham as Vašek, the “village idiot” (in the original – there was a thin attempt to veneer this in this productionn with a marginally less politically incorrect approach) to whom the bride is initially proposed to be married. His part is vocally not the most demanding, but what made his performance more enjoyable to me was that, because his numbers incorporate his “idiotic” stutter, they were rhythmically better articulated than some of the other numbers.
In her history of the company, Leonie Bell writes:
In 1992 the 24 piece orchestra was significantly smaller than the 53 members of the 1940s ensemble. In the nineties they were paid students and retired professionals, earning $25 per rehearsal call. If critics complained occasionally of a lack of cohesion in the orchestra, no doubt this was a result of the company only having the finances to pay for two rehearsals of three-hours each.
Hopefully the amount has gone up from $25 since then, but I expect the principle remains the same, save that the orchestra has now become about as small as it could possibly be.
On Saturday, in any number where the tempo was not a brisk one, it seemed as though conductor Julia de Plater was scooping up the orchestra – especially the strings – to gather it/them forward into and from just about every beat. Archimedes famously said that he could move the earth with a firm place to stand on. In this case, each beat became a kind of wobbly morass. That the players were not far on from sight-reading probably contributed to this.
This is the adversity I referred to which must surely have made life hard for the principals.
Things were better when the music became brisker, more “rhythmic” or more familiar to the musicians. The Comedians’ Dance was even exhilarating, though I could have done without the children in the chorus punctuating this with party blowers. (Memo to director: this is opera and the orchestra is playing cheerful music. Enough!)
There were dancers, acrobats, children. Everyone had a good time, some younger up-and-coming singers had a chance to get experience on stage with an orchestra. No animals were harmed in the production (the bear was played as Kevin the Koala in a chugger suit).
The company has been through some lean times. They are working towards their 70th anniversary in 2018. I hope they get there and beyond.
Usually the company alternates lighter works with a more substantial work. The Smetana counts in this scheme as a substantial work. When it comes to the more substantial works I do very much wish the company could find a bit more money for the orchestra – for either more rehearsals or even just one or two higher class players. Of course both would be nice.
I suppose that really means it would be better to go on the second weekend when the orchestra will be on their fourth and fifth reads-through.
Next show is The Gondoliers. I’m happy to let the Plaza-Toros manage in my absence with the short-form band.