South Australia Is Staging A Huge World Premiere $2 Million Modern Opera Trilogy With 160 Performers This Week

A scene from State Opera of South Australia’s production of Einstein on the Beach. Photo: Darren Williams Photography

State Opera of South Australia, the risk-taking arts company that created an epic Australian first 10 years ago when it staged Richard Wagner’s 16-hour, four-opera Ring Cycle is at it again, this time with a trilogy of Philip Glass operas, lasting 9 hours.

State Opera of SA has been building towards this moment for 12 years, having performed studio versions of the three works between 2002 and 2007. This $1.7 million production is company’s riskiest, with around 160 musicians, dancers and singers involved.

Starting tomorrow night, the three operas, Akhnaten, Einstein on the Beach and Satyagraha, will be performed sequentially for three weeks. Glass wrote the works about three men who changed the world with their ideas: Akhnaten, father of Tutankhamun, a religious reformer known as the heretic pharaoh; physicist Albert Einstein; and Indian leader Mahatma Gandhi, who developed the concept of satyagraha – non-violent resistance.

The fact that this is the world’s first major production of the trilogy by the 77-year-old American composer, who always hoped they’d one day be performed as a cycle, indicates how ambitious this project is for the Adelaide-based arts company. It’s double their usual budget and has been done without any additional funding.

State Opera SA’s CEO and artistic director, Timothy Sexton, who is conducting all nine performances, admits it’s a daunting task, but says his team are “not afraid of scaling mountains”.

“We have a very solid collection of musical mountain climbers who are just as up for the challenge as I am,” he told Business Insider.

The singers have spent more than 400 hours in rehearsal. There are two orchestras with 71 players, two dance ensembles – Sexton has revived the acclaimed Leigh Warren Dance company among 27 dancers, 28 singers from the State Opera Chorus, 11 soloists, 6 stage managers, and 7 wardrobe staff among dozens more people. Impressively, nearly everyone involved comes hails from South Australia.

“It’s a really big thing for so many local artists to be engaged on a massive project,” Sexton says. Drawing a comparison with the local defence industry, where the submarine building facility is under a cloud, he argues it was essential to final local talent before their skills are lost.

Sexton knows the ambition of the Glass trilogy isn’t without danger, but argues it’s essential to the future of opera.

“This sort of artistic risk taking – it’s not just economic – is something that we do, it’s part of our genetic makeup,” he said. “And when you live in interesting times, you have an obligation to do interesting things.

“It’s essential that we be as vibrant, challenging and out there as we possibly can.”

The company walks the talk having delivered the Australian premier of the John Adams opera Nixon in China, while it’s currently working on an adaption of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet for 2016.

Sexton argues against performing arts companies steering a safe, well-trodden path when budgets are tight.

“Challenging economic times are sometimes when the greatest advances come. There’s a tendency for companies to pull their claws in in tough economic times, but the huge risk is that the audience then ceases to have an appetite for anything new,” he says.

“There’s been so much fantastic music written in the last 50 years that we have an obligation to perform it. Opera’s not about dead composers. It’s got to be about the living.”

Philip Glass is one of the most interesting and successful modern opera composers of the past century. Einstein on the Beach, from 1976, is regarded as a modern classic. It’s a marathon five-hours long and even Sexton admits some part of the music are “practically unconductible”, yet it’s a mesmerising mix of dance, music and theatre, a series of tableaux unfurling to the minimalist composer’s hypnotic arpeggios.

So what’s the appeal of Glass for Sexton?

“The music is actually incredibly dramatic – it has a driving sense of direction and passion behind it. When you hop on a Glass opera, you can’t hop off halfway. There’s an intellectual challenge as well as an artistic challenge. And I like theatre,” he explains.

The Philip Glass Trilogy runs in three cycles between August 5-23, 2014, at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide. The first opera, Akhnaten, premiers tomorrow night.

The full cycle and single tickets can be booked through BASS on 131 246 or visit the State Opera of SA website.

Now watch conductor Timothy Sexton and choreographer Leigh Warren talk about the Philip Glass operas below.

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