Perth opera lovers will have noticed a change in WA Opera’s 2016 season under the artistic direction of Brad Cohen. He’s listened to the feedback of patrons, stakeholders and general public who appeared to have finally had their fill of the ususal hits from Verdi/Mozart/Puccini, and he has made a clear shift in content this year. Cohen speaks to us about the sea change, and how WAO’s next production of The Riders, by composer Iain Grandage and librettist Allison Croggon, based on the novel by Tim Winton, fits into his plans.
I spoke with Cohen just a couple of days after music rehearsals had begun, and he was optimistic about how things would shape up. “It’s all positive; you just never know how things are going to work out, but it’s all proceeded so far beyond my wildest dreams, so I’m very grateful. Apart from the changes in the score, we’ll have to wait and see what changes the director [Marion Potts] has made. Of course the cast is different, and that’s a major change in the presentation of the piece, because everyone brings their own sensibility to it of course.”
Composer Iain Grandage has made a few changes to the score for the Perth run of the work, but Cohen explains that it’s not going to be a major overhaul to the piece which saw its 2014 debut in Melbourne with Malthouse Theatre and Victorian Opera. He says, “I would call it little revisions and tweaks; a lot of it is just slightly tightening up some sections. I think we lose maybe between 4 and 7 minutes over the course of the whole piece; so it’s not substantial in terms of actual length, but in terms of the performance it’ll be really productive and good. There are some bits where Iain clearly went to performances of the first run and paid real attention to how things were playing, and he felt that he could do a little bit of judicious tweaking and tightening. We welcomed that absolutely and we collaborated on what those revisions were going to be because I was at the first night in Melbourne in 2014 as well, so I’d seen it.”
Cohen was very keen to refresh the company’s programming by bringing new works into the repertoire and taking a few calculated risks that he believes will pay off; The Riders is a perfect example of this. “It’s a piece by a major Australian composer and librettist on the basis of a major Australian work of literature by a major Australian novelist. It’s been proven in performance in Melbourne 18 months ago, it had real success, it won awards. We really take careful analysis of everything we’re considering doing, and we make sure the risks are well balanced and defendable. Otherwise you just throwing things into the wind and you have no idea if you’re going to have any success. We put everything possible in place to make this the most reliable success we can.”
Besides taking a fresh approach to the program, Cohen also wanted to connect more effectively and closely with WAO’s audiences. To that end, he started blogging each month with the intention of reaching out to readers about the current or upcoming production. He shares his thoughts about why each particular piece is significant in history, what it’s trying to do musically, or what he finds particuarly compelling about it, for instance. It’s refreshing to hear the thoughts of the artistic director of a major company, and helps to demystify opera for the layman. “I realise that not a lot of people in my position are really engaging with the public in an accessible way. There’s a lot of ‘Moses on the mountain top with tablets of stone’ and I’m not interested in doing that at all. I don’t understand what they think the risk is really. I think it’s really good to be able to have a conversation with our audiences, of course.”
Cohen will be connecting with audiences on performance nights as well, as he’ll be conducting The Riders. Conducting no longer seems to bring Cohen any additional mental strain when presenting a work to the public, but he says that wasn’t always the case. “When I was young, I used to think really exhaustively about how I was conducting or how it made me feel. Now I’ve lost a lot of the consciousness of myself and what I’m doing. I’m just thinking about the story, I’m thinking about the atmosphere that exists in the score at the moment when I’m conducting it and I don’t overthink anymore, I’m just getting on with it. It’s like making a beautiful piece of furniture, you don’t necessarily analyse everything you do, but you’re in the flow of it, and you’re making something that’s as robust and beautiful as you can. That’s exactly the same process for me.”
I ask whether Tim Winton has been involved with the production, and he replies, “He never really was involved in the process of making the opera. He and Iain know each other of course, and we’re hoping he’ll come to the first night of the run, which would be fantastic. He’s a private person, and a creative artist, we’re not going to ask him to do lots of stuff associated with it, but we’re delighted that for such an important West Australian artist that we’re presenting an opera based on his work. It feels really fantastic and it feels really right.”
The Riders runs from April 13-16 at His Majesty’s Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the West Australian Opera website here.