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Going into Liselle Mei’s superb documentary Love Opera, I was, admittedly, ignorant about the art form of opera, with my exposure being mostly in the strain of Bugs Bunny and Elmur Fudd singing Wagner. As exceptional as that animated flick is, it is not a suitable example of the energetic and exhaustive full body process of opera singing. That ignorance was rewarded by the invitational tone of Love Opera, one that meticulously walks the viewer through the staging of Carmen by the world-class Lisa Gasteen National Opera Program (LGNOP) in Brisbane, from the audition process, to the rehearsals, and naturally, the final grand conclusion in front of a live audience. It is, in a word, exhilarating.
Love Opera first introduces us to Lisa Gasteen, a proud and dedicated patron of opera, and at once, a master and icon of her craft. As the namesake for LGNOP, we learn about the grand rise of Lisa’s career as an opera singer, the repeated auditions she had to take to establish her presence in London, and the strain that the full-bodied physical nature of opera singing had on her. Additionally, the addictive nature of a crowd of thousands, cheering, applauding, and being moved by her voice is delicately shown through the depressive low that hits after the show is over, and Lisa is back in her hotel room alone, the applause long died out, with only the silence of the room to embrace her.
It’s important we have Lisa’s legacy in mind when it comes to watching the many hopeful singers audition for Carmen, and for when the triumphant few who get through the casting process and in turn have to strenuously work to push their bodies to the limit to fill an auditorium with their awe-inspiring vocal mastery. This is a fine art, one that requires immense dedication, respect, and understanding for the art of opera. For each singer, they have to intimately know the work they are performing, often understanding a language they may not predominantly speak, all the while appreciating the nuance required for the heightened emotional variance within the piece they are singing.
For the many singers in this production of Carmen, they each stand on the shoulders of Lisa, building on her legacy, and being guided by her work and that of her friend and co-founder of LGNOP, Nancy Underhill. At the core of Love Opera is their tender friendship and bond, one that stretches through the history of modern opera across the decades, with both appreciating the need and value for continuing this long running form of theatre, even though the art of opera is to be ‘dying’.
Potential opera audience members may face a difficult entry point when it comes to viewing a live opera performance. They can, at times, be prohibitively costly, with performances often in a language other than English (and lack subtitles at that). While that shouldn’t discourage people from appreciating the performance, it can make following the narrative difficult. Unlike many other forms of theatre, the cultural appreciation of opera appears to be finding a difficult level of penetration with new audience members across the board. However, this apparent decline is hardly a deterrent for new singers, with countless young hopefuls building their bodies up to become the aural tools required to sing an opera. A blink and you’ll miss it moment during the opening night performance shows the youthful backing choir standing in awe as the lead singers pass them assures that the future of opera is bright and filled with hope.
Yet, if these young singers wish to follow in the footsteps of their idols, they have a strenuous and difficult path ahead of them, with the physically demanding aspect of singing opera to come, plus the gruelling endurance of the audition process as well. Earlier, the brutal and frank discussions from the auditioners about the auditionees feels somewhat expected and atypical of the audition process across the board for all aspects of art. The people proving their craft have to not only impress with their vocal skills, but also ability to keenly understand the emotional variations of the text their singing, all the while being physically capable of sustaining long notes.
Rachel Pines audition via a recorded tape, played over a laptop, is obviously brilliant, assuring her an easy place in the cast. Elsewhere, Paull-Anthony Keightley commands the audition space as if he has already been in the role for months. Yet, when it comes to larger sized singer Morgan England-Jones, the auditioners critique her mental state as being ‘scatterbrain’, and discuss outwardly (without Morgan in the room, mind you) her weight, wondering how well she will manage a career in the global opera scene.
What sets Love Opera apart from other music-focused documentaries, is how intimately Liselle Mei exposes and explores the gendered approach to modern opera, while also breaking down the idea of the ‘fat lady’ of opera. We are told that audiences around the world don’t want to see larger women on stage, a statement that actively reduces the role of body positivity in the art of opera. For Morgan, she is told she has the voice, can act the part, yet, physically is shunned from the same opportunities her equally talented cast mates are given.
We hear that ‘the audience listens with their eyes’, and yet, while the role of a starving artist can be filled with larger men who are celebrated and not shunned for their weight, the casting of larger women is actively critiqued and criticised, highlighting a distinct level of gender bias that still thrives within the opera scene. Heck, when you type Susan Boyle’s name into Google, the second result that appears is ‘Susan Boyle weight loss’.
At Love Opera’s close, we see the global achievements that the supporting actors have attained after their work on Carmen. Rather than being afforded the European-based career that her cast mates receive, Morgan is denied the same path, with a scholarship for a school in Sydney being in her future. While not explicit, it’s clear that her physicality is the distinction between a domestic career and a global career for Morgan. It’s outwardly absurd that the clearly divine talent that Morgan has should be denied the equal opportunities that her cast mates have.
As such, the length that Love Opera details the double standards that thrive within the art scene is greatly appreciated. For Rachel, the outward surprise that she is in a lesbian relationship further highlights the gendered approach to queer relationships in the opera scene. It’s ok for men to be in a relationship with other men, but as soon as a woman is in a relationship with another woman, hackles go up. For both the queer awareness, and the body positivity optics, both Rachel and Morgan are challenging the archaic ideology attached to them. Working within a women-led arts body like LGNOP, Rachel, Morgan, Lisa, and co are collectively challenging the gender stereotypes that have become cruelly adhered to the international opera scene.
As with many aspects of opera, it seems atypical that it was a man who coined the phrase that has stuck with the art form. Although history dates the art of opera back to the 16th Century, with the first opera, Dafne, composed in 1597, the phrase synonymous with the majestic form of music, ‘it’s not over til the fat lady sings’, is a far more recent cultural artefact. According to the Chicago Tribune, sportcaster Dan Cook coined the phrase in relation to a basketball game in the 1970s, echoing the Yogi Berra line ‘the game isn’t over til it’s over’. As with many a catchphrase, it has become intrinsically adhered to the art of opera, typifying the public’s idea of what the identity of opera is: a group of people singing in languages you don’t speak, finally being ushered to a conclusion by a ‘fat lady’ singing, often with the death of a woman included as well.Classical music writer, Olivia Giovetti, wrote for The Washington Post in 2019 that:
…to really save opera – and classical music in general – we have to let it die.
They go on to clarify their point, highlighting the outdated texts that make up the catalogue of continually performed operas, and amplifying a call for diversity both on stage and behind the scenes.
In 2019, Sally Blackwood, Liza Lim, Peggy Polia, and Bree van Reyk, jointly authored a piece titled, Opera and the doing of women: a united call to action for cultural leadership and systemic change in opera, with countless signatories putting their name to the piece and supporting the collective statement addressing rampant misogyny and gendered bias within the opera scene. This piece, supported by Alison Croggan’s, Opera and the Invisibility of Women, calls for systemic change to the opera scene in Australia and around the world, addressing the violence against women in opera where countless plays end with the death of a woman, and the heightened divide where only five per cent of performed operas globally are written by women.
The demand is simple, stating:
We demand a national commitment to systemic change:
We want diversity to be reflected in all aspects of the opera we experience.
We call for a questioning of the systemic acceptance of gender-based violence in opera.
We want recognition, respect, advocacy and support for creators who are female, non-binary and from diverse cultural backgrounds.
We call for safe inclusive spaces for people with diverse voices and abilities to set the agenda, to lead the conversation, to have a resonant voice.
We want to decolonise the distribution of power so that the stories and creative work of women and all people with diverse voices resonate equally with that of men.
We call for an unprecedented commitment to the programming and commissioning of new Australian opera work with gender and cultural diversity at the forefront.
We call for those in leadership to back us and that the act of hearing be prioritised alongside the act of speaking.
While not explicitly stating that body positivity also needs to be embraced, the demand is clear: diversity is key to the future of opera.
That message is heard loud and clear throughout Love Opera, ringing through the air, and filling the landscape with the call for equality and progressiveness. Powerfully amplifying this notion is the immersive cinematography from Esteban Rivera, who glides a drone along the rivers of Brisbane, with the music of Carmen playing across the stunning vistas. In these moments, Liselle Mei shows how equality is not an endeavour just for opera to undertake, but rather, it is something that sits at the core of our changing society as a whole. It is in the air we breathe and in the foundations of culture. It is the future of the world, green, community focused, and empathetically driven.
It’s in the songs we sing, in the music that elevate us up in a manner that is so profoundly unique and defiantly human, that we cannot help but feel moved beyond belief. It doesn’t matter that I don’t understand the lyrics to the songs in Carmen; I can see the pain, the ecstasy, the humanity within the eyes of Paull-Anthony, Rachel and Morgan, and through those clear emotions, I too am moved by the music they sing.
With thanks to a film like Love Opera, just like the outdated masculine-driven mentality that still thrives within the art scene, my rather obnoxious stance on opera was challenged and reasserted. As with everything in life, being open to new opportunities, and learning from others, will only enrich our appreciation of the world, and hopefully guide us towards a more understanding mindset.
Director: Liselle Mei
Featuring: Lisa Gasteen, Rachel Pines, Morgan England-Jones
Writers: Trish Lake, Margaret McVeigh, Liselle Mei
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