Pagliacci: The Tears of a Clown

Up until not so long ago, I was an avowed refuse-nik to the concept that opera and enjoyment could co-exist in a harmonious state of being. With no previous inclination to invest in a world I’d written off as a stodgily high-brow form of vocal trilling, my mind and mind-set were in turn blown and permanently altered on the night I chose to shed my preconceptions and take in a performance of classic Italian opera La Traviata, in 2015. Suffice to say that this was not just any old re-hash, rather an intimate re-imagining magically transposed from Italian to English, complete with non-bombastic orchestral accompaniment.

The team behind this impressive production were Opera Gold Coast, a collective of enthusiasts whose goal is to re-imagine the works of classic Italian opera via English translations and intimate staging’s. Their stellar work was recognised at the 2016 Gold Coast music awards, where they were nominated as finalists in the ‘event of the year’ category for La Traviata.

This multi-talented crew have once again risen to the occasion of metamorphosing another classic Italian opera, Ruggero Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci, which binds humour and tragedy via authentically universal human frailties and fateful jealousies amongst an itinerant troupe of clowns, led by ‘master clown’ Pagliacci.

In addition to an impressive cast of opera performers, Pagliacci features a live orchestral ensemble of piano, cello, double bass, flute, oboe and clarinet. And the chosen venue, the Helensvale Cultural Centre, is set up to facilitate a thrilling and intimate spectacle.

In the lead up to Pagliacci’s run in late April/early May, I posed a few questions to Opera Gold Coast founder Melanie Smart, one of it’s prime creative forces and who also plays one of the production’s lead roles in Nedda.

As with La Traviata, Pagliacci has been adapted from Italian to English by Anthony Gee. How long did it take him to complete the translation? And is doing this a conscious decision to open things up to a non-opera demographic, who may not normally be receptive to an experience in a non familiar language?

Well, Anthony made a start on the libretto back in around June 2016. It took around 5 months to complete although refinements are made once the singers start work. It’s a painstaking process, the English translation needs to both tell the story and sing beautifully. I sit at the piano and Anth at his desktop and we work through the opera phrase by phrase. Anthony has a wonderful writing style. Performing in English has a strong appeal, but often English translations use quite casual language which detracts from the original poetry. We are so lucky to have Anthony, who seems to find the perfect balance of romantic language and casual ‘dialogue’ at times too.

Did you work with a lot of the same people who were instrumental in bringing your previous production, La Traviata to life?

Yes! Well, it all started with asking Anthony Gee if he would consider undertaking another English interpretation and when he said yes, I knew we were off to a great start! Marie Nicholson (our amazing repetiteur for both La Traviata and Pagliacci) has been integral to both productions. She is such an experienced and generous musician. And I was so pleased to see so many of the cast come back, I guess they haven’t been scared off…yet!

Why did you choose Pagliacci? And was it a simple choice, or were there other operas that were under strong consideration when it came to deciding on your next production?

There are so many wonderful opera to choose from, but once Pagliacci entered my mind, I really couldn’t shake it. It has such iconic imagery, in the classic clown characters, the story is full of drama and is easy to follow and the music is sensational. The main appeal is that Pagliacci was written in what is known as the ‘verismo’ style meaning ‘realism.’ This was a huge shift in the opera repertoire, where stories had previously focused on Gods and Goddesses, Kings and Queens. ‘Verismo’ tells stories about everyday people in real-life situations, so is appealing to contemporary audiences. Everyone can relate to the struggles of these characters.

How long did it take to pull the entire production together? 

The idea has been around for at least 12 months, but we had vocal auditions at in January and have been rehearsing solidly since then.

Can you tell me a bit more about Opera Gold Coast, how it came together and where you would like to take it next?

I guess I was inspired by a few things. Firstly, Opera Qld and Opera Australia have been bringing performances to the Gold Coast and they had been enthusiastically received by local audiences. These companies brought their own principal singers with them but called on local singers to make up the chorus. These were valuable learning experiences and I could see that the Gold Coast had enough wonderful singers to put on a great show. Then I stumbled across a small opera company in London staging English versions of some of the grand operas in small pubs! This wasn’t exactly what I wanted to do, but gave me such inspiration. We really want to expose contemporary audiences to this amazing art form in small, interesting venues, and as I have found out along the way, there really are no rules! We want to change people’s perceptions of what opera is and what it can be.

Pagliacci will run at the Helensvale Cultural Centre between 29 April and 6 May. For all date options and to book tickets, visit trybooking.com/otfn or call 0473 508 429.

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