“When we can’t say it, we dance it” – Graeme Murphy brings The Merry Widow to life for the State Opera of South Australia.
Today, most industries require employees proficient in multiple areas, and the world of opera is no different. Long gone are the days of stationary sopranos and tenors to be wheeled out on stage. For evidence of this, one only needs to look at the director of the State Opera’s upcoming production of The Merry Widow: Graeme Murphy.
One of Australia’s premier choreographers, Murphy joined the Australian Ballet 50 years ago and later helmed Sydney Dance Company for three decades. A restless artist, he’s always searched for new ways to expose audiences to dance and found a crossover with opera early in his career when Robert Helpmann adapted The Merry Widow for the Australian Ballet.
“I was just a member of the company when that work was presented,” Murphy recalls. The director and choreographer found composer John Lanchbery’s score particularly fascinating. What Murphy and the other dancers didn’t realise, due to the ballet’s necessary narrative limitations, was just how rich the story was in the original libretto. Murphy laughs that they got a shock when encountering the operetta – “obviously the opera goes into much more detail, and when I got to do the operetta I realised how much deeper the story was.”
The veteran choreographer also remembers the Australian Ballet version for its “particularly lavish Art Nouveau design”. But, for the current production, set designer Michael Scott-Mitchell brings the action forward by two decades. This transports it out of the Belle Époque, which was characterised by flowery Art Nouveau designs, and into the era of Art Deco.
“It’s much cleaner, less fussy and exquisitely beautiful,” Murphy enthuses. It’s a sensible decision for an opera with a greater emphasis on movement because “we’re out of the crinoline long gowns and everything is body hugging”.
Art Deco is usually sleek and pared back, but Murphy insists that the set and costumes are still opulent. So opulent, in fact, that he describes the massive sets as an “organisational horror”. But, as the production visits Adelaide at the end of its national run, Murphy’s happy to say that the logistical challenges were worth it for the lavish spectacle onstage.
Justin Fleming has written a new libretto in English, translated from the original German text, and, as well as singing and dancing, the production includes a significant amount of spoken word. The Merry Widow is one of the most performed operettas in the world thanks, in large part, to a rich vein of humour.
The story centres around Hanna, the eponymous widow, and the attempts by her native state of Pontevedro to reunite her with a former lover, Danilo, in an attempt to keep her inheritance within the country. Of course, comical misunderstandings ensue but, for Murphy, the story has a “real relevance about the lack of communication that can cause such complexities instead of the simple ability to say you love somebody”.
The famed choreographer describes Fleming’s script as “witty and pertinent and very earthy”.
“It doesn’t feel ancient, but it feels perfect for the period,” he says, “it’s almost Noel Coward-esque.”
This means that leads Antoinette Halloran and Alexander Lewis have to be triple threats, a far cry from the days when the role of Hanna was associated with sopranos like Joan Sutherland and Renee Fleming.
“It’s a greedy world – we want everything,” the director says simply, noting that training at the country’s larger performing arts academies is far broader than it was in the past.
This has allowed Murphy to bring plenty of life to the stage in his role as director and choreographer, as the idea of static performers was never even considered. “Words are great but the body language is such an important part. In all my work, I’ve tried to manifest meaning through movement and that applies to everybody – the leads and the chorus are mobile.”
For Murphy, the result is far more expressive, a fitting medium for the tale of love that unfolds onstage.
“Those two infuriating lead protagonists just torture you because you can see they’re burning up with love for each other, it drives you mad as a member of the audience. Hannah says ‘when we can’t say it, we dance it’, and I like to think that dance is the solution to everything so I buy that completely.”
The Merry Widow
Thursday, November 29 to Thursday, December 6
Adelaide Festival Theatre