Innovation in a museum culture

In the Bell Shakespeare studios in Sydney’s historic Rocks area, the actors are breaking for lunch. These aren’t rehearsals that Shakespeare would recognise: there’s a teleprompt for anyone who forgets their lines, and designs of girls in hijab lining the walls, next to taped-up newspaper clippings about the Cronulla riots. It all seems refreshing and modern.

The play, Romeo and Juliet, was written more than 400 years ago, in a time and place that couldn’t be further removed from modern, multicultural Australia. Across the Harbour, the Opera House rings to the sound of tunes written, for the most part, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Go to a performance there, and you’ll notice that the patrons making their way down the stairs at the end of the night are mostly grey haired.

However popular Shakespeare, or Puccini operas, or Tchaikowksy ballets may still be, the companies that perform their works are all faced with the same situation: the repertoire is old. Shakespeare penned his last words in the early seventeenth century, while the last composer to write truly popular opera, Puccini, died in 1924. So how do you innovate when you’re working with museum aged material?

The contemporary take

If you’re John Bell, the artistic director of the Bell Shakespeare Company, you throw out Elizabethan doublets and swords, and use contemporary references. “You can’t reference the past,” he says. “You can only be authentic to yourself.”

In his Romeo and Juliet, the famous star-crossed lovers have become members of the Australian Italian and Lebanese communities. Bell says it was a vague concept to begin with, until the Cronulla riots came along. “We said ‘that’s it – that’s where we’ll go’,” adding, “It would be irresponsible not to. It’s part of our shame and surprise that this can happen here.”

Bell says the theme will remain deliberately vague. “We’re not doing a documentary about Cronulla,” he says. “It’s an echo.”

The connection between mateship, violence and sexuality that links contemporary Australia and Elizabethan England engages Bell. “It’s important to reflect who we are and where we live, and compare it with these texts,” says Bell. “I find that discrepancy between a four hundred year old text and us very exciting.”

It sounds fairly unremarkable—except that anyone doing Shakespeare faces pressures not to innovate. “The pressures to keep the box office up, to keep pleasing corporate sponsors becomes an end in itself,” says Bell, saying it can lead to conservative theatre. “You have to push hard to be innovative and unsafe, which they don’t want.”

So why not play it safe, if that’s what people want? The company’s manager, Jill Berry, says the traditional approach has almost killed Shakespeare in Australia. “Resistance [to seeing our work] more often comes from teachers than students,” she says. “For many generations we’ve delivered up poor examples of Shakespeare, or people have been culturally oppressed by visiting productions of Shakespeare.”

The result, she says, is a generation of teachers who don’t want to tackle Shakespearean texts—the foundation of modern English. Berry says corporate sponsors are also wary of Shakespeare.

“We still have generations of ruling classes who have grown up with bad Shakespeare experiences,” she says. “They find the ballet, opera or symphony a more agreeable set of cultural companies.”

But by using modern day dress and themes, the Bell Shakespeare Company are slowing turning things around. “In literature and the arts, you need to reference the great and the old,” says Berry. “We very regularly get wonderful feedback from students, or from the actors, who regularly receive fan mail from students.”

The ballet and opera companies, on the other hand, have discovered that audiences flock to well-known, traditional pieces. “If we only danced eighteenth century classical ballet, we would have full houses,” says David McAllister, artistic director of the Australian Ballet. “But it would only be for a certain period of time.”

McAllister says that, paradoxically, it’s the younger audience that wants the traditional works. “You think they’d want the young, groovy stuff,” he says, “but it’s the older audience that want to see something new.”

McAllister says that programming means striking a balance between traditional and contemporary works. “The thing we’ve done very successfully is take those big traditional story ballets and rework them in an interesting way that relates to our audience and our time frame,” he says, saying the trend began with Graeme Murphy’s Swan Lake.

What is certain is that watching the Australian Ballet is much more exciting than it was 50 years ago, thanks to lessons learned from sport. “Dance has benefited from innovations in training and the body, and we can run faster and jump higher,” says McAllister. “In the past, men were never expected to lift legs to great heights, whereas now our boys are expected to have the extension that girls reach.”

Where’s the new blood?

Where the ballet does need some new input is in choreography. “I went to a conference of ballet directors in 2002,” he says. “There’s an international crisis. Any ballet company’s life blood is to stage new choreographers.”

Three years ago the Australian Ballet created a programme called Bodytorque, which matches emerging choreographers with composers. For the 2006 season, choreographers have been paired with emerging composers from the 2006 National Music Camp Composition Programme. “We have some extraordinary composers in Australia, like Elena Kats-Chernin,” says McAllister, arguing that great ballet works has always emerged when choreographers like Balanchine have worked together with composers like Stravinsky.

Creating new works is just as crucial for opera, but more difficult. It’s an expensive business to engage a company of singers, an orchestra, a director and a conductor for a work that’s untested. And like the ballet, Opera Australia knows that if they kept performing the tried and true repertoire, they’d always have full houses. Unfortunately, there isn’t enough of the popular repertoire—the pack-‘em-in La Bohemes and La Traviatas—to keep a flagship company going.

“It doesn’t take a lot of knowledge of opera to know that if you’re relying on popular repertoire you’ve got a choice of 15 pieces,” says Opera Australia’s executive producer Stuart Maunder.

The trick, says Maunder, is to keep exciting the audience so much they keep coming back to see the same productions. Sometimes it means changing the cast on a regular basis, as with their production of Tosca. “Youth doesn’t always mean energy, but sometimes it does,” he says.

A star name will also fill the seats, even in a tired old show like the 1980s production of Lucia d Lammermoor, brought out of mothballs in 2003 for Korean superstar Sumi Jo. There are other ways to add pizzazz. For the 2006 season, Opera Australia teamed with the physical theatre troupe Legs on the Wall, to add daring acrobatics and aerial stunts to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, in a bid to bring in a younger audience. But all of this is tinkering with the old, rather than creating the new. This, for Maunder, is not necessarily a bad thing. “Just because we’ve seen the Mona Lisa ten times, does that mean we shouldn’t look at it again?” he asks. “It’s a sad situation that we are a throwaway society.”

A flagship company can’t, however, keep reinventing the wheel; public funding brings with it specific responsibilities to present new works and give new singers a chance. This Opera Australia does through OzOpera, its regional and schools touring company, which also commissions new works. But bringing new works to the Opera House rarely happens. When it does, the works – like Lindy, The Eighth Wonder or Madeline Lee – never become as popular as the tried and true hits of the past.

So why are there no new popular operas? “I think one of the issues is that when Puccini was writing, he was writing unashamedly to please the public and make money,” says Maunder. “Frankly, he wanted arias that could fit on a 78 record. He was the Andrew Lloyd Webber of his time. We don’t do that any more.” Maunder wonders if it’s too easy for contemporary artists to “scoot down to the Australia Council and get a grant for a new work and then bemoan the fact that nobody picks it up.”

It’s an interesting conundrum: the search for corporate sponsorship that the big arts companies desperately need can block innovation and keep things conservative. Yet because artists aren’t commercially hungry enough, revitalising innovation is also stalled.

Where real operatic innovation takes place is underneath Maunder’s office, where there’s a whole floor devoted to costume, set design and other theatrical crafts. This is the only place in Australia that can keep shoemakers, wig makers and costumiers in regular employment, and give them the resources to create astonishingly imaginative productions like The Magic Flute. Eighty percent of the operatic output of Australia comes out of these workshops. Without the grand scale of operatic enterprise to back them, generations of creative artists would never have the opportunity to learn vital skills that they then apply to theatre, ballet and film – artists like costumier Jennifer Irwin, who used the knowledge she gained designing costumes for the Australian Ballet and Opera Australia to create 25,000 costumes for the opening of the Sydney Olympic Games in 2000.

Not that the company is averse to staging sure-fire commercial hits. Already musicals like Fiddler on the Roof and Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd have entered Opera Australia’s repertoire. Maunder says he tried to get the rights to the West End hit The Jerry Springer Opera, which involves enough profanity, nudity and blasphemy to keep the moral crusaders happily issuing calls for censorship. “I couldn’t get them.”

Which means there’s a major opportunity for any theatrically-minded reader of this article. If you can create a short, sharp opera that not only has catchy tunes, but which both entertains and possibly offends moral sensibilities, please send it in.

Who knows? If it’s a big enough hit, it may well end up a subscription favourite of the future.


This article first appeared in Fast Thinking magazine, in 2006.