Hamilton aims for the sky

Hamilton The Revolution coverThere’s a song by the comedy band Tripod with a line that goes: “I always get into stuff/ Just as it’s finishing being cool...”, and embarrassingly this often applies to me. A couple of years ago I listened to the first song of the (Alexander) Hamilton musical and thought it was good, but it didn’t blow me away. I figured I’d try it again another time.

A few weeks ago I put it on as something to listen to while cleaning the house, and this time I stuck with it; halfway through listening to “Satisfied” I was a firm fan. I kept cleaning just so that I could finish the musical (which never happens, believe me). The house was spotless by the time the last refrains of “Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story” faded out, and I may have cried a few times while folding the washing. How did a story about another country’s history affect me (and millions of others) so deeply?

For a start it’s incredibly well written; it’s a musical but it’s sung-through, so you can hear the entire story by listening to the cast recording. While many of the songs are incredibly catchy the story is what compels you to continue listening to Alexander Hamilton as he drags himself up from nothing to something; he’s not always likeable, but you have to admire his incredible work ethic, and he was clearly charismatic to many.

Articulate, intelligent leaders are always interesting to read about, and he surrounded himself with articulate, intelligent men and women, including my favourite character — his sister-in-law, Angelica Schuyler — who sings my favourite song. Hamilton isn’t a musical that shies away from shades of grey, portraying both Hamilton and his frenemy Aaron Burr as complex rivals with a fundamental difference in character. Lin-Manuel Miranda manages to pack all this complexity into two and a bit hours by using rapid-fire delivery and lyrics that seem throw-away on the surface but unpack to give multiple meanings and allusions to hip hop masters, Shakespeare, and historical events.

Cover of Washington: A Life, Ron ChernowThere is a lot more I could say on the topic, from how I love that it’s bringing verse back to stage performance as a great tool for compelling exposition, how it’s performing America then by America now with a diverse and talented cast, how I’ve managed to have seven different songs stuck in my head at once — and yes, if you listened to this back in 2015, you already know all this stuff. But for anyone else who’s heard about it but hasn’t quite gotten around to it yet, or who loved the Kate Shepard musical (That Bloody Woman) last year, borrow the Hamilton cast recording today and give it a listen. If nothing else you’ll get a clean house out of it.

If you do already like Hamilton, I recommend Ron Chernow‘s biographies for some extra insights into Hamilton and Washington. I’ve also been reading the fantastically nerdy Hamilton The Revolution : Being the Complete Libretto of the Broadway Musical, With A True Account of Its Creation, and Concise Remarks on Hip-hop, the Power of Stories, and the New America and can thoroughly recommend it as it showcases the thought put into every single aspect of the show.

Carmen interests: Archie and Jack MacDonald

NZ Opera’s production of Carmen, Bizet’s tale of love and betrayal, gypsies and bullfighters, opens at the Isaac Theatre Royal this week and amongst the cast is a chorus of ten Christchurch schoolboys.

So what’s it like to be 12 years old and in a professional production of one of the world’s most popular operas? I asked twin brothers Archie and Jack MacDonald about how they got into singing, choirs, and their advice for other youngsters who might want to sing on stage.

How did you both get into singing and performing? Is that something you’ve been doing for a long time?

Archie: Well, we got into our first 2 big choirs [Christchurch Schools Music Festival special choir and the Christchurch Boys’ Choir] in year 5 but we’ve just been in heaps of school choirs and have always loved playing guitar and singing with our big sister, and it’s just sort of been a passion that we’ve always had all of our life.

Is singing something that you’ve always done together?

Jack: Yeah, I don’t think we’ve ever been in a choir that the other one hasn’t been in. And we busk together too. Either in the Riccarton Bush Market or the Re:Start Mall.

How much practising and rehearsing do you have to do for Carmen?

Archie: There’s quite a lot, particularly in our own time at home. We’ve been given a [music] file just to rehearse and get it all sorted… We’d do some at least every day for the last 2 weeks.

And for Carmen you’re singing in French. Is that a thing that you’ve done before?

Jack: We’ve sung in different languages before but not as much as in Carmen, so it took a few hours just to figure out the pronunciation and write it down in our music, and then there’s the notes and you have to put them all together and that’s hard but we’ve got the adult chorus to help us…  when you’re acting as well, you’ve got to know what you’re singing about so that you can have facial expressions and act how you would if you were saying it in English.

Don Jose and Carmen
Don Jose and Carmen. Image credit: Marty Melville

And what’s it been like being part of an opera production?

Jack: It’s been fun. Last year we were in Evita with Showbiz but this is like another step up. We’ve got different costumes from everyone else and we’re running around [the stage] teasing soldiers, running up stairs and things – it’s been full on but fun.

Is it good to have other kids around (in the children’s chorus)?

Archie: Yeah, it sort of takes a little bit of the pressure off. Definitely a solo act is a bit trickier and a bit harder but everyone’s really supportive and it’s just great, ya know? But it’s a bit more fun with more boys.

It must be very nerve-wracking going in for an audition.

Archie: Yeah, you can never really take that away from an audition. You always want to get in and have heaps of time with whatever you’re auditioning for.

Jack: Yep, just being by yourself in front of someone and singing is quite hard… but then you feel good coming out of it.

So what’s the most fun thing about singing?

Archie: Definitely performances.

Jack: Yeah, performances in front of a crowd.

Is it more fun with an audience? What’s that like?

Archie: When the lights go up you’ll just see a crowd sitting in front of you and you’re just like “I’ve gotta do this. I can’t really muck up.” So yeah, it sort of boosts you a wee bit more and you’re really wanting to work hard.

Jack: Well, you feel nervous but then when you go off the stage and you’re done you’ll feel happy, like after an audition and you’ll think that you’ve done your job well. As long as you give it everything and work hard.

Children's chorus, Carmen
Children’s chorus, NZ Opera production of Carmen. Image credit: Marty Melville

Is music something you’d like to do for a job one day?

Archie: I’ve always thought it would be a lot of fun to be involved in music but I’ve never really seen it as necessarily something to base everything around, as in, have as my job but it would be heaps of fun to just stay involved. I’ve really got a taste for how much fun it really is and I’d love to keep that going for as long as I can, really.

Jack: Yeah, I really like cricket but then getting into a good team as a job, that’s gonna be hard so I have to have something else to work on… I’m sort of still thinking about it.

Do you have any advice for other kids who want to be on the stage performing and singing?

Jack: Give it everything and enjoy it. And just work hard.

Archie: I’d probably say don’t hold back, just go for everything that sounds fun. Never think “there’ll be some people who are better at this role than me”, because it’s great to have an experience of just an audition. It sort of gets you a bit more used to things and less nervous for later on in life. The more you do things, the more you get to enjoy it, the more hobbies you get to have when you’re older. So just really get into it. Take every opportunity. Absolutely anything really. Go for anything and everything you like the sounds of.

Being in choirs seems to have been a big part of it for you.

Archie: [Christchurch Boys’ Choir] has taken us from having not too many musical opportunities to just singing with so many amazing groups and heaps of cool opportunities coming up.

Jack: It was only Boys’ Choir that was in Evita. We sang at the Crusaders vs Lions game (we sang Conquest of Paradise) and now Carmen. And they’re after boys to audition for Sister Act. Whenever we’re backstage we’re always singing and stuff because we’ve all got decent voices we can pick out a harmony while we’re sitting there… I really recommend the Boys Choir as a really top thing that will get you into heaps of things like this, end of year concerts, concerts in between, or maybe one thing a year like performances with Showbiz.

Archie: (about end of year Battle of the Bands at intermediate school) It was pretty cool because with the Boys’ Choir we’ve got audiences much bigger than a school of 500 people and we’re a bit more confident with that sort of thing. If we weren’t in the choir or involved with any productions or anything that’d sort of be massive and our hearts would be pounding. It would be crazy, you know, really nervous. It’s quite cool just to know, we were very confident going into that and it’s because we’ve just sung in front of so many people…

Archie and Jack will perform in the children’s chorus as part of NZ Opera’s production of Carmen, Isaac Theatre Royal on 13, 15, 18, 20 & 22 July.

Find out more

Carmen (highlights) streaming music Cover of Kickstart Music 3 : 9-11 Yrs : Music Activites Made Simple Cover of Is singing for you?

Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show): Q&A with Kathleen Burns

Shakespeare with tentacles, teenage sex, dead bodies galore, and nerf guns. Yup, you heard right. Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is on now at The Court Theatre until June 24, and it is nothing like the Shakespeare you learnt at school.

Kathleen Burns is one of the cast, and we had a chance to ask her some questions about Hamlet, gaming, and this show.


Kathleen Burns

Shakespeare! Guns! Gaming! Kicking ass! Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) at The Court Theatre sounds awesome! Thanks for chatting to us about it – it sounds like a really interesting mix of everything.

Before we start, let’s play ‘Two truths, one lie’ to get to know you. What are two interesting facts about yourself? And what about one thing that’s not true? We’ll see if we can guess which one’s the lie.*

1: I am really good at saying the alphabet backwards super fast.

2: When I was a girl, I had webbed fingers and had to get them surgically un-webbed.

3: I can’t click my fingers.

That first one’s an impressive skill – I hope you’ve found some way to get that into one of your shows! Now that’s out the way, on to the important stuff. Old Will Shakespeare. We had to study one of his plays each year at high school. I think I just about died of boredom watching every girl in my class act out Romeo’s death in a Yr 11 English assessment – do you know just how long a 16-year-old can drag out a death scene?! It was painful!

What about you? Did you have to suffer through the plays in English class or did you actually enjoy learning about the Bard?

At first it was totally daunting… like… what are all these people on about…? But, I had good English teachers who broke it down. It’s actually super easy… this person wants to kill that person, this person wants to sleep with that person… Also I often got asked to read it out loud, and you know… any chance to be centre of attention haha!

What about now? Have your thoughts on him changed, or do you still feel the same way?

The older I get, the more I either love or hate it. Like… “Yay! Titus Andronicus is so cool! Let’s put people in pies!” or “OH EM GEE Hamlet is so annoying, I wish he would just make up his mind…”

So … Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show). That’s quite a mouthful! I looked it up on The Court’s website, and the description for the show was:

“Rebooting the story of Hamlet as a video game, this show blends Shakespeare with modern gaming culture to create a uniquely entertaining live experience. You’ve never seen the Bard this bad-ass!”

What does that actually mean? Most people would say video games and 17th century plays don’t really go together. What exactly are we going to see when we go see Hamlet: The Video Game?

Are you kidding me? Shakespeare and video games are pretty much the same thing. Bloodthirsty violence, revenge, high body count, teenage sex… all of the fun stuff. In this show you can expect to see an epic nerf gun battle, an abundance of gaming jokes, and hearts torn out of chests both literally and figuratively.

So it’s not going to be an old guy standing alone on a dark stage talking to a skull in Ye Olde English that we’re not going to understand? Phew!

Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) got shown for the first time back in 2015. It obviously did well to come back for a second go, so who is the show *actually* for? Usually people who go and see plays are not the people who’ll spend time playing computer games, so where did the decision to merge classical theatre and gaming come from? And who’s the target audience?

The idea came about from Simon Peacock, who started as a court jester here in Christchurch but now works in the video game industry in Canada. He directed the voices on one of my favourite games: Assassins Creed! This show is totally for gamers. I mean yeah, Shakespeare lovers are loving it too… but it so so packed full of jokes for gamers.

In video games, the gamer is in charge of choosing what their avatar is going to do next, or where they’re going to go, and that happens in this show too, right? So it’s kind of like a choose-your-own-adventure version of Hamlet! That’s pretty cool.

Hahahaha no. It’s not a pick-a-path. Any experienced gamer will tell you that video games only offer the illusion of choice. At its heart, it’s the story of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. But with video game tropes over top, like, at the start, the audience get to customize their Hamlet character. So far the mohawk has been really popular. But can you please come along and choose the beret for once??? It looks kick ass and the audience hasn’t chosen that one yet!

Got it. Always choose the beret.

Back in the day, girls and women weren’t allowed to act in old Will’s plays – apparently boys and men did a better job of playing the female characters than actual females did. That’s pretty dumb, I reckon, but I guess that was just the way society was back then. There’s a real live female actor in this show though, right? Playing a real live female character? Does she get to do really cool stuff, or is she stuck at home doing embroidery and cooking and looking after the kids? Of course, if a female wants to stay in and do sewing, she totally can – you be you, girl, and do what makes you happy! Anyways – what are the girls up to in Hamlet?

Well actually it’s funny you mention that because…. I am totally a girl. Yip. Boobs and everything. And I’m a gamer too. (Pause for shocked silence) The most domestic thing any of the female characters get up to in this is when Gertrude in her bed chamber brushing her tentacles. Yip, that’s right, her mighty tentacles that come out of her head. When she’s not doing that, she’s kicking ass.

Shakespeare and the tentacles. Not a sentence I thought I’d be writing, but there it goes.

Lots of schools use Hamlet as one of their English texts. How close is this play to the actual Hamlet play? If I go see it will I be able to write about it in my NCEA exams?

It would actually totally help you to understand the basic story of Hamlet… I wish I had something like this when I was in high school!

All right, so you must have thought about this – if Hamlet actually got released as a video game, who would you choose to voice the characters? And why?

I will voice them all. With a million different hilarious voices. And maybe some voice changing technology to make my voice sound deep and evil for Claudius.

Right … you did say you wanted to be centre of attention at school. I guess some things don’t change.

How many of the folks involved in this show are actually gamers? And what’s the fave game at the moment? Although I bet they’re all pretty busy at the moment making sure this is  finished and ready for the audience.

All of us are either current gamers, or have been at some point in our lives. Personally, I’m looking forward to playing Andromeda because I’m a huge Mass Effect fan!

So… Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is at The Court Theatre until June 24. It sounds like it’s going to be an amazing show to watch and should have something for everyone.

We’ve opened already! Only a week and a half left, so get in quick!

Thanks for chatting with us, Kathleen – have you got any last words for people out there trying to decide if this show’s for them?

It’s for you. If you come to the show, and then are like “maybe that wasn’t for me”, I will personally come into the foyer and admit to your face that I was wrong. (THIS HAS NEVER HAPPENED)


So there you have it, folks – Hamlet: The Video Game (The Stage Show) is for everyone. If you love Shakespeare but don’t game, or play video games but aren’t a fan of the Bard, or love Shakespeare AND gaming, go see it – it’s only $26, and it’s Shakespeare and tentacles. What’s not to love?!

* Oh, and in case you were wondering: the lie was … number 2.

Images supplied by the Court Theatre.

The Mikado: A very modern comedy

People people-watching in bustling New Regent Street, folks out and about in their finery, and a sea of black and white as those carrying black instrument cases make their way towards an unassuming looking back entrance off Gloucester Street – New Zealand Opera is back at the Isaac Theatre Royal, and this time it’s for their 2017 production – Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado.

Set in Japan, and first performed over 120 years ago in a theatre in London, it might be difficult to see how this comic opera could appeal to the sense of humour of people here in 2017 Christchurch. Sitting in the audience last night, and hearing all the laughter around me throughout the show, I can tell you that this production has updated itself fantastically. Harajuku girls, the use of cellphones as a plot device, and references to Donald Trump and theatre etiquette mean you’ll forget that this opera has been around for long enough to become a theatre classic, and will enjoy it even if you aren’t a regular opera-goer.

Jonathan Abernethy as Nanki-Poo bribes Poo-Bah as played by Andrew Collis.
Jonathan Abernethy as Nanki-Poo bribes Poo-Bah as played by Andrew Collis. Image credit: David Rowland

The Mikado‘s story follows Nanki-Poo, the son of the Japanese Mikado (or Emperor), in his journey to Titipu in search of his sweetheart, Yum-Yum. Unfortunately for him, Yum-Yum is now engaged to her guardian Ko-Ko, and the woman Nanki-Poo was intended to marry is not overly happy at being left behind so unceremoniously. … Also, Ko-Ko isn’t that keen to have a rival love interest, either. What follows is an hilarious story of love, loyalty and power, and a reminder that sometimes even the best-laid plans don’t work out quite the way you’d expect.

This show was a delight to watch, and by the end of it my cheeks hurt from all the grinning and laughing. While I thought that all the cast members did a great job portraying their characters, I particularly enjoyed Brendan Coll’s version of the character Ko-Ko. With his wide range of facial expressions and various voices, I don’t think I have ever spent so much time laughing at someone with the job title ‘Lord High Executioner’!

Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko.
Helen Medlyn as Katisha and Byron Coll as Ko-Ko. Image credit: David Rowland

I also thoroughly enjoyed watching Andrew Collis as Pooh-Bah – he’s the epitome of pomposity in this show, but he’s spoken to Moata and it looks like in reality he’s a really nice guy.

Along with the cast, members of the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and the creative team involved with The Mikado have created a production that has a combination of visual, verbal and physical comedy, and is accompanied by an instrumental arrangement that adds to the overall enjoyment of the show. I highly recommend going to see it – the Isaac Theatre Royal is a beautiful venue, and this is an opera that will appeal to more people than just the usual opera crowd. With sensuous left shoulder blades, aunties with moustaches, and wandering 21st century minstrels peddling their CDs on Marine Parade, why not make The Mikado your introduction (or re-introduction) to Gilbert and Sullivan?

You only have until Saturday March 11th to head along and see this great show, so grab your tickets and get ready for a fun night out.

Cover of The Mikado sound recordingTo prepare for the show, or to relive the experience afterwards, jump into our collection and check out what Mikado-related material we have in a range of formats.

New titles on Access Video

Access Video LogoDo you find that appealing offerings on TV are rather meagre these days? If so, why not check out Access Video?

Access Video is one of our many eResources. It gives you access to thousands of streaming world-class documentaries, award-winning educational films, and helpful instructional videos on every known subject. The videos can be watched as a whole or just in  segments. Some titles even have transcripts so you can read along if your hearing is impaired.

The library has recently added over 100 new titles to this collection. Although most are about some aspect of American life, there are many of interest to those of us Down Under.

They include a group about dance theatre, mainly set in New York, e.g.:

  • David Rousseve, Part 1 and Part 2, which include some of his work and interviews
  • Douglas Dunn & Jim Neu #1, which pokes fun at at America’s obsession with health clubs
  • Jeff McMahon & Brian Webb, a multi-disciplinary work that looks at the issue of intimacy in the age of AIDS
  • Sosua: Make a Better World, which tells the story of Jewish and Dominican teenagers in New York City’s Washington Heights, who together with the legendary theatre director, Liz Swados, put on a musical about the Dominican rescue of 800 Jews from Hitler’s Germany.

There are also many on important social issues, such as

  • Loose Change, which challenges the official record of September 11, 2001
  • Trump: What’s the Deal? which investigates the reality behind this most public of figures
  • Chernobyl’s Café: Chernobyl is emerging as a popular tourist destination, with local industry on the rise
  • My Jihad, a film about the growing number of young Muslims from all over Europe who are leaving their home towns to fight for ISIS
  • Football Hell, where it is alleged that 4,000 workers will die in Qatar to put on the 2022 Football World Cup
  • Allow Me to Die, which follows the stories of two Belgians considering assisted suicide, exploring the moral difficulties behind the most liberal euthanasia laws in the world
  • Abortion: Ancient and Modern, which explores the ethical, legal and religious dimensions of the abortion debate
  • Reflections on Media Ethics, which includes in-depth discussions with renowned filmmakers, journalists and academics, and interviews with Noam Chomsky, Albert Maysles, George Stoney, Amy Goodman, Jon Alpert and Mary Warnock

And for the Shakespeare fans or newbies, there is The Tempest (S1), presenting the Bard’s work as an animated masterpiece.

So instead of shaking your head in dismay at what’s on the box, try out Access Video – all you need to access it is your library card number and PIN/password.

Posh songs and mood lighting

Last night I sat in a beautiful room and listened to a fabulously sung tale about serial killers.

It was a brilliant night out and Sweeney Todd: demon barber of Fleet Street was every bit as awesome as I’d hoped it would be. My companion, The Opera Newbie, was also very impressed, and thoroughly enjoyed the evening. We laughed in all the right places, jumped (embarrassingly) at unexpected loud noises, and clapped enthusiastically whenever terrible things happened (he’s in the chair! he’s just had his throat cut! he’s sliding from the chair through a trapdoor and into the basement!)

The Sweeney Todd set
Not the chair! Sweeney Todd set (image supplied)

I was a bit nervous that the live opera performance wouldn’t measure up against the recent Tim Burton movie, which was visually stunning and starred the always-brilliant Helena B-C, as well as badly-behaved Johnny Depp.

Sometimes when you’re watching a live show and there’s lots of singing, it can be hard for people who don’t know the story (or the songs), but Opera Newbie reported that he pretty much followed the lot. And the set was gorgeous. Deceptively simple, but with lots of different clever bits that moved in mysterious ways. The lighting was almost a star in its own right, too, with atmospheric fog and really effective spotlights making things look darn scary quite often.

My favourite character in any of the different versions I’ve seen is always Mrs Lovett, and last night was no exception – Antoinette Halloran’s voice, acting, costume were all fabulous, and I totally have a fangirl crush on her. I’m also finding myself humming bits of her songs, and vaguely thinking that this weekend I might try making some pies.

Joel Granger and Antoniette Halloran in Sweeney Todd
Joel Granger and Antoniette Halloran in Sweeney Todd (image supplied)

If you’re thinking about going along, maybe don’t take the kids – it’s sweary, and bloody, and has some naughty bits too. But if you have the opportunity to grab some last-minute tickets for the show for yourself and your grown-up friends you absolutely should do that (it’s on til Saturday, and there’s even a matinee performance, so there’s really no excuse!)

A meaty night out at the opera

I have a friend who’s never been to the opera. Never been to a musical. Actually, possibly never even been to a live theatre performance before.

How exciting for him, then, that his very first outing to all of the above will be to Sweeney Todd: the demon barber of Fleet Street.

He looked a little concerned when I told him where we were going (the oh-so-beautiful Isaac Theatre Royal), and for what purpose.

Things got worse when I tried to give a brief plot outline. Perhaps I shouldn’t have started with a line about hairdressers.

How though, does one cover all the important bits, without spoiling the plot twists? Do I talk about wives and daughters, justice and revenge, haircuts and close shaves, meat pies and unrequited love?

Cover of Sweeney Todd: The demon barber of Fleet StreetDo I mention that Mr Todd first made his appearance over 150 years ago, in the pages of a “penny-dreadful” publication? That there have been more than a dozen different stage and screen adaptations, including the most well-known current movie version starring the now infamous Johnny? Or that Christchurch is the third of the major centres to have the privilege of showing us what a close shave really means?

Perhaps I should just send him to the library to read/watch/discover all our Mr Todd-related resources?

Or perhaps I should tell him nothing. Let him enter the theatre unsuspecting and unprepared in any way for the delicious horrors that are to come …

Perhaps that last one, yes.

La Traviata

Last night I had my first ever opera experience. Although I generally enjoy live music and performance I wasn’t 100% if I would like opera, even with the excellent introduction to the operatic world I got from a bonafide opera singer. I mean, all that warbling and melodrama. Maybe it would be a bit OTT for me?

Violetta and Alfredo
Violetta and Alfredo, Photo by Neil MacKenzie.

But then I remembered that I love stuff that’s OTT. And opera, or at least this one, has it all. Gorgeous ladies in gorgeous costumes, an impressive set bedecked with chandeliers, protestations of love, sacrifice, longing, mortality, familial squabbles… there’s even a guy dressed as a matador at one point. And amazing voices joined together in song. Wow.

And even with the “please don’t leave me!” and “oh, I’m dying of consumption!” histrionics, it was still very moving. I was surprised by that, but shouldn’t have been, because in addition to the singing there is actual acting that goes on too, and I got rather pleasantly swept up in it all.

La Traviata means “The fallen woman” and the plot revolves around Violetta, a French courtesan, a party girl who after resisting for a time, realises that actually the party can’t go on forever. She moves with her lover, Alfredo, to the country and everything’s rosy (literally, the set was covered in roses at this point)…until it’s not. There is heartbreak and anger, shame, and remorse – basically every terrible break-up you’ve ever had.

Verdi’s opera is based on the play The Lady of the Camellias which was itself adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas fils (the son of the Alexandre Dumas who wrote The Three Musketeers). Also known as Camille in the English speaking world, it has been adapted numerous times on stage and film, including a 1984 movie starring Greta Scacchi, Ben Kingsley and Colin Firth. It’s certainly a story that has legs (and some rather annoying gender politics but sometimes you just have to note these things, wish they were otherwise, and move on).

My takeaways from the evening were –

  • I’m a sucker for love stories
  • I didn’t fully appreciate just what a properly trained human voice was capable of. Crikey!
  • I really need a spangled gold bolero jacket
Incredible costumes
Incredible costumes, Photo by Neil MacKenzie

More for fans of La Traviata

 

Everything you wanted to know about opera but were afraid to ask

Confession time. I have never been to an opera.

I’ve seen Shihad play more times than I can remember. I’ve been to performances of “experimental music” that I’d rather not recall. Kapa haka? Count me in. But never opera. Which seems like a bit of an oversight on my part.

La Traviata
NZ Opera’s La Traviata. Image supplied

Luckily NZ Opera are performing Verdi’s La Traviata in Christchurch starting this week and a combination of factors have led to me taking up the challenge of my first ever operatic experience –  namely that I love big, loud live music, getting to dress up, and being inside the restored Isaac Theatre Royal.

But not wanting to dive in without some idea of what to expect I sat down with Christchurch opera singer and member of the “Trav” cast, Amanda Atlas who answered all my silly questions and made me think this opera lark might be quite fun, actually. This is some of what I learned*.

The top 6 things you need to know about opera

  1. It’s not amplified. The singers don’t have any microphone assistance, unlike what you might get with musical theatre, for instance. Opera singers have to be powerful enough to sing over the top of a full orchestra and still be heard. This is why operatic training takes a long time and why the top singers are usually a little older. However…
  2. Opera singers are not all fat. That’s not really a thing. As evidence I offer the cast line-up of La Traviata. Who would have guessed a cartoonish stereotype wasn’t actually realistic?
  3. It’s just like watching a foreign language film, but live. Everything is sung in Italian (depending on the opera – there are operas in German, for instance), but there’s a screen above the stage with “surtitles” so you can follow what’s happening.
  4. There’s an intermission (and there’s a bar). I may have expressed mild concern that the performance is scheduled to start at 7.30pm and doesn’t end until 10pm but Amanda assured me that there would be a break, if for no other reason than the orchestra needs one. Fair enough! Happy to enjoy a mid-opera wine while they rest their talented fingers.
  5. You can wear jeans! Yes, opening night is a bit more glamorous and folk tend to dress up a bit more, but people can and do go to opera in normal street clothes (and nobody boos or throws rotten fruit at them).
  6. It’s not super expensive. Well, some seats are but opera tickets cost about the same as other concerts you might go to (I checked, and indeed, our Weird Al Yankovic tickets from last year cost about the same as those for La Traviata).
Amanda Atlas
Professional opera singer, Amanda Atlas. Image supplied.

Amanda Atlas’ passion for opera is clear whenever she speaks about it… she also completely spoiled the plot of La Traviata by telling me the ending but I’m hoping that won’t matter too much. I will only say that it’s about a French courtesan named Violetta who has consumption and falls in love…

This production of La Traviata is a traditional one – think beautiful costumes and chandaliers. The word Amanda uses is “sumptuous”.

Opera is timeless

…opera doesn’t necessarily have to be reinterpreted because the stories are timeless, it’s all love and relationships generally, and power and sex and betrayal and they’re just great stories, and interpreted by great composers. I’ve always been extremely moved by it and there are some operas that I find difficult to sing because I get so emotional.

It’s full of emotion

It turns out emotion is a big part of the appeal of opera, for both performers and audience.

We want to make the audience feel that emotion and cry…and the music is just glorious and heart-breaking.

The music just captures human feeling and emotion with the naked human voice. Like when you hear a Māori waiata or someone singing at a funeral, there’s this inherent emotion in the human throat when it’s not interfered with and for me, I think that’s what opera can really access in a way that some other things can’t necessarily.

Sometimes it’s like…Game of Thrones?

When it comes to picking favourites, it turns out that emotion also has its part to play, as Amanda explained the difference (for her, at least) between Italian operas and those in German.

Cover of The New Grove Guide to Wagner and His OperasI particularly love Wagner, which is the big, heavy German, crazy “brother-sister incest, and Gods striking down dwarves, and crazy over-the-topness” – it’s Game of Thrones basically… and that’s where my voice sits the most, so that’s my favourite thing to sing.

Also because for me personally when I sing Italian repertoire there’s something about it that actually does really make me emotional and so I sometimes find it more difficult to sing well because I’m…. not staying cold enough to just keep my technique solid. So when I sing Wagner, because it doesn’t get into my soul quite so much as Italian stuff, there’s a slight remove therefore I find it much easier to sing.

The Isaac Theatre Royal has great acoustics

It made me so happy when it reopened and it is wonderful to sing in. We’re really lucky to have it. It’s probably my second favourite theatre in New Zealand. My favourite one, funnily enough, is the Civic Theatre in Invercargill. The Civic Theatre in Invercargill has the best acoustic of any theatre I’ve ever sung in. It’s a very similar looking theatre, same style with the three tiers, but this one’s second.

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*Added opera vocabulary word for fun, “sitzprobe”, literally a “sitting rehearsal”.

The Dead Lands: Making a movie in te reo Māori

I’ve studied a few languages over the years including te reo Māori and one thing my teachers always encouraged was watching films in the language as it helped develop an ear for what native speakers sound like, as well as helping with vocabulary and grammar. In fact, this is how I first discovered Jackie Chan movies when I was learning Chinese.

Learners of te reo Māori are lucky enough to have Māori Television as a resource for hearing te reo Māori spoken, even if no one else in their household, school or place of work is fluent. But in terms of Saturday night movies on DVD, there’s very little to choose from.

t’s not difficult to find movies with a sprinkling of te reo Māori, here and there – films like Whale rider, BoyThe Piano and a few others. But a movie where the only English language you’ll find is in the subtitles? Now, that is a rarity – but that’s exactly what you get with 2014 action movie, The Dead Lands.

With impressively gory deaths and terrific fight choreography The Dead Lands is sort of a cross between Apocalypto, (Mel Gibson’s brutal Meso-American set action film), a Bruce Lee movie, and a mafia revenge drama. It’s closest cinematic equivalent in New Zealand terms might be the Geoff Murphy directed classic, Utu.

Director Toa Fraser, was good enough to answer a few questions for me about the te reo Māori aspect of the film.

Toa Fraser on set
Director Toa Fraser on set with actor James Rolleston. Photo credit: Matt Klitscher

Why was the decision made to have the dialogue in te reo, rather than in English? How do you think it added to the film?

Honestly, we just thought it would be much cooler to do it in te reo. Glenn Standring always wrote it to be translated. Te Manahau Morrison wrote a beautiful translation, very heightened and theatrical that the cast found thrilling and challenging. It suited the fact that we were making an indigenous martial arts movie that looked to Hollywood but also to Asia for inspiration. Kurosawa was a particular inspiration.

Did this require the actors, or you, to learn more te reo?

The cast had a very varied level of confidence in te reo. We did cast it in such a way that people like Te Kohe Tuhaka and Raukura Turei could lead within the group, and guide the others who were less confident. For me I don’t speak te reo so of course it was very challenging but I had great support from Tainui Stephens and Jamus Webster.

Are there specific challenges with making a movie completely in te reo Maori or is it pretty much the same as making one in English?

It was a joy to make a movie that embraced tikanga Māori as a paramount part of the process. We said karakia everyday, used Māori terms onset (e.g. tīmata/kōkiri for action, kāti for cut).

I still say “kāti” on set. I directed an episode of Penny Dreadful in Ireland last year with Eva Green and Rory Kinnear. Rory said, “We just keep going until you say kāti.”

What are your thoughts on the use of te reo Māori, generally?

I look forward to the day when we are all comfortable in New Zealand/Aotearoa speaking English and Māori as much as we can, and all schools are equally well-resourced for English and Māori language education. I think it is ridiculous that, for instance, a very well-resourced central Auckland school has some 15, 000 books in English, a few in Japanese, one French and erm, some in Māori. What’s that about?

Languages are cool. Let’s celebrate them.

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