One of the downsides of being a political satirist, as I aspire to be, is that you do actually have to take an interest in politics. Given the increasingly dire level of political debate and analysis in this country, it's an aspect of the job that grows more depressing by the day. Consequently, it's always a relief to turn the creative hand to something a little more light-hearted, as in the chance to direct for Opera Australia a re-worked revival of Offenbach’s Orpheus in the Underworld, a satire of French political and social values in the mid-nineteenth century. Hilaire, non?
|Jonathan Biggins as John Styx in the 2003|
production of Orpheus in the Underworld.
Offenbach and his librettists chose to satirise these double standards by taking creative licence with the Orpheus myth, giving us a pantheon of seemingly upright Olympian gods who were secretly itching to get down to Hades where all the real action was going down, if it was technically possible to go any further down than the underworld. The mortals stuck in between on earth, equally venal and self-centred, were firmly under the thumb of Public Opinion, a guardian of public morality that makes the Jensens look like entertainment directors on a gay cruise. Mix them all up and you got a fair reflection of the self-delusion and moral pretensions that passed for the social code of the day. Or, thanks to the unalterable certainty of human nature, the social code of any day.
Being operetta and the mid-nineteenth century, such a satire didn't have to be gritty and cutting-edge, or deal with issues of a non-French speaking background as the current critical class demand for satirical commentary that speaks to today’s youth. No, Offenbach could approach from a place of beauty and vivacity, of delightful melodies and pastoral ballets, giving the world along the way the immortal gift of the galop infernal, otherwise known as the can-can. That’s about as cutting edge as he got. Even so, his vision of social dystopia caused quite a stir in its day, but while the French bourgeoisie might have been shocked, modern audiences are more easily outraged by the price of the carpark. Still, we recognise the mortals of the tale as us, or at least people we know: hypocritical, protective of their reputations and willing tenants of the moral high ground – Orpheus’s one candid moment of genuine delight at finding his wife gone from his life is quickly quashed by the weight of public opinion; the Arcadians prove as adept at damage control and media relations as any contemporary figure caught in the spotlight.
This production was originally conceived by director Ignatius Jones and designer Mark Thompson, who presented an anachronistic vision of ancient Thebes, where satellite dishes sit atop corinthian-columned houses and a building viewed through the corn fields looks suspiciously like the Sydney Town Hall. The gods live in chilled minimalist splendour up on Mount Olympus while Pluto’s domain is rich reds and polished black, like a bomb’s gone off in a French Empire antique shop. There may be little guilt in this particular hell but there’s no shortage of gilt.
Phil Scott and I wrote a new libretto and as our schoolboy French wasn’t quite up to translating the original, we read the many and various adaptations that have kept Orpheus up there as one of the most performed operettas of all time. We remained true to the spirit, if not the letter, of the original; I don’t think Christopher Pyne was mentioned in the 1853 version. Operetta is often seen as the poor relation in the opera world, a lightweight repertoire that’s sometimes dismissed by singers as being too easy and slight. I think the reverse is true; it is in fact the most difficult genre of all as the performers need to be able to sing operatically, dance, act and be funny. In English. Offenbach would be thrilled to know we’re still trying – and I’m sure he’d enjoy the royalties.