The opera production Saul, at Adelaide Festival was 'a huge economic boost to South Australia, as well as a reputational boost’ said State Opera of South Australia's Artistic Director & CEO, Tim Sexton.
‘That’s why it’s important for the Festival to do large scale events that are unique to the state—it helps to cement Adelaide’s long-held arts reputation.’
Handel’s opera Saul—a sell-out season at the 2017 Adelaide Festival—was ‘an opportunity to artistically gaze at the sky instead of looking at our feet’, said Sexton.
Saul is a Glyndebourne Festival Opera Production, presented by Adelaide Festival, in association with State Opera South Australia, Adelaide Symphony Orchestra and Adelaide Festival Centre.
According to Sexton, through this production, the company has made a major contribution to the success of this year’s festival. ‘SOSA’s involvement was a significant dollar and services contribution, which included the rehearsal premises, 30 of the 40 chorus, repetiteurs, wardrobe services and associated administration’, Sexton said.
‘The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra also played a key role, with some of their contribution forming part of their annual servicing of State Opera’s productions.’
The season of Saul sold out weeks beforehand, with more than 40 per cent of the audience from interstate, equating to about 3,000 people out of a total 7,300.
Reviews have been ecstatic—for example, The Sydney Morning Herald said, ‘Barrie Kosky has taken the musically rich but dramatically stiff conventions of the Handelian oratorio … and turned it into a vivid theatre of riotous imagination, psychological depth, and challenging edginess.’
The Barrie Kosky production, which premiered at the Glyndebourne Festival in 2015, received similar accolades then.
Although the last four Adelaide Festivals have not included ‘opera of any scale’, Sexton said he had always viewed the inclusion of large-scale opera in the Festival as a critical pillar in the arts experience in Adelaide.
‘It’s a very big, expensive production—one we could not realistically mount on our own—so the chance to have a large number of our people working at this level was one we really needed to take.
‘That experience has a flow-on effect with subsequent productions and keeps our people “show fit”. It also has very positive reputational outcomes for SOSA as a company, and for our performers.’
SOSA became involved in the production about a year ago, but the genesis of the idea went back to 2015, ‘when Neil Armfield [co-Artistic Director of Adelaide Festival with Rachel Healy] sawSaul at Glyndebourne Opera and decided that it was the perfect production for the 2017 Adelaide Festival.'
Kosky joined the Adelaide production for its final week of rehearsal, which was directed by Donna Stirrup as Revival Director. ‘He was able to imprint his own, unique brand of polish and precision on the work, across all areas of the production,’ Sexton said. ‘He has an astonishing ear and eye and an enormously broad understanding of the piece. So no one was spared—the already high bar was set even higher.’
Sexton described it as a fantastic experience for 30 of the company’s singers. He said it gave them the chance to work harder than they had ever worked on stage, as all-singing, all-dancing chorus singers, performing very complicated choreography while simultaneously negotiating Handel’s contrapuntal choruses.
‘They were exhausted but exhilarated.’
The 30 SOSA singers in the chorus were all South Australian, three of whom also understudied principal roles. A further 10 chorus were brought in from interstate, some of whom understudied.
The soloists were a mixture of Australian and international artists—included in the former were Taryn Fiebig as Michal, Kanen Breen as the Witch of Endor and Adrian Strooper as Jonathan.
International artists were Christopher Purves (UK) as Saul (‘who was phenomenal’), countertenor Christopher Lowrey (USA) as David, Stuart Jackson (UK) singing a number of consolidated roles and Mary Bevan (UK) as Merab.
Does success depend on overseas reputation? ‘It’s not entirely dependent upon it, but it helps’, Sexton said.‘Such a production (being only its second outing anywhere) attracts national and international attention. That we carried it off means that awareness is spread farther and wider than would otherwise be the case.’
Sexton believes as arts budgets have contracted, ‘sometimes you need to make a huge splash with a wildly extravagant production to remind us what opera can be, and how exciting and thrilling range of emotions it can evoke’.
He also believes that having opera as the biggest event in the Festival sends a very strong message about the place of opera in the arts. Sexton hopes the success ofSaul will trigger the opportunity to do more grand operatic productions.‘It would be an excellent thing to be able to approach 2018 Festival with another unique production.
‘The more opera on a large scale can be reinforced in the Festival, the more it will once again become a staple of the festival diet. That translates into lots of employment for our singers and production people, and the chance for all our people to enhance their skills.
‘It’s also great for the audience—particularly the local audience, who can see great work without having to travel.
‘And it’s good for government to be seen to be investing in something which has huge tourism pulling power.’
Sexton said the impact of performing an opera of such magnitude leaves the company ‘absolutely enlivened’.‘A production such asSaulis like a blood transfusion—it lifts everyone’s sights.’
He says that while reviews are important, word of mouth is the biggest generator of audience and sponsorship momentum.‘We had that withCloudstreet. People are inspired when they see what we produce—the power of being there is the biggest conversion factor for sponsors and audience alike.’
SOSA is already rehearsing Cavalleria Rusticana and I Pagliacci for an April opening in the Festival Theatre.
‘Then into a frenzy of new Opera Studio activity for two months that will see three new productions emerge.