Artistic Director Timothy Sexton shares the thinking behind State Opera of South Australia’s “Opera Evolve” 2016 season.

Officially the State Opera of South Australia celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2016, but as Artistic Director Timothy Sexton tells me, there are several chapters in the annals of the company that predate the parliamentary authority that in 1976 formally decreed it the official opera company of the state. “In 1973 it was branded ‘New Opera’ and prior to that it was known as ‘Intimate Opera’, and that dates back to the 1950s. So it’s actually, in one form or another, more like 60 years that we’ve been around,” Sexton tells me, and he should know. “I’ve been with the company for about 28 of those years, so it’s been quite a significant part of my life.”

Hearing the history of SOSA, the words “new” and “intimate” feel entirely appropriate for the company’s 40th birthday celebrations in 2016, but another word that Sexton has singled out as a key descriptor for his selection next year is “evolve.” As he explains, “2016’s season is an opportunity to see opera in a variety of guises.” To this end there are four main productions being staged next year, each offering a unique perspective on the art form as it exists today.

Firstly in February a new production of Mozart’s perennial favourite, The Magic Flute, by director/designer David Lampard. Staged in the Freemasons Great Hall in Adelaide, the masonic references that percolate throughout this work will have amplified meaning, while the set and costumes will draw on the Art Deco characteristics of the venue’s architecture. “All the symbolic elements of the opera are really brought to the fore because in that very setting it’s difficult to get away from them, they’re everywhere,” Sexton shares. “The audience are surrounded in that masonic iconography from the moment they walk in so it’s become an integral part of the design.”

In May the company have secured a major coup, with the world premiere of George Palmer’s adaptation of celebrated Australian novelist Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet. The opera has been in development for over four years, including an Act 1 performance at Sydney’s Carriageworks in 2012. Throughout that time director Gale Edwards has been part of its gestation and has guided the new work to it’s final, fully realised conclusion. For Sexton presenting a new work was a vital element in celebrating the company’s four decades, but adapting a distinctly Australian narrative was also crucial in contributing to the forward momentum and evolution of opera in this country, he believes. “I think it’s essential that we present Australian stories and we present contemporary, or near contemporary stories in a new light, just as Mozart was doing with The Magic Flute. He was telling a story that was relevant for him 225 years ago, so it seems right to be presenting a new story that can resonate with audiences today,” he says.

The development of a new opera on this scale is a rare and special thing in Australia, and the four years of development that Cloudstreet has under its belt is very much part of ensuring this new work is not only successful but has longevity. “The great works of the canon that people enjoy in the theatre today have taken years, sometimes decades or centuries, to refine and develop. So a very long genesis, like the one Cloudstreet has had, is a very good sign that great work has been done to ensure the piece will be as good as it can possibly be.”

Timothy Sexton

Sexton hopes that the combination of well-tested music, a hugely experienced director and a classic Australian narrative will tempt those more tradition-minded opera lovers who may be sceptical about attending a newly penned production to be more opening minded. “I think we do have an obligation to honour modern stories but also to provide avenues for modern creative artists, for composers, for designers and writers to create new things and that their voices are heard, as all too often that voice is stifled,” he says. “Audiences are very quick to judge and often judge prematurely, so I hope people will embrace Cloudstreet, because it’s going to be a great experience.”

After this look to the future of Australian opera, SOSA have committed one entire hemisphere of its 2016 season to one of the great opera icons of the past: Puccini. In September, a Puccini Spectacular will offer a glittering evening of the composer’s greatest hits including those much-loved arias from La Bohème, Tosca and Madama Butterfly. Programming an evening of surefire favourites is however more than merely a cynical ploy to get bums on seats; the performance also offers a valuable opportunity to showcase local talent. “We have a lot of sopranos in Adelaide,” Sexton jokes. SOSA has a long and laudable history of championing emerging singers, and so staging a major event that celebrates this heritage was an obvious way, Sexton tells me, to mark the company’s anniversary year. “In a very changeable operatic market nationally it’s important for singers to be heard,” he observes. “There’s a diminishing number of lead role opportunities all over the country, so this concert is a great platform for a lot of wonderful singers to be heard, and to keep their art and their skills really honed.”

Concluding the year in November, SOSA will present a revival production of one of Puccini’s greatest accomplishments, Tosca. Originally directed by Australian theatre doyen Michael Blakemore nearly 20 years ago, this traditional interpretation, featuring an opulent set and exquisitely crafted costumes evoking Rome of the 1800s, was a co-production with Welsh National Opera. SOSA have not staged the production in 16 years, and Sexton has been waiting for just the right occasion to programme this jewel in the company’s repertoire. “It’s just such great music, a fantastic showpiece particularly for the lead three characters: a gripping dramatic triangle.” Staying true to the company’s ideals, Sexton has selected local artists for those all important principal roles: Kate Ladner as Floria Tosca, Rosario La Spina as Mario Cavaradossi and Mario Bellanova as Baron Scarpia. Staging such a well-heeled and lavish production completes SOSA’s year-long exploration of the many facets of opera today, Sexton says. “This is grand opera as people might imagine it. It’s grand on every scale and just a very exciting production that ticks all those boxes. It’s really important to have something like that in the season.”   

Full details of State Opera of South Australia’s 2016 season and tickets are available now.