The Song Company has eclectic tastes and ambitions. Later this year they perform a concert of English Renaissance choral works, and another featuring 19 newly commissioned songs by Australian composers. Currently the company, which has a new lease on life after a significant donor intervened when it went into voluntary administration earlier this year, is presenting this program of 1980s pop songs book-ending the titular chamber opera, Mind Over Matter. The former are delightfully arranged and performed, but the opera verges on nonsensical, and fails to engage either musically or comically.

Antony Pitts, Mind Over MatterAntony Pitts in The Song Company’s Mind Over Matter. Photo © Nick Gilbert

With luxuriant hair and white suit reminiscent of a mature Bryan Ferry (Roxy Music’s former frontman), The Song Company’s Artistic Director, Antony Pitts, provided piano accompaniment for a vocal quintet for the first song, Joe Jackson’s Steppin’ Out. He then joined them for an a cappella interpretation of a-ha’s a-ha, before conducting a more complex arrangement of Tears for Fears’ Mad World, which was reminiscent of Gary Jules’ stripped-back 2001 cover version.

Dressed in over-sized, mostly loud suits typical of the 80s, the singers were Ethan Taylor, whose pure tenor shone in brief leading parts, sopranos Anna Sandström and Pip Dracakis, baritone Nathan Lay and countertenor Maximilian Riebl. The latter performed a fourth song solo with Pitts on piano. Like the program’s other retro hits, Kate Bush’s poignant Running Up That Hill is quality pop to begin with, but here, the minimalist arrangement and Riebl’s exquisite, expressive voice put through a slight reverb effect, made it one of the best musical experiences I’ve had all year.

The Song Company's Mind Over MatterPip Dracakis in The Song Company’s Mind Over Matter. Photo © Nick Gilbert

After this spine-tingling peak, the program stalled as Mind Over Matter, which Pitts wrote in 1993 for European Chamber Opera, waxed nonsensical about artificial intelligence, human identity and relationships. It began interestingly enough with Pitts’ solo piano prelude, which perhaps suggests a stream of data merged with the New York bustle and jazz of Gershwin. He was then joined by Maggie Chen for the busy piano-for-four hands score. She and Pitt also voiced the opera’s two elevators.

Their speaking parts ranged from merely announcing floor numbers to slightly more sophisticated observations, as the supercomputer of Mind Over Matter’s corporate office building becomes sentient. This occurs through a mix of espionage, mistaken identity, sudden romance and two identical briefcases being repeatedly mixed up on the barest of sets: essentially two low platforms representing the elevators. It’s a modern tale that obviously draws on the conventions of operatic farce, but lacks the genuine comedy, irresistible music and appealing characters of a Barber of Seville, for example.

The Song Company's Mind Over MatterPip Dracakis in The Song Company’s Mind Over Matter. Photo © Nick Gilbert

Taylor (Doctor Phil T. Reezon) was least convincing as an actor, while Riebl (Professor Karl Rime) and Sandström (Anna) did the best they could with this unrewarding material. In a minor role, Lay (the boss disguised as a guard) made his biggest impact toward the end as a calm voice of reason that hinted at German lieder gravitas thanks to his warm, controlled baritone. We quickly plunged back into farce, however, as the previously rarely seen Dracakis (Mabel) appeared after the show’s only costume change, sporting a shimmering jumpsuit and zapping the other characters senseless with an unseen force – she had been taken over by the sentient supercomputer.

After Mind Over Matter the cast gathered for one final pop song, Wang Chung’s Dance Hall Days. Again, it was a pleasing arrangement with piano accompaniment, and everyone delivered their vocal parts with confidence. If only the program had been entirely made up of such smartly interpreted songs from the 80s.

Mind Over Matter will be performed at the Newcastle Conservatorium on September 5 and The Independent Theatre, North Sydney on September 7


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