Cabaret on the small screen? Together, Apart

Digital Illustration for ‘Together, Apart’ by Melbourne artist Jess Reddi Coronell, commissioned by Gertrude Opera. You can follow her work on Instagram and Twitter.

By Stella Joseph-Jarecki (Enquiries: stellamusicwriter.wordpress.com)

Together, Apart was available for streaming between the 23rd-24th October, as part of Gertrude Opera’s online Yarra Valley Opera Festival. (Although I recently interviewed soprano Morgan Carter who was involved in the festival, I was not asked to write this review. I purchased my own ticket.)

The work was composed by Nicholas Gentile, with libretto by Lincoln Hall. I’m always keen to learn the backstory of newly composed operatic/ music theatre/ cabaret works, so I was disappointed by the lack of accompanying material on the Gertrude Opera website. Program notes and and a track listing could easily have been made available to ticket holders after purchase. I think it’s an important element for organisations to consider in this new frontier of online offerings, as a festival atmosphere cannot be created physically (for now). Accompanying material can help bridge this gap and build audience anticipation and understanding.

Together, Apart was presented in a direct-to-camera format, and featured the talents of four singers, accompanied by Glenn Amer (piano) and Flora Carbo (saxophone). As the work was pieced together during Melbourne Stage 4 lockdown, the singers filmed their portions during individual time slots, with the backing track playing in their ear. Unsurprisingly there were a handful of moments where the synching of multiple vocal parts was a bit off-centre, but overall the sound and video quality was high. I must commend Gertrude Opera on managing to create content safely during this time.

While described as a cabaret opera on the Gertrude Opera website, Together, Apart could also be described as a music theatre song cycle, sung by four classically-trained performers. The diction and clarity displayed by the entire ensemble was impressive, not always an easy thing to achieve when singing in English with a heavier classical voice. Soprano Georgia Wilkinson especially impressed on this front, with an unforced emotional presence while limited to performing while seated.

Georgia Wilkinson (left) and Nigel Huckle (right). Image credit: Gertrude Opera

The piece consisted of an hour of songs strung together in an unbroken sequence (with no distinct ‘story’, rather a series of fragmented moments). As the singers were seated for the entire hour with no variation on the black background with visual effects, sets or props, it was hard to maintain steely focus. The piece may have benefitted from being trimmed to forty minutes, with a greater focus on the ensemble pieces and more engaging solo numbers.

Highlights included the very sweet and nuanced duet written for two female voices, sung by sopranos Georgia Wilkinson and Morgan Carter. The characters meet in a café where one works, and the other sits and writes. The two voices were well paired, with the brightness and clarity of Wilkinson’s voice contrasting satisfyingly with the darker, supple strength of Carter’s. It was a refreshingly understated romantic moment. (And LGBTQI representation is always a nice thing to see!)

Another lighthearted moment was the interplay between Wilkinson and tenor Nigel Huckle. Huckle was given multiple ballads over the course of the hour, but displayed a deft comedic touch as the two characters playfully discussed whether he would bring her to a desert island if he could only bring three things (food and water excepted, of course). Instead of a direct proclamation of love, the man decides to name sunscreen as one of his three things- he doesn’t burn in the sun, but she does.

Lastly, I greatly enjoyed the sung conversation between two friends, performed by Huckle and baritone Sam Ward. I felt that Ward was under-utilised during the hour. Baritone stereotyping must’ve reared its head when the piece was being written, as Ward was cast as a sleazy figure in a song heavy on baseball/ sex metaphors (first base, second base, homerun, scorecards, etc), and as a terrible housemate receiving a lecture for being a slob and having noisy sex.

During this duet he was an engaging on-screen presence, in the more serious role of a friend who is running out of patience. On the other end of the phone is his old friend, seeking advice on how to proceed with a problem; he is ‘equally’ in love with two women, one of them the baritone’s ex-girlfriend. Golly.

An online opera festival which programs three recently composed works is certainly an exciting step in the right direction. I’m looking forward to seeing how arts organisations continue to evolve with the increased focus on digital platforms.

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