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Gertrude Opera Yarra Valley Opera Festival: Together, Apart

by Heather Leviston

Premiered in 2015, Together, Apart describes the perilously fractured nature of human relationships, irrespective of the current pandemic. As a concept, it also has a special resonance with what so many of us feel during this physically distanced time.

This year, Gertrude Opera has brought a whole festival into our living rooms – or wherever you choose to access its array of outstanding on-line offerings. Some have been better suited to the digital format than others, but Together, Apart could arguably claim the distinction of being the most successful, so much so that it shows the desirability of making such performances a permanent fixture in future festivals. The thrill of participating in live performances might not be the same but the camera lends its own special intimacy – one that cannot be completely replicated in the theatre no matter how small the space. With the pandemic continuing into the foreseeable future, creative artists able to adapt swiftly to the new realities are best positioned to devise new works that mine the artistic potential of digital technology in exciting new ways.

Of the many elements that make Together, Apart so successful is the simplicity of the set-up. Four singers either together or apart – as it happens – portray the raw emotions of Nigel, Georgia Sam and Morgan as they navigate relationships that expose emotional vulnerabilities. Australian composer Nicholas Gentile has shaped the music to characterize the crucial moments of doubt and indecision, defiance and anger of Lachlan Hall’s lyrics.

The series of 16 songs begins with “Turn the Key” as Nigel leaves home – fear mixed with exhilaration as he embarks on a new life of independence and freedom. The piano accompaniment is simple, and the vocal and musical style plainly in the realm of musical theatre. Nigel Huckle was in his element, his attractive tenor animating soft poignant moments, and his easy delivery showing no sign of strain in the stirring climaxes. Although the complete libretto was available to download, the diction of all four singers was sufficiently clear for listeners to immerse themselves in the story being told without it or the subtitles that were so helpful for GO’s Kate Kelly the next day. Huckle set a fine example of score-free, emotionally direct communication.

Georgia Wilkinson also quickly established herself as an exceptional exponent of the musical theatre genre in the more lyrical “Little Moments” number that followed. The Sapphic nature of the encounter accentuates the uncertainties of ambiguous signals. The “tiny fleeting moment, a look” is enough to conjure hope and fear for what the future holds. Wilkinson brought total focus to the subtle emotional shifts in the lyrics, her voice beautiful in its gentle warmth and striking in its expressive sincerity. The soprano who won the 2019 Herald Sun Aria has the versatility to pare back her formidable instrument to maintain an appropriate style without losing tonal quality. She is a class act and one of the many outstanding artists who have had to deal with a major setback just when they were about to take an important step forward in their career.

The contrasting third song, “Home run”, is introduced by a jazzy cabaret style “bah do wah” chorus accompanied by Glenn Amer on piano and Flora Carbo on saxophone. The latter was used sparingly but to good effect in this and several other songs. As the trio comments on the on action, baritone Sam Wood’s persona was firmly established as a callous love ‘em and leave ‘em kind of guy who unleashes his “primal instinct” to hit a “Home run”. Sultry and knowing, the trio punctuated the conquest narrative with smooth, confident harmony.

The embryonic relationship of the second number is further developed in a duet for the two sopranos, “Taken hold”. Morgan Carter’s roles are more dominant in nature – a feature reflected in her dress: glittering bright red in contrast to Georgia’s shimmering black, but both with a note of cabaret sophistication. The red works particularly well for the aggressive anxiety of the up tempo number “Swipe” and the feisty “Watch this woman”.

Humour comes most to the fore in “An intervention”, where Sam is attacked by his three housemates for not paying his bills, being messy and having too much noisy sex at midnight. The vigorous energy of this number made an effective foil to the quiet unaccompanied entry of Georgia for “When time stood still”. It was a highlight as Wilkinson invested the surging simple melodic lines with the passion of regret at missing her chance by, perhaps, being “scared of love”. The finale of this absorbing one-hour work ends on a positive note as all four “yearn to risk it all” if given a chance.

Linda Thompson directed with an imaginative, judiciously light touch, using a range of details to develop character and heighten tension. Sparing use of mobile phones, the complementary dresses and suits, an unbuttoned collar, an askew tie, a slouch, a shrug, a small gesture, a glare, a direct gaze – all contributed to the substantial dramatic impact.

Happily, the talents of the creative team and performing artists have combined to produce a permanent record of an exceptional production that can be enjoyed by an even wider audience in the future. More please.

Digital illustration for Together, Apart by Melbourne artist Jess Reddi Coronell, commissioned by Gertrude Opera. Image supplied

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Heather Leviston reviewed Gertrude Opera’s production of “Together, Apart” via her laptop. The work was streamed as part of Gertrude Opera’s Yarra Valley Opera Festival in October, 2020.

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