March 2019 sees what is being hailed as one of the most exciting theatrical events of the year on stage at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.
Moisés Kaufman’s Tony nominated play 33 Variations will star Oscar, Emmy, Tony and Golden Globe winning actress Ellen Burstyn making her Australian debut and will feature a stunning line up of talent including Lisa McCune, William McInnes, Helen Morse, Francis Greenslade, Toby Truelove and Andre de Vanny.
Burstyn plays Katherine Brandt, a musicologist devoted to uncovering the mystery and motivation behind Beethoven’s Diabelli Variations, a series of 33 variations on an ordinary waltz.
Moving between past and present, the play interweaves Beethoven’s (William McInnes) struggle to complete his masterpiece with Katherine’s journey to understand the composer’s obsession. Meanwhile, Katherine’s daughter (Lisa McCune) seeks to connect with her mother as Katherine faces the greatest challenge of her life.
In this season of performances directed by Gary Abrahams, Melbourne-based pianist and well-known musician Andrea Katz will be bringing Beethoven’s score to life. A pianist, accompanist and vocal coach of extraordinary versatility, Argentinian-born Katz has always been equally at home with Chamber Music and Art Song as well as Grand Opera.
Prior to becoming an Australian resident in 1990 she studied first at the School of Music of the National University of San Juan and later in Paris, London and Jerusalem. Since moving to Australia, most of the major music organisations have had the benefit of her expertise; Opera Australia, Victorian Opera, Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, Perth and Brisbane Festivals and the Sydney Omega Ensemble just to name a few. She has also collaborated in recital with many of Australia’s finest singers and instrumentalists including baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, sopranos Emma Matthews and Yvonne Kenny, cellist David Pereira and violinists Pekka Kuusisto and Gil Shaham.
I recently caught up with Andrea to discuss her excitement about being involved with such an unusual project and her love of performing and promoting chamber music in Australia.
DH: Can you give us some personal and musical insight into Beethoven’s witty music?
AK: I’m very excited about these performances. A lot of musicological research has gone into the writing of the play. The Diabelli Variations was one of Beethoven’s latest compositions, not really a traditional set of variations as he treats the ‘simple’ theme with humour, derision, reverence and contempt. It is an extraordinary piece of music and includes one very complex, long and terrifying fugue.
How do music and theatre interplay on the stage?
Even though not all of the variations are included (it takes 50 minutes to perform them) the music is the glue that holds the story together. I am on the stage for the whole performance and provide not only musical examples but a kind of punctuation between scenes and characters.
What is it like working with some of the big stars of stage and screen?
I’m enjoying working with them all, particularly Ellen Burstyn. She has just turned 86 and the role is very demanding so she is a bit of an inspiration on many levels! There has been a total absence of ego during the work process. At the first rehearsal Ellen said, “is everyone as terrified as I am?”, which immediately put everyone in the room at ease. I was also very impressed with the first read-through of the play. I thought it was already close to a finished product. The characters were very developed and there was so much nuance already present. Everything we’ve managed to add since that initial rehearsal seems like a bonus.
You are known to have a passion for chamber music and particularly art song. Where did this interest come from?
I grew up listening to recital works by Victoria de Los Angeles, Schwarzkopf and Fischer-Diskau to name a few. But I can pinpoint the moment I thought I’d like to explore this music which was when I heard Gerald Moore play the first few notes of Brahms’ “Deine blaues Auge”.
How did you come to be involved in the Melbourne-based “Songmakers Australia?”
It all started as a casual conversation with Graham Johnson in London. I was on my way to Australia for the first time and he said, “You’ll have to do something about Lieder in Oz…” The ensemble is modelled on his famous Songmakers’ Almanac and it took me 20 years and a move to Melbourne to start it. We have been going strong for 7 years, with many concerts planned for this year including our first Schubertiade.
Why do you think the performance and study of art song are so important to young singers in this country?
Lieder and Art Song are really miniature operas and a great way to develop good singing technique, diction, musicianship and expression without the risks of singing “too big, too soon.” Also, you cannot hide behind sets and props, you really have to come up with the goods, but only for a few minutes. By the time you get to your first scenes and arias you are well prepared.
What more can we do to promote the study of and passion for art song?
I think at a grass roots level we are doing a lot. We need the big institutions and promoters to manifest real interest in the genre. It should be considered as important as string quartets and trios, but very seldom we see proper Lieder recitals and artists as part of concert seasons. At the most they get famous opera singers and a concert pianist together and call it a “Liederabend.” It should also be part of University curriculum for singers and pianists. Every University in Europe has a Lieder and collaborative piano stream.
What do you say to singers who profess they only sing opera and that the study of art song is irrelevant?
Sometimes there is very little you can do to change their minds, as it is with pianists who refuse to play chamber music. In my opinion you can often hear in their performances the results of an incomplete musical education.
33 Variations plays from March 7 at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre.
Deborah Humble interviewed Andrea Katz for this piece. Carol van Opstal will review the play for Classic Melbourne, so watch these pages for the review!