To launch its 2017 season, Victorian Opera has devised another piece of operatic theatre guaranteed to push boundaries in terms of both the art form and audience expectation. Following its successful 2015 production of Seven Deadly Sins, which combined the Brecht/Weill version with one commissioned from four Australian composers, Richard Mills has renewed his collaboration with the incomparable Meow Meow and director Cameron Menzies to create a second stimulating vehicle for the cabaret diva’s remarkable gifts with ‘Tis Pity: An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth. Tenor Kanen Breen, another performer renowned for musical excellence, transfixing physicality and an ability to mine comedic gold, is the ideal, dentally blessed partner for this Vaudevillian “romp through the ages”, as Menzies calls it.
Many of those unfamiliar with John Ford’s 1629 dark play of sibling incest and bloody carnage, would still recognise the title and be able to complete the ‘Tis Pity with She’s a Whore. This current take on the world’s oldest profession and those who practise it explores the intersection between the role of whore in its various manifestations and that of the entertainer. Both are commercial transactions that focus on “selling the skin and the teeth” (a phrase used in 1920’s Shanghai to describe prostitution). From Ancient Greece and Rome via the Dark and Middle Ages to more contemporary times, the exploitation of women is treated with sympathy, humour and a great deal of theatrical imagination within ten vignettes. Under Menzies’ direction this collaboration has resulted in seventy-five minutes of tightly coordinated exuberance. If there were any mishaps during the complicated staging on opening night, they were well disguised.
Initially, it was difficult to see how three male dancers and two energetic singer actors could possibly have enough floor space to contain their movements without appearing unduly cramped. The stage of Elisabeth Murdoch Hall is not exactly large and had to accommodate thirty-five members of Orchestra Victoria, a conductor on his podium, a raised acting area on each side and at the back of the stage, plus a moveable staircase. But everything flowed smoothly, thanks to disciplined, well-coordinated use of the space.
The costume changes were often ingenious as minimal transformations sought to maximize their effects. Some arresting visual images added further impact, especially when the Ur-Goddess appeared in glittering splendor on her lofty pedestal and a silver screen goddess strode onto the stage like a mythic female warrior, sword aloft – a Valkyrie, Boadicea and other heroines rolled into one. Between these scenes the human counterpart of a small Meow puppet, wielded by Breen, was revealed when scarlet ribbons bound and racked the reviled sinner in a vivid depiction of social control by religious hypocrites.
Projected images of Meow’s closed eyes, framed in two screens hanging against the crimson velvet background, were replaced by Brechtian-style announcements of scene changes and surtitles for translations of French and German lyrics. Surtitles for the English lyrics, which seemed to be more plentiful for the second performance, were particularly welcome when the sound bounced around an auditorium not designed for amplification. Although the volume level balance had been improved for the second performance certain details of the text were sometimes lost despite the lowered acoustic blinds and two performers with excellent diction. This might have been a bonus for the easily offended; The Syphilis Song lyrics seemed to precipitate the exit of four audience members on opening night. Whatever the reason for their early departure, they certainly missed out on some of the highlights. One occurred when members of the orchestra put aside their instruments to add their voices to the jackboot stamping and chanting of the Shame song. Contrasting moments of gentle intimacy, when Meow wove her music of the spheres spell with only piano accompaniment and when she sang her final goodnight against a softly pulsing orchestra and the ethereal sounds of the ondes Martenot, provided others.
Richard Mills’ score is a tuneful collection of styles that draws on the traditions of the show tune and Hollywood film music. It is immediately appealing and, for me, became even more so on a repeated listening. His instrumentation is full of interest and he has used the peculiar properties of the Ondes Martenot to add to the fun while introducing a dimension of other-worldliness with the instrument’s swooning slides. The penetrating ring of an alarm clock coupled with harsh lighting to signal scene changes emphasised the more brutal aspects of a working girl’s life.
Clearly, Mills has composed and arranged music to display the remarkable attributes of his singers to best advantage. His libretto too provides plenty of scope for them to inhabit a variety of personalities. Whether using a sultry chest register, breathy whispers, exhausted panting or operatic high notes, Meow invested her characterisations with alluring vocal colour. Her sexuality was seductive but leavened with humour and a poignant fragility that precluded any unsavoury coarseness. Breen’s tenor always very well projected and he too displayed an extensive palette of vocal colour and style. Both artists are fearless, totally committed performers.
‘Tis Pity may be confronting at times, but it is also hugely entertaining and delivered with enormous skill, abandon and artistic integrity. It also raises some timely questions regarding sexual politics, commerce and what it is to be human.
Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera’s production ‘Tis Pity at the Melbourne Recital Centre, February 4, 2017