As we Melbournians undergo another bout of lockdown restrictions we definitely need something to raise our spirits. Thanks to Victorian Opera’s Youth Chorus Ensemble (VOYCE) and their director Angus Grant, we not only have an opportunity to have a good laugh but also discover how young first-year university students might deal with having their wings clipped – just as they take flight from the pressures of VCE and enter an era of what is commonly hailed as “the best years of your life”. The young singers featured in the four five-minute Opera Bytes episodes revealed that some were making the most of their time by learning new technology skills while honing their artistic ones.
Two stars of this captivating mini-series, Chloe James and Isaac Burgess, both suffered the curtailing of their social life just as new friendships were being forged, as well as losing the pleasure of singing with others. Angus Grant to the rescue. He had already worked with VOYCE members to film a recording of a Purcell choral work from their homes – Hear my Prayer can be found as a bonus on the Virtual Victorian Opera website – and was inspired to create a series for young people performed under isolation restrictions. He sees it as “a piece for them which is about them”.
Each episode is entirely sung, partly in recitative exchanges, in a blend of operatic singing and colloquial language. Grant describes his use of Australian vernacular as a juxtaposition of “banal domestic language with operatic expression for humour but then occasionally for pathos”. He is undoubtedly correct when he claims “I think the words spag bol, rumpus room, basmati, Polyfilla and spunk have all made their operatic debut” – not to mention trackie daks! The result provides relatable immediacy and generates sympathy for the situation of young people in iso.
A dial tone reveals friends JT (Olivia White) and CS (Chloe James) as they navigate the challenges of technology and diet, and ponder how Chloe can pursue a budding relationship with classmate Hugo (Isaac Burgess). Both sopranos sing with a fresh, clear tone, and Chloe James gives it her tongue-in-cheek all in an aria of longing that ends with an explosion of love heart emojis.
Episode 2 introduces Hugo, the love interest she had met two classes before lockdown, and animated friend Dylan (Peter Lejins). The pretext for getting together is preparing a scene of Gothic horror for their university course work. The horror entails a scene of monumental embarrassment as Hugo draws on his own slightly less spectacular experiences to portray how an excess of alcohol, medication, fumes and fatigue can undermine possible romantic relationships. The Gothic quartet is surprisingly well-coordinated in terms of blend and comic dramatic intention. Spooky visual effects and Phoebe Briggs’ colourful piano accompaniment add to the fun.
Douglas Kelly sings the role of earnest teacher Dougall, who seeks to encourage the efforts of his students. In this episode several more members of VOYCE participate as ensemble work becomes increasingly complex, with realistic details combining to create a beautifully sung ode to student life – a highlight of the four episodes. And yet we still don’t know whether the goal has been achieved. Will Chloe and Hugo manage to find true love?
The final episode also ends with a cliffhanger. We are back with the original quartet as Chloe sings her COVID aria describing a list of alarming symptoms that culminate in the loss of her ability to smell the Byrani her dad was making with the last of the Costco basmati. Her friends make a diplomatic retreat, leaving Chloe and Hugo to have their virtual date as clouds of hearts drift upwards.
This collaboration between Angus Grant, visual designer and editor Peter Darby, and the talents of VOYCES and pianist Phoebe Briggs would have to be amongst the most rewarding original musical creations that have been produced in this age of uncertainty. More importantly, it provides an exciting platform for young singers. Opera Bytes is a delightful addition to Victorian Opera’s stable of freshly minted virtual offerings. More please!
Image Isaac Burgess as Hugo and Chloe James as Chloe. Image supplied.
Heather Leviston reviewed Victorian Opera Youth Chorus Ensemble’s Opera Bytes presented via the Virtual Victorian Opera’s website from June/July, 2020.