Opera graduates have Sydney Harbour all aflutter

By Liz Banks-Anderson

German composer and opera great Richard Wagner coined a term that has come to define opera: gesamstkunstwerk, the total work of art.

Today, opera is evolving to entertain both its traditional and new audiences. Alumni from the Victorian College of the Arts and Melbourne Conservatorium of Music are leading this transition as performers on the contemporary Opera stage.

VCA graduate and baritone Simon Meadows has been cast as The Commissioner in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly as part of Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour.

The production, which will run from 21 March to 12 April, will test the boundaries of traditional opera and take a new approach with its unusual location, pulling opera into the 21st century by finding new audiences while offering a fresh take on one of the world’s most famous operas for devotees of the art.

Mr Meadows says there is no better way to use the natural spectacle of Sydney Harbour and engage the key asset of the cosmopolitan city than to draw new audiences to contemporary opera.

“Opera Australia is taking on a new approach, trying to make opera much more accessible. This is apparent in projects like Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, now in its third year,” Mr Meadows says.

He studied at the Victorian College of the Arts from 1991 to 1996, graduating with a BA (Music) and a Grad Dip (Opera). During that time, he was also the recipient of the Mabel Kent Singing Scholarship.

Mr Meadows says even during his studies, he believed what defined opera and what it meant to be an opera singer was transforming, and that singers needed to also be able to perform, dance and move expressively.

For Mr Meadows, his appreciation for opera developed from a young age. Always a fan of singing in the school choir, he says the first opera he saw on a school excursion in Year 10, The Turn Of The Screw, composed by Benjamin Britten, changed his life.

“I really enjoyed it, and from then on, I really developed an appreciation of opera and started singing more classical repertoire,” he says.

After finishing high school and moving to Melbourne, Mr Meadows was accepted into the VCA, where he says a strong sense of self-belief was instilled in him during his training, which proved to be a valuable asset.

“One thing I got from working with various teachers and artists at the VCA was that during peak times and the times of little, always keep believing in yourself,” he says.

Since graduating at the VCA, Mr Meadows has worked and travelled extensively and believes life experience is crucial to vocal development.

“My voice has taken time to really develop. A lot of that is to is due to staying focused, with personal maturity, travel and life experience,” he says.

Recent roles have included performing the role of Belcore in Donizetti’s L’Elisir D’Amore with UK company Opera Up Close last year.

He made his German debut singing the baritone solo in Swiss composer Frank Martin’s In Terra Pax at Berlin’s Heilige Kreuz Kirche, and then performed The Marquis D’Obigny in Melbourne Opera’s production of Verdi’s La Traviata.

Mr Meadows believes Australia is well positioned to lead efforts to extend opera from its traditional roots.

“Australia is in a great position with venues like the Myer Music Bowl to try different venues. In London, one of the companies I worked in had a theatre in the back of a pub!” he says.

Fellow VCA graduates Kathryn Radcliffe and Richard Hansen will also perform in the chorus of Madama Butterfly and are both looking forward to the opportunity.

Mr Hansen says the unique location and the sheer size of the production present a great opportunity.

“I’ve always enjoyed performing, being on stage and being in a show. It is good to combine both classical music and performance through opera,” he says.

Article was first published in Voice, Volume 10 Number 3 March 10 – April 13 2014

A version of this article originally appeared on Channel, the Faculty’s previous publishing platform.