Interviews – Post-Opera Company’s artistic director Bernard Leon

This interview was published on the AU on 16/06/2014 and can be viewed here.

Lillian chats with local non-profit Post-Opera Company’s artistic director Bernard Leon about his theatre company, their show Faure Project: Fragments of our Hearts, the Australian Opera scene and why opera is an important part of our cultural landscape.

Tell us a bit about the Post-Opera Company and what it sets out to achieve?

The main idea for the organisation is to create a character and a definition to Australian opera. I don’t find that opera truly has an Australian sound and there is a need for us to create an Australian sound, an Australian language.

What would you say is the current Australian opera identity, and what do you want it to be?

It doesn’t look much into Australian culture in the sense of our history. In general, there are either people who think that Australia, in light of the western culture, Australia should have been more European, a whiter country. There should be more operas like the European operas. At the same time, the left think that Australian music should be new with no culture. Australian music and culture should be a culture that is a combination of every culture. Is Australian culture a mixture or juxtaposition of different cultures? Perhaps we will see in the future. At the moment I believe the culture in Melbourne is positive, Australia is slowly evolving their social and cultural identity.

Would you say there are any productions that are purely Australian?

There are a couple of Australian companies that are truly revolutionary when it comes to their production in the sense that they want to show what an evolved Australian society is like, how they think and what their ideas are. But in general, I personally feel that there is something missing culturally.

Something that you can’t figure out until you see it?

The language: the musical language, the production language, is very European at the moment. I feel that we see opera as a play and everything is sung in a play. The origin of opera came from opus, which is a term for work. In its origin it was meant to be a combination of all art forms. People forget the idea that opera can be anything that we want it to be as long as it’s expressing something that is important. The reason we dance, we speak, or sing is all because of our desire to express something we cannot directly say to someone in words.

The Post-Opera Company is a fairly new organisation, how did it come about?

I wanted to start the organisation last year, but I hadn’t found the right people to work with. The most important thing about this company is the need for us to discuss ideas rather than jumping straight into a production. An arts company is a society. If we can’t discuss important issues in our society there is no point of doing theatre, because there is nothing to talk about. There is no point of putting on a show purely for entertainment and to sell tickets. I grew a lot as an artist in Melbourne because this place made me realise the need for me to look for something that I want to express; instead of just being a performer. I’m trained in classical singing and we pretty much train to be athletes.

Your Facebook page about me section states that Post-Opera is an operatic movement that aims to re-define opera through the process of breaking apart from it’s contemporary paradigm. How does the company do so?

Opera has to be on a stage, have an orchestra; a beginning and it has to be sung throughout to the end. It’s all really about a sung drama. I believe that opera should be whatever it wants to be. It will become something when it’s ready to become. We are still under an experimental mode. It’s an old language that is still powerful, if you know how to use it properly. I do not see any point of theatre trying to imitate movies or television because opera is different. That is why opera and straight theatre is something that still needs to be fought for. If we lose it then we lose a language that is so powerful.

Faure Projects: Reflections of the Past/Fragments of our Hearts is dubbed as song theatre. What is the meaning of that term?

Song Theatre as it was written most of the time is seen as an accompaniment to something visual, E.g. in movies. We rarely see the visual side of a song. In the earlier time, music theatre was coined by opera. In the German period, it was Wagner who coined the term music drama and old music theatre. After that, opera has adapted a different terminology; it was never meant to be called opera. Today, we kind of assume everything else that’s opera is opera. Opera is just a word; it means work. Now, it has changed to something else, we just see opera as a name with no meaning. It goes with a certain style of singing. Everything can truly be opera if you want it to be and I find that there’s much more potential for the genre.

What’s the style of the show, musically and visually? When someone comes to see your show what can they expect to see?

What you will see is an experience, the reason why I use the term experience is because these songs are not meant to be theatrical, and they are not meant to be big. It was originally designed to be set in a Parisian Salon; a small society to listen and to air something that will probably be seen once in your lifetime. With this kind of space we acknowledge that we are trying to recreate in this space (60 seat theatre at Gasworks Theatre) is that experience. We do not want an experience where you see a straightforward performance to the audience.

Why the Gasworks Theatre?

When it comes to theatre the greatest asset you can have is lighting. You can have almost no props but lighting is the most important thing these days. The lighting at Gasworks provides suited our show.

It’s not just a theatre, but part of a cultural centre.

I find it quite interesting that it’s in a place that’s not a traditional space. My experiences of putting on shows are always enjoyable doing productions that are not really meant for theatre. I believe theatre should not be just on a space that is purely created for it. Theatre is changing, television and movies are getting bigger and bigger and I believe theatre should get smaller and smaller. It should be more personal. Theatre must be small because it is a live communication where you can see a live person actually trying to say something to you. The bigger it is the further it travels it goes, the more distant it becomes.

Is the narrative telling the story from one person’s perspective or through the eyes of different individuals? (Who’s life and past are we looking into?)

It is a past but it is not streamlined in the sense that it’s a character. We want to represent everyone. That’s the reason why we do a recital of the vernacular translation as well. We’re going to include monologues and dances. When music is written, for example, as a poem or lyric, it’s an idea of someone’s past and emotional experiences. Something they wrote as a text, lyric or poem will be adapted to music. And that lyric will be the representation of their past.

So not just how it relates to you but how it related to them at the time of writing.

The use of certain words will show the detail that is missing.

How are you promoting the show to appeal to a younger audience?

To not be pretentious, to be truthful and to listen. The most important thing for artists, because we have so much desire to express ourselves, but rarely want to listen to people, is to listen. We grow from listening and absorbing information. There is so much colour in life. Unless you are observant enough of the life that is passing around you, you will not be able to express life in it’s most powerful.

Opera Australia sees opera as a vital part of Australia’s cultural landscape. Why do you think it’s an important to the Australian society?

Opera represents the ideal of the arts. It’s not just the opera, because opera is really an art form that is all art forms. It incorporates everything. Opera Australia sees opera as a Western opera. I see opera as art. I don’t think it’s possible to separate them.

How do you think bigger organisations, such as Opera Australia and the Arts Centre Melbourne can encourage a younger generation to attend the Opera?

They should be more open. At the moment, especially with classical music and classical theatre and classical opera, there is a sense that the hierarchy of the old is better than the new. I don’t think in a perfectly liberal and democratic society you can actually put one person so much higher than everybody else. Unfortunately, that is how the industry runs. I think that it is sad they don’t give young people a chance to say something because they may be younger than you, but at the same time, they have something to say. I wish theatre would be more open and honest and not treat everyone else like children.

What is it about Opera that appeals to you?

It’s bigger than life. It evokes a greater part of imagination that is in our mind that we want to express. For example, there are classical songs that make opera, I daresay, a superior art form than just classical songs. Once it creates an idea that is probably beyond words and singing and music. It involves all the things that make us human; it is the combination of art forms that makes opera really beautiful.

What other projects has the organisation been a part of?

The future is not set in stone. Next year will be the beginning of our experimental project where we try to create a stronger identity of what a post-opera is. At the moment we are still trying to learn as a company. It is difficult to market, for people to decide and understand. Once we are able to present something that is solid, we will start to see what works and doesn’t work. At the moment the company is learning from experience, compared to learning from teaching. In order to learn from experience, you have to try all of the possibilities. We learn from errors. The reason we want to learn like this is before there are so many errors we will never find if we don’t try. We have to keep on going until we get it right. We want it to be right for the audience. The greatest joy in making theatre is when an audience member gets it.

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