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Lyndon Terracini: Wagner and Rugby

Written By The Wagnerian on Wednesday 6 July 2011 | 5:53:00 pm

Lyndon Terracini is tackling some big challenges, so it helps that the man charged with dragging opera into the 21st century can discuss rugby league and the Ring Cycle with equal authority, writes Elicia Murray over at the Sidney Morning Herald

The fat lady has sung. And if Lyndon Terracini continues to get his way, she won't get an encore until she at least shifts some weight.

Lest the man charged with overseeing the future of opera in Australia be accused of sexism, he is quick to point out that his shape-up-or-ship-out message applies to all performers, regardless of gender.

''If you're seeing a couple making out and one of them is obese, who wants to watch that?'' he says with a theatrical grimace. ''It's obscene. You just think, 'Jeez, for Chrissakes, don't let the children see that'.''

Terracini's views on how performers should look will outrage some and surprise others who still associate opera with super-sized sopranos in body armour and viking horns. But for the artistic director of Opera Australia, who next month unveils the program for his first season, that's exactly the point.

If casting ''triple threats'' who can sing, act and look good helps spark an interest among people who think opera is only for the old and rich, then he makes no apologies for upping the unemployment rate of overweight singers.

''You go to a movie and you see people who look exactly right for that role,'' he says. ''They're consummate actors and they're completely involved in what they are doing, so their performance is totally believable.

''That's what I'd like in opera: for people to be fabulous singers, look wonderful and be completely and totally absorbed in their character. If you can't get off the seat, if you've got to sit on a rock all night, who believes that?''

Terracini, 61, enjoyed a successful career as an opera singer before shifting into arts administration. His speaking voice retains a velvety richness that hints at the baritone power beneath, and although it has been six years since he appeared on stage, he still has a showman's flair for delivery.

Since his appointment in 2009 it has become Terracini's mission to make a style of musical theatre created to entertain Italian court audiences four centuries ago relevant to 21st-century Australians. ''I think in classical music we can become so religious about protecting the past that we cease to see the possibilities for the future,'' he says.

Opera companies worldwide face falling ticket sales, tough competition for government and private funding, ageing audiences and shifting demographics. Government funding accounts for about 30 per cent of Opera Australia's revenue - a much smaller proportion than many European opera bodies - making box-office success crucial. Audiences fell 16 per cent last year, creating a $500,000 deficit - the second successive year in the red.

Terracini brings a combination of artistic and administrative experience, having sung in Australia and overseas, including an eight-year stint in Italy, before running the Queensland Music Festival and the Brisbane Festival.

His vision extends beyond how his stars should look, embracing structural, technological and financial aspects of how the national opera company should operate.

Before he was appointed, the company was in turmoil. Mezzo-soprano Fiona Janes had accused the former Opera Australia musical director, Richard Hickox, of leading the company into ''an abyss of mediocrity'', a view publicly supported by a group of disgruntled artists and patrons.

After Hickox's sudden death in late 2008, the board reviewed its management structure, reintroducing the role of a full-time artistic director to work with the chief executive and conductor.

Terracini says that opera once drove innovation on stage and he wants it to reclaim some of that creative ground.

He recently launched Opera on Sydney Harbour, which will debut in March, with an $11.5 million production of La Traviata on a floating stage off Mrs Macquarie's Point.

Meshe Kizart to perform Mimi
''I'm not saying we do this for every opera but there will be single examples of presenting opera a very, very different way, so that we are identifying as far as possible the many opportunities for what an opera company can be in the 21st century,'' he says.

The harbour launch featured holograms and the company is exploring the potential of what Terracini calls ''hologramatic'' sound, which promises a richer, more immersive aural experience.

Opera Australia has followed the New York Metropolitan Opera's lead with high-definition filming of its productions, making opera accessible for the price of a movie ticket. Next year, there will be discount tickets to shows for children and family groups.

The opera company has embraced social networking and last month it joined forces with Sydney creative ensemble Polyartistry to present Polyopera, three mini-opera films with a modern twist. Don Giovanni got a rap makeover and Lakme received tabla and sitar treatment.

Terracini, who grew up on Sydney's northern beaches - ''I was the only wog surfer at Long Reef, Dee Why and Freshwater'' - acknowledges the challenge. (While he was ridiculed for his Italian-sounding surname at school, he is a fourth-generation Australian who only visited Italy for the first time aged 30.)

In an effort to build stronger ties with western Sydney, a new community choirs program will teach opera to singers from the suburbs. If all goes to plan, they will then come together to present a free concert at the Opera House.

''If they like it and want to continue to participate, that's fantastic.'' Terracini says. ''I don't want to be evangelical about this. I grew up in the Salvation Army, so I know all that stuff backwards, but I do think it's important for as many people as possible to have as many artistic and cultural experiences as possible and they make their own choices.''

Out of this cross-pollination with different cultures and music styles, Terracini hopes a new Australian aesthetic will emerge, one where local identity is paramount, an irreverent sense of humour is prized and the opera that comes out of Europe or the US is not automatically viewed as superior.

''I've been to operas in Europe that had shit acting, shit singing and were shit productions,'' he says. ''Opera Australia performances are of a much higher standard than a lot of those supposedly important opera houses.''

He believes Australia's outdoor lifestyle makes our performers more gregarious and less inhibited. If those qualities can be amplified on an operatic stage, he hopes the results will appeal to audiences overseas, too.

He cites last year's production of Bliss, directed by Neil Armfield, and Gale Edwards' production of Puccini's La Boheme, about to open in Sydney after a successful Melbourne run, as examples of what this Australian style might be.

Terracini breaks into song describing a scene in La Boheme where four male characters embrace. ''Eh buona sera,'' he booms, arms outstretched. ''It's as though they're in a rugby scrum. You feel that warmth coming from the stage.''

The rugby reference is apt. His conversation is filled with sporting references and he once invited premiership-winning rugby league coach Wayne Bennett to give a pep talk to the Queensland Orchestra.

He has praised AFL boss Andrew Demetriou's efforts to expand the game into western Sydney and wants opera audiences to look more like ''the crowd at Bulldogs rugby league matches and less like the Australian cricket team''.

Racial diversity is encouraged on stage, too. In La Boheme, the striking African-American soprano, Takesha Meshe Kizart , stars as Mimi opposite South Korean tenor Ji-Min Park's Rodolfo.

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