With a 2024 season featuring five contemporary operas – four of which are by Australian composers, two of which are brand-new, and two of which will be presented in Melbourne – Opera Australia’s new Artistic Director Jo Davies is making it plain that the company will be changing direction under her watch.
What’s more, her inaugural OA season includes three women conductors and three women directors – an improvement in the number of women creatives in prior seasons.
Opera Australia’s 2024 Sydney Summer Season, announced in June, was programmed by Lindy Hume before Davies came on board and features La traviata, Orpheus & Eurydice, The Magic Flute, Idomeneo and Theodora in Concert.
Davies doesn’t take up her position officially until next month, but the British director has programmed the rest of the company’s 2024 season.
Speaking to Limelight, she admits that programming the season was “very challenging, unquestionably”, given that she wasn’t in Australia.
“But I had an amazing time when I was [in Australia] in February and March, where I met a whole host of really fabulous creatives. And I really tried to connect as much as I could with different organisations and different people, so that had a massive influence on all of the programming choices that I’ve made.”
“That trip was totally invaluable to me, to just really connect with the cultural landscape in both Melbourne and Sydney. I spent time in Melbourne, too, which I thought was really, really important, and that was hugely helpful.”
There was anger and frustration in Melbourne over OA’s 2023 season, which didn’t include any fully staged operas. Davies knew this was an issue she had to address.
“My brother is based in Melbourne with his two kids, and for the last 15 to 20 years I’ve been coming to visit, so I knew [about the problem with the 2023 season]. My brother said, ‘Well, there was nothing to see.’ So bringing fully-staged opera back to Melbourne is really important to me.”
With the State Theatre at Arts Centre Melbourne closed for major renovations, OA will perform at four different Melbourne venues – Margaret Court Arena, the Palais Theatre, Hamer Hall and Federation Square. It will also tour to the Geelong Arts Centre.
Davies says that the closure of the State Theatre has presented OA with “a creative opportunity to expand outside of our traditional home and into theatres and spaces across and beyond the city, increasing access to world-class performances for those living regionally. We will continue to explore alternative and non-conventional venues while our traditional venue options remain limited.”
The Melbourne season opens in May with a production of Tosca at Margaret Court Arena, announced in September. First staged in the UK by Opera North and directed by Edward Dick, it will star Karah Son as Tosca. South Korean tenor Young Woo Kim and Diego Torre will share the role of Cavaradossi, with Robert Hayward and Warwick Fyfe alternating as Scarpia.
The production will then open at the Sydney Opera House in June, with Giselle Allen, who originated the role for Opera North, as Tosca. Karah Son will also give some performances. Young Woo Kim and Adam Smith will play Cavaradossi, with Gevorg Hakobyan and Warwick Fyfe as Scarpia.
The Joan Sutherland Theatre at the Sydney Opera House is a very different space to Margaret Court Arena, but Davies is confident the production will work in both venues, thanks to Tom Scutt’s set design.
“It felt important for us – and actually for me – to take it to Melbourne first, which is what we’re doing,” she says.
In July, OA will present a new production of Missy Mazzoli’s 2016 opera Breaking the Waves, based on Lars von Trier’s controversial 1996 film, at Melbourne’s Hamer Hall. This marks the first time that Opera Australia has worked with a contemporary, international woman composer.
“I think Missy Mazzoli is one of the most exciting female composers around at the moment; she’s just incredible. She is currently writing a new opera for the Met that will open, I think, in 2026 or 2027. And we are also looking to collaborate with her on a new work to open in Sydney, which I think would be really exciting. So it felt really important to me to bring one of her most popular works to Melbourne,” says Davies.
“What I’m most thrilled about is that Anne-Louise Sarks [the Artistic Director of Melbourne Theatre Company] feels the same way about the piece as I do and is going to direct it, and Jessica Cottis is going to conduct it. I’m really thrilled that we’ve got those two women directing and conducting a piece by a female composer, so that feels a really strong team.”
The cast will include American soprano Jennifer Black as Bess and Australian-raised baritone Duncan Rock as Lars.
In October, Melbourne will see a new opera from Australian composer, Sir Jonathan Mills. Based on Murray Bail’s Miles Franklin Award-winning novel Eucalyptus, it features a libretto by Meredith Oakes. Part Australian fairy tale, part musical evocation of the Australian bush, Eucalyptus will be conducted by Tahu Matheson and directed by Michael Gow at the Palais Theatre. Australian baritone Simon Meadows and Australian soprano Desiree Frahn will play father and daughter.
“This is a commission that Opera Australia already had running with Jonathan. We are now collaborating with Victorian Opera, Perth Festival and Brisbane Festival [to stage it], which I think is fantastic,” says Davies.
“It’s a very Australian story and Jonathan’s written an amazing score, I think it’s very exciting that we’re collaborating with Victorian Opera, which extends the collaboration we have in the Sydney summer with Idomeneo. That’s a key focus for us in Melbourne – to really try and collaborate with other organisations.”
A Puccini Gala, celebrating the 100th anniversary of Giacomo Puccini’s death, will also be staged at Hamer Hall in July. The Melbourne-exclusive will star Nicole Car alongside a cast of leading singers, including Peter Coleman-Wright and Julie Lea Goodwin, performing repertoire from his operas including La bohème, Turandot, Tosca and Madama Butterfly.
The Sydney Winter Season begins in June with Joe Twist’s Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan, which had its world premiere at the 2022 Adelaide Festival where it received a five-star review from Limelight.
Featuring a libretto by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas, it explores the infamous drowning of Dr George Ian Ogilvie Duncan and the alleged police cover-up. His death eventually led to South Australia decriminalising homosexuality, ahead of the rest of the country. Brett Weymark conducts and Neil Armfield directs, with Mark Oates playing Duncan and Don Dunstan.
The season continues with Tosca, followed in July by Il Trittico, which features three of Puccini’s one-act operas. Constantine Costi directs Il Tabarro, Imara Savage directs Suor Angelica, and Shaun Rennie directs Gianni Schicchi, with Russian-American conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya on the podium.
Next comes Brett Dean’s opera Hamlet, directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Tim Anderson.
British tenor Allan Clayton, who originated the role of Hamlet, will reprise his superb performance, with Australian soprano Lorina Gore as Ophelia and American baritone Rod Gilfry as Claudius.
“I saw it at Glyndebourne and from the moment I got this job, I [thought], ‘Hamlet has to come to Sydney, and we have to take it to Melbourne; we are planning to take it to Melbourne in 2025.”
Sir David McVicar’s production of Mozart’s Così fan tutte returns in August with Greek conductor Zoe Zeniodi on the podium.
Then in September, OA, Sydney Chamber Opera and Carriageworks present the world premiere of Gilgamesh, composed by Jack Symonds with a libretto by Louis Garrick. Kip Williams (Sydney Theatre Company’s Artistic Director) will direct. The opera is based on the ancient poem, which tells the story of a restless young king, who becomes a better person after experiencing love and loss. Jeremy Kleeman will play Gilgamesh, with the Australian String Quartet and Ensemble Offspring accompanying the production.
“I think it’s an exciting new project and therefore exactly the sort of thing that Opera Australia should be supporting within the cultural landscape,” says Davies. “We should be facilitating new writers and new directors; that’s part of our cultural responsibility, I think, as a company. So, I’m really thrilled that we’re doing Gilgamesh, Watershed, Eucalyptus, Hamlet and Breaking the Waves.
Davies, who has a 20-year career directing opera, musicals and theatre in the UK, will not direct any of the productions during OA’s 2024 season.
“In part, it’s because I want to spend time really nurturing Australian talent, which I can’t really do if I’m busy directing myself. So, for example with, Il Trittico, we’ve got three talented young Australian directors – Con Costi, Imara Savage and Shaun Rennie – each doing a part of Il Trittico as their first mainstage production, and I feel it’s really important that I’m there to support that process and not be off worrying about what I’m directing.”
“I am also putting a lot of focus into a new education and community program that we’re developing, which is really important to me. And I really want to look at the young artists program again. So, there’s a lot of other things around the company that I feel in 2024 would really benefit from having my focus.”
“I have to get back in the rehearsal room for 2025, though, or I’ll go insane!” she adds laughing. “But it just feels that in 2024, it’s most important that I get to know the company, and that I really have time to embed myself in that landscape culturally and creatively.”
The Magic Flute, which opens in Sydney in February, will tour to Geelong Arts Centre in November. Geelong will also host Chorus!, featuring the 48-strong OA Chorus, led by Chorus Master Paul Fitzsimon.
The 2024 season also includes a national tour of La bohème directed by Dean Bryant, the musical Sunset Boulevard, starring Sarah Brightman, in Melbourne and Sydney, the return of West Side Story as the 2024 Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour, and BMW Opera for All, a free open-air concert in Melbourne’s Federation Square.
“To have five contemporary works, as well as presenting Tosca, Così and The Magic Flute, feels to me like a good marriage between old and new,” says Davies. “And that I think that’s what the company really needs.”
More information about Opera Australia’s 2024 season can be found here.