Opera Queensland’s first mainstage presentation for the year is A Flowering Tree by American contemporary composer John Adams. Tim Passmore spoke to director Patrick Nolan about the show.
Mythical India. An impoverished family. A desperate daughter discovers she can transform into a tree whose blooms sell for a princely price.
But her miracle also attracts a prince’s desire and arouses palace envy, setting in motion a magical parable. Lovers discover each other, are driven apart, and finally reunite in healing through a journey of moral growth.
The story is told through a soundscape of hypnotic rhythms, sensuous classical voices and all the glistening colours an orchestra can command.
“John Adams’ music is grand in its scope and range,” director Patrick Nolan said.
“He has set a new path for orchestral music by combining elements of jazz and pop with the classical.”
Though billed as semi-staged, the production won’t be short on visual spectacle either.
“The orchestra is made up of 70 musicians and in our production they are part of the staging,” Nolan explains.
“The singers perform around and amongst the musicians. We bring the dynamics of this alive for the audience through the use of three live cameras that capture the action close up, so the audience can experience the performers in a very intimate way.
“The live footage is mixed with a beautiful video design by Mic Gruchy who brings the world of the story alive through animations and exquisite images of nature seen in extraordinary detail on the twelve metre high screen.”
The Queensland Symphony Orchestra will perform John Adams’ pulsing, rhapsodic score under the baton of guest conductor Natalie Murray Beale, an internationally recognised Adams specialist.
A Flowering Tree marks both Beale’s Opera Queensland debut and her commencement as Artist in Residence with the company.
Solo roles will be taken by a trio of internationally active singers. Soprano Eva Kong will do diva duties as the metamorphosing heroine, Kamudha, with tenor Adrian Dwyer as the Prince and baritone Craig Colclough in the role of narrator.
‘A relevant and relatable story for our times’
This is the first Opera Queensland production to be directed by Patrick Nolan since he took on the role of CEO and artistic director in late 2017.
Nolan’s production of A Flowering Tree was also the opera’s Australian premiere, initially presented at the 2009 Perth International Arts festival and scoring national recognition with a Robert Helpmann Award.
“A Flowering Tree is not only a beautiful opera, it is a relevant and relatable story for our times,” Nolan observes.
The piece was commissioned by the New Crowned Hope Festival in Vienna to celebrate the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in 2006.
It was conceived as a response to Mozart’s The Magic Flute, exploring common themes of magic, transformation and the dawning of moral awareness.
The composer and his longtime collaborator, writer-director Peter Sellars, adapted the text from Indian poetry and a folktale in translations by AK Ramanujan.
The opera’s fundamental atmosphere of celebration is a contrast to the more sombre moods of Adams’ best known theatre works such as Nixon in China (1987), a meditation on the Cold War, or The Death of Klinghoffer (1991), which still attracts controversy over its portrayal of a Palestinian terrorist operation.
However Adams’ willingness to tackle important difficult subjects is probably one of the reasons his operas are so widely engaging.
Another reason is Adams’ signature style. His music is rooted in minimalism, an approach to composing based on repeating tiny short patterns of notes.
If that sounds familiar even though you don’t listen to classical music, you’ve probably been aware of minimalism in the looping high-energy beats of electronic dance music, and in the throbbing force of soundtracks to films like The Hours or The Truman Show, composed my minimalist poster-boy Philip Glass.
In A Flowering Tree Adams balances repetitive energy with lyrical interludes, shifting rhythmic mazes with moments of ecstatic calm.
The Indian setting is constantly evoked as the music kaleidoscopically unfolds. Sounds from the orchestra continually vary: musical burbles, tinkles, snarls and cries add nuance to each emotion. Add on top a gifted singing cast and spectacular visual design, and Opera Queensland’s first offering of the year could hardly be richer.
A Flowering Tree is at the QPAC Concert Hall from April 2 to 6 2019. For details and tickets, visit the website.
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