Simon Phillips once thought comic opera was a contradiction in terms. That is, until he directed one. The director of The Turk in Italy discusses his brand new show and reveals why opera and comedy are a perfect pairing.
Simon Phillips is clearly a man in love with comedy, right down to his shoeless, odd-socked feet (one emerald green, one salmon pink). Midway through rehearsals for Opera Australia’s new production The Turk in Italy, the seasoned director can’t stop grinning as he watches his ensemble play out the action of Rossini’s hilarious tale.
“When I first started directing opera, I thought that comic opera was a contradiction in terms,” Phillips admits. “It felt to me like opera was about the human emotion getting to a scale where it could not be expressed in any way but song. But these very light operas were always conceived as something to be a bit outrageous. I find the idea of perversely adding comedy to a form that is so beautiful creates an interesting tension.”
The Turk in Italy is a classic comic farce, taking the age-old story of an older man and his younger, unfaithful wife and throwing a dashing young love interest (the ‘Turk’) in the middle to, as Phillips puts it, “throw many cats among many pigeons”. Add to that a troupe of gypsies, an ex-lover and a young poet with writer’s block … and you get a classic situational comedy with a dose of promiscuity, mistaken identity and slapstick humour.
The opera is rarely performed, giving Phillips the liberty to have a bit of fun with a piece of which few will have pre-conceived notions .
“This is an unashamedly frivolous piece of music and plot, that like all good unashamedly frivolous pieces occasionally gives way and surprises you with some kind of sweet, human emotion,” he explains. “So we’ve been unashamedly frivolous in the way we approach it.”
Moving the action to 1950s Italy has opened up a world of fun possibilities. “When I’m doing a comedy, I like to bring the date as close to the contemporary world as the action will sensibly allow. In the 1950s, there’s still a sense of propriety in the air, so when people start behaving badly, the stakes are higher than they would be today. And the colours of the 1950s are inherently comical – remember those pink and black bathrooms?”
Designer Gabriela Tylesova has created a world of clashing pastel colours, eye-watering prints and curved lines for the mixed-up lovers to play out their lives in.
Even so, the music has to lead the way, Phillips says. “You are responding to the tempi, the spirit and the flavour of the music. Under the baton of Andrea Molino, Rossini’s melodies sparkle in perfect harmony with the frivolity on stage.”
Comedy in opera presents particular challenges that a director doesn’t experience when staging comedy in theatre, Phillips says. “In straight theatre, the audience hear the line, and it is funny, and therefore, they laugh at it. In the opera, they receive the comedy of the words, via the surtitles. There’s a disconnect between what they’re seeing, what they’re hearing and what they’re reading. That’s a challenge, but it also gives you great freedom – because you can tweak the surtitles to make them funnier.”
Despite the differences, Phillips believes the heart of great farce is consistent across theatre, film, opera and musicals.
“At its best, comedy is about an honest idea taken to a ludicrous extreme. It’s the comedy of the human thought process, of someone in a predicament, honestly and earnestly trying to solve it.”
Opera’s biggest limitations are also unique advantages, Phillips says. “In these Rossini operas, and to a certain extent Donizetti operas as well, people repeat themselves so much. So you have to find a way around the fact that nothing progresses in terms of the text. The opera only progresses in terms of situation, and that sometimes pushes you to extremes of slapstick that you might not indulge in, or need to indulge in, in a straight farce.”
There is plenty of scope for physical theatre and slapstick comedy in the opera, especially when one character has the spotlight but there are others on stage. “A huge amount of Rossini’s music is decorative, so as a result, some of the physical action is decorative as well, taking place in the background.”
Phillips has assembled a dream cast to help execute his vision of a thoroughly entertaining production. “Although these are extremely gifted singers, it’s really like they are comic actors who happen to be able to sing the material very well. What they have is an ability to play through the music, and still find the beats of comedy. And that’s in spite of the extreme difficulty of the music itself! I’m extremely lucky that the performers are able to play action and reaction and all the hallmarks of comedy and yet sing with such beautiful voices.”
In the rehearsal room, the cast is laughing as much as they’re singing, as they workshop their way through the humour and humanity of the opera. And Simon Phillips is sitting back with an ear-to-ear smile on his face, looking for all the world like a man at the opera, enjoying a good show.
The Turk in Italy is on at the Sydney Opera House from January 22 – February 12, 2014 and at the Arts Centre Melbourne from May 1 – May 13.
Want more information? Click here to read about the cast, the opera and to purchase tickets.