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An interview with Chris van Tuinen, WAO Artistic Director

As we prepare to transport audiences back to the eighteenth century with our upcoming production The Duel, Conductor and Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen reflects on the fierceness of composer rivalry and how music's greatest competition will be recreated for a new generation.

What drew you to programming The Duel?

Quite often we think about the different spaces around Perth and the different ways to present opera in them, while also thinking about how broad the range of repertoire is and the experiences we want people to have.

Plus, they’re funny pieces with great singing!

The Duel a recreation of the real-life events of 1786. What’s the backstory to these operas?

The real event was to celebrate a dinner hosted by Emperor Joseph II, pitting two of his tame composers against one another. The operas were then presented to the public over four nights.

One is in German, the other Italian, the two competing forces in musical life of the late 18th Century in Vienna.

As the Court Composer, Salieri was well known and well established at the time, compared to the newcomer that was Mozart – was it a fair contest? Which composer ultimately won during the 1786 Duel?

Salieri was declared the winner, but this also suited the court politically as he was more established. His piece is also more substantial, has a more elaborate plot and is longer in length.

History has been cruel to him and I think his piece is excellent. The Mozart is wonderful as well but much lighter in tone and more flippant.

How would you describe the operas musically?

Salieri’s Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the Music, then the Words) is composed in the Italian style of arias and ensembles joined together with recitative (accompanied by harpsichord). The opera very much holds true to this tradition.  

Mozart’s Der Schauspieldirektor (The Impresario) is a Singspiel – German music linked by spoken dialogue. It’s got all the charm of the mature classical style, remembering of course that he’s well into the last part of his output by this point.  

Mozart was actually in the midst of composing The Marriage of Figaro, an opera composed in the Italian style, when he paused to compose The Impresario

What can audiences expect from The Duel?

Hopefully a glimpse into an earlier time. Some great music and singing, delicious food and a sense that the formalities around opera performances don’t always include theatres and concert halls.

The performance is staged at Government House Ballroom. Why is this venue the perfect location for a period show-down?

The space itself is formal and grand. It’s linked to our government and the weight of political power. It’s the perfect size and it’s a room that helps us move back in time.

Is there a dress-code? AKA how frou-frou can one’s outfit be?

Entirely up to you! I don’t think anything would be out of the question.

The performances are accompanied by a sumptuous German/Italian-inspired dinner. I trust there’s time for the conductor to break for a bite between both operas too. What appeals to you most on the menu?

Oh, that’s harder than picking between the operas. I love both those cultures and they offer a real variety in diet.

Lastly, based on the operas alone, can you tell us which you would be voting for?

That’s not a fair question! It’s like asking me who my favourite composer is. The answer is ‘which ever one I’m performing at the time’.


West Australian Opera presents The Duel from 12 - 15 May at Government House Ballroom. Click here to learn more about the production and book tickets.