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An interview with Chris van Tuinen, WAO Artistic Director

In anticipation of West Australian Opera’s world premiere production of Tchaikovsky’s Iolanta, Artistic Director Chris van Tuinen reflects on discovering the composer’s last opera and re-envisioning it for contemporary audiences.

Why did you program Iolanta?

I have a penchant for some of the fringe repertoire. I am constantly amazed by the operatic repertoire and while we have a stable roster of our favourite 50, that doesn’t mean there aren’t another 500 great pieces out there that need to be brought back into the fold. I think audiences crave newness as much as anyone else in any other industry.

Beyond that, one of my favourite things to do is look at the lost pieces by favourite composers. Why in Tchaikovsky’s repertoire do we have lots of performances of Eugene Onegin and an equally good amount of performances of Queen of Spades, yet we don’t see many performances of Iolanta?

You could make the same observation of Tchaikovsky’s ballets. There’s an order in terms of how often they’re performed: The Nutcracker is staged every year, Swan Lake is performed every few years, The Sleeping Beauty might be staged every five years. There’s almost an order of importance.

Iolanta was written at the same time as The Nutcracker and for me, that’s the greatest of the ballets in terms of its inventiveness, its orchestration, its courage and its daring. Tchaikovsky was very worried about The Nutcracker and how it would be received. He thought that the stitching was too obvious in his composition and you could see where the joins were. He feared that the composition was pushing the boat out too far. For instance, it’s the first time we see the celeste used as a keyboard instrument; of course, now famous in The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies, but it was a huge gamble at the time.

Iolanta is a stunningly beautiful opera. How would you describe it musically?

It’s the height of romanticism in Russia. We’ve got Tchaikovsky writing in Russia, maybe 15-20 years before the Revolution. The level of excess of those times is something to be believed.

Iolanta is a Fabergé egg of an opera. It’s beautiful and elaborate and gorgeously scored. It uses all of the instruments of the orchestra. It starts with just a woodwind and brass ensemble. After that introduction finishes and we move into the first scene, you hear a string quartet and a harp. You feel like you’re in very accomplished hands when you listen to the music of this piece.

It’s Tchaikovsky’s last opera, can you hear traces of his other works within it?

You can definitely hear his style. The hallmarks are there; those certain Tchaikovsky-isms in the music. The guy can write a tune! The melodies are just gorgeous. 

When did you first discover the opera?

I discovered Iolanta about five or six years ago while randomly exploring composers’ lists of compositions. You discover works like Mozart’s The Impresario, which we’re staging as one-half of The Duel.

In discovering Iolanta, I then examined it further: the music is wonderful, it has all the charisma and charm of Tchaikovsky’s other works. 

As an Artistic Director, you then explore the production. How would you stage it? What are its themes? It’s here where you could encounter some problems in terms of its representation of disability.

The opera recounts the story of a blind princess, the title character, who lives guarded from any awareness that sight is even a sense. How is WAO approaching the story?

We decided an interesting contemporary approach would be for us to bring together a group of vision impaired people and present the libretto as it currently stands. We sought their input and feedback in re-devising, re-working, re-writing parts to incorporate the perspective of someone who lives with a disability.

There were half a dozen sessions across seven months before the revised libretto was then retro-fitted back onto the music.  

As the Conductor, what did that process include?

That’s the joke at the heart of Salieri’s opera Prima la musica e poi le parole (First the Music, then the Words) because it’s almost impossible to take existing music to then retro-fit words to it. You have to start with the words, from the poetry of the text, and you start to get ideas of how the music should go.

Luckily, we had the wonderful Lea Hayward who sat down over several months and made those minute adjustments to both the sung lines, the melodic lines for the singer, but also changing the text ever so slightly to ensure the meaning was maintained so the poetry of the words can fit the poetry of the music.

Does this mark the first English translation of the opera as well?

As far as I can tell, it’s the first singable English translation of the opera. There’s a Russian version, obviously the original, a German singing translation, and this is now the first English version.

The difference for people is you can have a literal translation of the original text and you can have a poetic translation of the original text, but this is the singable translation of the text.

In terms of translating the opera and working with the vision impaired community, why was this approach important to you?

This takes us to the second half of the project. Not only did our focus group work on revising the libretto, but they also inputted into the production itself. They spoke a lot about what their experiences were like going to the opera at a theatre like ours, His Majesty’s Theatre: what it feels like, what it sounds like, and, interestingly, what it looks like.

Taking those ideas, like tactile tours with the costumes or adding an accessible version of the program or repeating parts of the libretto for those unable to read the surtitles.

Hearing those experiences lead into what our Director Katt Osborne will present to the audience. 

What do you think audiences will take away from experiencing the work in this way?

I would like an audience member who comes often to the opera to be challenged by listening to a piece that they don’t know and also have a window into the experience of the vision impaired.

I firmly believe our audiences are open to challenges and are interested in experiences and adventures. I don’t think we’re going to frighten anyone or are pushing a particular narrative in a way. I don’t think we’re making a sighted audience feel guilty or inducing pity for a non-sighted audience.

I think what we’re doing is offering anyone in Perth the opportunity to have a different experience; to take steps in someone else’s shoes. 

At 90 minutes long, would you recommend Iolanta as a first-time opera?

I think I would because it’s one of those pieces that drops many barriers, perceived or otherwise, that audiences may feel stops them from coming to the opera.

If the barrier is price, we can sort that out for you. If the barrier is disability, we can sort that out for you. If the barrier is experience, we can sort that out for you. We have a very broad-church when it comes to the world of opera.

Opera is such an all-encompassing artform that there should be something to give everyone a rewarding experience.

West Australian Opera presents Tchaikovsky's Iolanta from 6 - 9 April at His Majesty's Theatre. Click here to learn more about the production and book tickets.