Romitelli’s vision brought to life

By Annarosa Berman

When looking for a concept, opera directors and their creative teams almost always begin by familiarising themselves with the score and the libretto. That was the point of departure for Kip Williams, who directs the Australian première of composer Fausto Romitelli’s last major work, An Index of Metals, for Sydney Chamber Opera this month.

Yet staging the work, based on three hallucinatory poems by Kenka Lekovich, presented Williams and set and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby with an unusual challenge: Romitelli’s music was not composed to create dramatic action on stage; until now the work has been presented as a concert piece.

Williams says: “Unlike in an opera by Mozart or Britten, where the music is scored to support the unravelling of a story or the trajectory of a character, Romitelli’s music is meditative. In looking for a way to generate dramatic action from it, we focused on a character, someone who recently suffered the demise of a relationship and finds themselves paralysed by the experience.”

When working on the concept, Williams relied on the input of SCO Artistic Director Jack Symonds, who gave him and Gadsby a clear sense of the structure of the music. “As a result, our narrative based on the evolution of the central character is in tandem with the score.”

Soprano Jane Sheldon was cast in the central role for her experience in performing new music and her acting ability. Symonds says: “The singer in Romitelli’s opera stands in the middle of a welter of complex sound, with all sorts of microtones bending around her from different instruments and electronics. To survive for even five minutes, she needs great nerve and a clear understanding of where she sits in the tapestry of the piece.”

Focusing on a single character in the enormous performing space at Carriageworks, presented a theatrical headache for Williams and his team. “Putting one person inside that huge space can make it difficult for the audience to engage with the very personal nature of this work,” he says. “But the strength of such a large space is that it creates a sense of the isolation of the person at the centre of it.”

An Index of Metals is often called a video opera, and in the SCO production, as in previous presentations of the work, Paolo Pachini and Leonardo Romoli’s abstract video art is an integral part of the staging. As Williams puts it: “The video is like a musical instrument.”

Symonds adds that although the video component is woven into the score, it is “both suggestive and elusive”, which allows room for an imaginative director to impose a fresh idea of how to realise the work.

Williams has worked with both Symonds and Gadsby before; now, collaborating with them is almost second nature. “This is the fourth show that Jack and I have done together, so our collaborations have become intuitive and unspoken.”

As for working with Gadsby: “There is quite a blurred line between designer and director in our work.” In their design for An Index of Metals, light is the most important element and lighting designer Ross Graham will play an important role in realising the concept.

An Index of Metals has not been an easy work to conceptualise and direct, but Williams loves working with SCO. “Both musically and theatrically, they are the boldest, most adventurous of any company that I know.”

An Index of Metals plays at Carriageworks 16-19 November, Tickets Here

POST SHOW TALK – 18 NOV
Join us after the performance on Wednesday 18 November to hear Kip Williams, director, Jack Symonds, conductor and artistic director of Sydney Chamber Opera and Damien Ricketson, co-artistic director of Ensemble Offspring in conversation with renowned Australian media executive and composer Kim Williams AM. Free for ticket holders.

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