Arts / Mozart leaps into self-help and social media

Fiordiligi (Keren Dalzell), left, and Dorabella (Clare Hedley) at their diner with Despina (Katrina Wiseman). Photo by ES Fotographi at Terra Cafe

“WE can’t just do Puccini all the time,” president of Canberra Opera Stephanie McAlister recently told her committee as the local opera company launched into a production of “Cosi Fan Tutte”, its first Mozart since “The Magic Flute” in 2012.

The libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte has the most ridiculous story ever to grace the operatic stage and the job of turning it into a comprehensible evening for Canberra audiences falls to voice teacher Elisha Holley, who’s decided to set it in Braddon.

That’s not as daft as it sounds. A hugely successful production at New York’s Met set “Cosi” in a funhouse environment inspired by 1950s Coney Island.

Director Elisha Holley.

In Holley’s take, spoilt sisters Fiordiligi (Keren Dalzell) and Dorabella (Clare Hedley) run their own café. Cynical Don Alfonso (Peter Smith) aims to prove to their fiancés, Duntroon graduates Guglielmo (Nathanael Patterson) and Ferrando (Andrew Barrow), that all women are the same (Così fan tutte – “They’re all like that”) and makes a bet with the young army officers that they’ll be unfaithful. Egged on by the girls’ scheming employee Despina (Katrina Wiseman) they give into two unrecognisable men, (the two boys disguised as hipsters in sunglasses) proving the point.

It’s not a whit sillier than the original.

A graduate from the Queensland Conservatorium of Music who returned to her home town to found a thriving singing studio in Macquarie, Holley directed Canberra Opera’s 2015 production of “La Bohème”. Now she has taken on an opera known for its beautiful choruses and ensemble pieces, and located it at Lonsdale Street’s The Hamlet. It’ll be sung in English and updated to take in modern phenomena such as social media.

Holley has worked and studied hard all her life, but has the impression that there are plenty of girls here, “Canberra Kardashians”, with indulgent daddies to whom they can say: “Please, can I have that?” so the two ditsy lead females are very real to her.

But Despina is a pragmatic working-class girl whose motivations come from necessity, even when she engages in deception, bringing in a hint of class struggle.

Everyone has a part to play in the dark comedy that unfolds and Holley wonders why the girls have to ask forgiveness from the boys – “why would you do that?” she asks, speculating that in an age where young people are hooking up via Twitter and Tinder, people are more fickle and thus, more prone to guilt.

There is another psychological twist when Despina asks the girls “aren’t you real women?” (meaning naturally unfaithful) egging them on to infidelity.

Holley prefers to cast a veil over the question of whether Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte were sexist pigs, saying: “It’s a very strange message in this day and age. It’s so strange, the boys are being cheated on, but they’re the ones who caused it.”

Holley has bought a few ex-army jackets, which tend to be expensive these days, but the cast have jumped into the task of dressing like the Kardashians in their own clothes. Now it only remains to be seen whether Mozart’s ravishing music will survive the temporary leap into women’s rights, self-help and social media.

Mozart’s “Cosi Fan Tutte,” performed in English, Belconnen Community Theatre, July 27 to August 5, bookings to canberraopera.org.au

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