Billed as a “television opera” by the ABC, The Divorce had its first of four episodes broadcast on Monday night. A co-production with Opera Australia, it signals a desire to broaden the appeal of this supposedly most elitist of art forms – and what better way than on the box?
But the question that presents itself – particularly to me as a professor of vocal studies and opera – is whether the ABC and Opera Australia have succeeded in this attempt to merge artforms?
Before we get to that its worth noting that, despite the publicity around The Divorce, operas written for television are nothing new; they have been part of the evolution of the medium from its widespread take up in the 50s.
What is often regarded as the first opera written especially for the medium, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951), was broadcast by the NBC in America. What is of interest is that this opera, unlike the bulk of other works written for TV, has endured as a stage work, and has become one of the most popular of all “contemporary” operas, frequently staged around Christmas time – there is sure to be at least one staging in a major city in Australia at this time of the year.
The only other opera that has gone onto a substantial after life on stage is Benjamin Britten’s Owen Wingrave (1971), an adaptation of Henry James’s ghostly pacifist tale.
This opera is probably also unique in that it had another television production in 2005, as well as frequently being performed on stage.
So while there have been a number of operas written for the medium – a cursory count reveals close to 50 listed works – most opera composers would draw attention to the severe limitations of television as a vehicle for that most artificial of performative genres, opera.
Indeed, as the success of the Metropolitan Opera HD broadcasts into cinemas attests (recent publicity for the Met claims that at least 19 million people worldwide have watched these broadcasts), why write especially for the medium when a “traditional staged production can be so effectively transferred to film?
The real operatic deal
The technology currently available makes the experience in the cinema almost as engaging as the "real” thing. Some might say, it is even better in that one is closer to the action, the blend of the voices and the orchestra is near perfect, and the current practice of showing backstage “action” and interviews is appealing to many viewers.
Detractors, though, point to the fact that seeing singers in close-up is often not the most attractive sight – the technique of producing a sound that can carry over a large orchestra often requires some extreme facial contortions!
Even the largest widescreen, digital television set does not have the sound and visual capacity that a large cinema has, not to mention the actual shared experience in the theatre. So the most compelling argument for opera on TV would probably have to be the possibility of drawing in an audience that would not be seen dead in an opera house, or likely to attend a cinema broadcast.
Opera films – films made of operas that are often shot in studios and even on suitable locations – had a certain popularity in the last couple of decades of the 20th century, but are far too expensive to make these days, having gone the way of CD recordings of complete operas.
Does The Divorce succeed?
So, to return to the question at hand: has the ABC and Opera Australia succeeded with The Divorce? It’s perhaps unfair to judge it on the basis of one episode – like any series one needs to see the complete run to gauge its success. One also needs to mention the thorny issue of defining “opera” itself.
As in most TV operas, the soundtrack is prerecorded in a studio and the singers mime to their own voices as filming takes place.
Therefore, the kinds of voices that can be used in a show like this are certainly not typical of the voices one would hear in a Madama Butterfly or a La Traviata in the opera house, but are voices that are at home in musicals. Indeed Marina Prior and Lisa McCune, who play the divorcée and her dowdier sister, have both enjoyed great success for many years on the musical stage.
The only truly operatic voice is probably that of Kate Miller-Heidke, the loyal and perfectionist assistant Caroline, and she is a genre-defying singer if ever there was one.
So after some moody opening shots, including a couple of sinister characters being pulled over by a cop, and chaotic preparations in the kitchen – not, not another cooking show – we find ourselves in a party. Nothing new here: La Traviata and even Brett Dean’s Bliss both open in a swirl of gay party music.
Not much singing to start with, but snatches of dialogue underscored by bright music – is this an opera? Then the pure voice of Prior singing “Goodbye, my love”, and, yes, we seem to be in the right show.
A wordy duet with her and John O’May, her soon-to-be-ex husband, suggests were in the world of Sondheim rather than a Lloyd Webber. Then the OA chorus – the party guests – briefly add a little operatic heft to the proceedings. The occasion: a party to celebrate the divorce of Prior and O’May, the party action all accompanied by suitable cocktail music.
It’s not opera, but it ain’t bad
So if opera is through-composed music, minimal dialogue and vibrato-laden voices, then this ain’t opera. But does it matter? The term “opera”, like “diva”, has become so overused that it has little weight anymore. This is light, fun entertainment with some poignant moments and attractive performers.
Hugh Sheridan’s, solo “I’m an artist”, is entertaining, expressing his thoughts and emotions “unheard” by the other characters around him in an operatic manner, but with an attractively light, music-theatre voice.
McCune has a similar “aria”, revealing a secret love, jealous undercurrents and betrayal – yes, it seems we are in the world of opera.
But suddenly a snatch of duet with Pryor and Miller-Heidke and we’re in a different world. Perhaps even that of the greatest operatic comedy of all, The Marriage of Figaro. Their two voices blend in much the same way as the Countess and Susanna in the sublime Letter Duet in Mozart’s work – surely a model here – and there is magic in the air.
The music of Elena Katz Chernin immediately lifts the emotional level of the work, both characters facing moments of change. In the end it doesn’t matter what one calls The Divorce, and it will certainly be worth tuning in to the next three episodes.
Part two of The Divorce screens on ABC TV on Tuesday December 8.