Under the stewardship of artistic director Chris van Tuinen, West Australian Opera seeks to harness opera’s persuasive storytelling capabilities. This April, the company will premiere a modern adaptation of Tchaikovsky’s final opera, Iolanta, which tells the story of the titular blind princess.
Through close consultation with the blind and vision impaired community, the libretto has been updated to more accurately convey the experiences of people living with disability. Iolanta director, Katt Osborne, coordinated with Perth-based disability and diversity consultant, Zel Iscel, in updating the libretto and choreographing the production’s immersive staging.
In the company’s own words, WAO’s production of Iolanta will take audiences “on a journey to discover the world as the blind and vision impaired see it.” This will be achieved by staging the opera in shadow and darkness, with moments of complete blackness. Various scents will be released into His Majesty’s Theatre, thereby adding to the sensory immersion of the production.
WAO’s progressive adaptation of Iolanta is at odds with the common perception of opera as an elitist art form detached from everyday life. This misperception is the focus of a 2014 column in The Guardian, written by British opera scholar and university professor, Dr. Alexandra Wilson.
In the article, Wilson reflects on how opera is “routinely styled as the antithesis of everyday life.” The fault doesn’t lie with opera itself, argues Wilson—whose books include Opera: A Beginner’s Guide and Opera in the Jazz Age—but with the clichéd framing of opera by the contemporary media.
It’s hard to argue with Wilson’s central point that opera is characterised as a niche interest commissioned by the upper classes in order to please themselves. However, the concrete reality of opera in the 21st century substantively differs from this characterisation. For instance, one of the Anglosphere’s most popular opera podcasts, Aria Code, is hosted by country and folk musician, Rhiannon Giddens.
Giddens, a Black American from North Carolina, is best known for playing the minstrel-era replica banjo on several albums that expose the major role enslaved African Americans played in the development of country and Americana music. Giddens has written her own opera too, titled Omar, which is based on the autobiography of enslaved Muslim man, Omar Ibn Said.
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For Iolanta, West Australian Opera has not only re-crafted Modest Tchaikovsky’s original libretto, but also translated the opera into English to give it yet more accessibility. Internationally esteemed Australian soprano, Elena Perroni, will perform the title role. Grace King, a blind actor with previous experience on stage at His Majesty’s Theatre, will play Iolanta at a later age.
King’s inclusion brings extra dimension to the production, as she relates the lived experience of the title character, whose blindness is kept secret from her at the behest of her father, King René (played by Adrian Tamburini). WAO’s production reveals the ignorance of King René’s strict decree, which, they believe, is responsible for holding Iolanta “captive”.
Pyotr Tchaikovsky wrote the music for Iolanta towards the end of his life. The opera premiered at Saint Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre on a double bill with the Russian composer’s final ballet, The Nutcracker, in 1892. And while Iolanta is not as widely recognised as The Nutcracker, nor earlier Tchaikovsky operas, such as Eugene Onegin, the musical composition exhibits the vast ingenuity that made Tchaikovsky one of the premiere composers of the Romantic period.
“Iolanta is a Fabergé egg of an opera,” said conductor and chorus master, Chris van Tuinen. “It’s beautiful and elaborate and gorgeously scored. You feel like you’re in very accomplished hands when you listen to the music of this piece.” Indeed—van Tuinen will conduct the dual forces of the West Australian Opera Chorus and the West Australian Symphony Orchestra.
Iolanta opens on Wednesday 6th April at His Majesty’s Theatre and runs for four consecutive nights, wrapping up on Saturday 9th April. Opera’s reputation as a snobbish, elite interest will be further slashed by the fact that Iolanta runs for a tight ninety-minutes and ticket prices begin at $30.