Author Archive | Kevin

Why We Are Failing Australian Musical Theatre Writers

Writing_MusicI’m acutally writing this post to organise some thoughts I have been asked to contribute to a forthcoming new book on musical theatre.  This post could easily become a tome comparable to the eponymous ‘White Pages’ phone books of yesteryear if I’m not careful, as the magnitude of problem for Australian musical theatre writers is sizeable indeed.

If you consider that there is nowhere in Australia to study musical theatre writing whether as a school student or at the tertiary level, in an organised, systematic, manner, you get a fast walk-up to the ennui that perpetuates our educational institutions in respect to this shortcoming.

But, even if we did have organised training in place, who would teach it?  Who has a track record of having written and had produced musicals on Broadway or London’s West End?  Tim Minchin or Eddie Perfect?  I don’t think so, even though these guys are brilliant songwriters.

You see, it isn’t about how a good a songwriter or composer/lyricist you are, it’s about how musicals are made!

And without that experience and knowledge,  you just don’t know what the rules of the game are.  And there are rules – a sort of unspoken code-of-practice that everybody in the industry understands but never quite articulates or clarifies to outsiders.

Just to be clear, if we are going to teach about how to write new musicals, the experienced production personnel that we do have in Australia; by whom I mean those directors, designers, choreographers etc. that have acquired their professional skill-set of musical theatre production through responsibilities in mounting the first Australian productions of successful existing musicals, re-mounts of long-standing works of the canon, juke-box musicals or adaptations to the stage from films, are not the right people to be in-charge of this teaching.  Similarly, academics who teach musical theatre direction, acting or voice are, generally, equally ill-equipped.

The reason: to reiterate, because they don’t know what the rules of the game are for producing new musicals potentially able to be successful in New York or London.  Frankly, it is the closest thing to a secret society I’ve encountered wherein, if you are not one of the ‘chosen few’, you are simply not in the game.

So who does that leave? According to my body count, that leaves playwrights and authors who actually write about musical theatre. Why?  Because it is their stock-in-trade to know and cross-reference significant bodies of theatrical work.  And it is from this cross-dimensional, comparative analysis of the canon where the roots of understanding, or at the very least, acknowledgement of the rules of engagement are derived.

Put another way, you need to know the repertoire, and, you need to know the how and why that repertoire got where it got.

To sidetrack momentarily – It is of constant amazement to me when I quizz young writers, how little of the repertoire they actually do know.  My quizz usually goes like this: Continue Reading →

Bachtrack – The Year in Statistics: Why Opera is Failing & The Need For Relevance

This_Why_You_FaiSimply put – Opera is in trouble.  Yes, yes, I know you’ve read such leaders before, but these latest infographics from Bachtrack (go to the downloadable link at the bottom of the Bachtrack page) are, in all respects, damning.

Top_20_Operas_2018

©2018 Bachtrack

Fun_Fact_Opera

©2018 Bachtrack


Whereas, we are all familiar with the disparaging quotes about statistics such as, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics” commonly attributed to either Mark Twain or Disraeli,  it’s hard to refute these simple numbers to show that a significant statistical percentage of opera companies are complicit in hastening the demise of this artform.

You cannot skirt around the fact; irrespective of the protestations and excuses commonly offered up by General Directors (or their equivalent in different countries) that a diet of only Verdi, Puccini and Mozart – accounting for 33% of all Opera presented – is untenable in 2019!

These infographics from Bachtrack would have been equally enlightening if they had showed the 20 least operas performed in 2018, as statistics on these would probably point to companies and works that are deserved of more attention.

Cases to highlight the current paucity of innovation in Opera production choices would be Conrad Osborne’s recent article about the demise in productions of Gounod’s Faust in the latter half of the 20th-Century (at least at the MET). In no respects is Gounod’s masterpiece a curio to be heard once in a blue-moon. It is simply a case that it has, for whatever reason, fallen out of favour in New York. But, more importantly, why does the inexplicable demise of a ‘Faust’ consequently subject audiences to yet another ‘Bohème’ or ‘Traviata’ as probable (although not exclusively so) production alternatives?

Conversely, innovation in opera production in Europe is omnipresent. Let’s take the offerings available on Operavision as one example. In January alone you could delve into the incredible Káta Kabanová by Janácek; Libuše by Smetana or Korngold’s sublime Die tote Stadt as just a small selection of operas free to watch on-demand.  None of these three operas made Bachtrack’s Top 20 list.  Why, when all of these operas embody qualities that make them utterly producible on any given day?

Osborne implies in his informative blog that much of the repetitive offerings of the same Top 20 operas can be ascribed to a decline of mature voices with the power, resonance and depth to undertake heavier roles often required in less performed operas. Although this lack of talent depth is indisputable at the meta-level of the industry; with an increasing reliance upon, and abundance of, young singers eager for opportunities, it is too facile to suggest this is the major cause of decline in a vast number of operas being overlooked for production.

Of course the perennial argument being that if some combination of the usual top 20 suspects in any season, year-on-year, are not rolled out the likelihood of company insolvency (or some concomitant form of financial collapse) will inevitably ensue.  But this is not a reason to maintain the status quo. Continue Reading →

Orchestras – start living more dangerously! ( seasonal “bah humbug”)

A 21st Century orchestra – Photograph: BBC – Sydney Symphony/BBC

With apologies to Ebenezer Scrooge, I’m surprised how much this puerile article by Igor Toronyi-Lalic in the 13 December issue of The Guardian (UK edition) rankles my otherwise cheery Christmas bonhomie.

At best it is about the worst submitted op-ed piece I’ve read all year; most probably, to drive reader traffic toward the author’s currently running performance project in London, the Contemporary Music Festival. Conversely, it maybe just be a manifestation of woeful ignorance if not outright stupidity?

The basic argument put forward in the article is that composers who have not studied with the ‘right’ people or at the right school or university, or without the right publisher or, heaven save us, have the wrong profile (what does that actually mean?) remain outsiders ignored by both the orchestral establishment and classical music publishers – who apparently according to Toronyi-Lalic constitute a cartel – and can therefore, by definition, clearly be up to no good whatsoever.

Why there is a picture of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra attached to this piece when clearly the author’s criticism is supposedly linked to UK orchestra sector is a further anomaly.

At this point, the article seems to diverge into an unsubstantiated critique of composers not working within the orchestra idiom being shut out from being performed by the identified same denounced orchestras.  The avant-garde composer, Jennifer Walshe is cited as an example with linked reference to her chamber opera XXX Live Nude Girls as evidence of “living great” composer being sidelined.  At this point, we’re on pretty shaky ground.

Preposterous as this article is, it is this quote that finally sends me over the edge: “Music too, it seems, has fake news. It seems to me a perfect example of the kind of straw man set up by marketing departments, whose vanquishing can be used to claim an orchestra is being groundbreaking.”

Why am I so incredulous? Because this is the non-sequitur that follows this admonition: “It’s an attitude that is based on the presumption that the audience is dumb. If orchestras believed that audiences were normal, curious human beings, like you and me, they would not spoon-feed them or talk down to them. They would not think that music constantly needs propping up with screensaver films and light shows.”

Whoa! Continue Reading →