ATTRACTING audiences to an opera about an iconic LGBTI rights activist is tough.
Tougher than I had (naively) expected when I set out to produce Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s opera Harvey Milk back in 2010. Why go to a contemporary opera about an American politician who died 30-something years ago when you can watch a movie, a musical or the one millionth production of The Magic Flute? And if you’re an opera company or the media, why give it a platform?
[showads ad=MREC]I might be a little biased, but I can think of two pretty good reasons.
When it premiered exactly 20 years ago, Harvey Milk was the first opera commissioned by a major company, perhaps the first ever, to feature an openly gay protagonist. It is still, as far as I know, the only major opera to celebrate LGBTI activism. That’s a big deal for an art form that’s been around since the late 16th century. For regular opera goers, LGBTI audiences and the many LGBTI people who have devoted themselves to the creation of an art form that has never before acknowledged their existence, the significance of this is less about watching two male lovers sing a duet, and more about the importance of such an established art-form finally telling a queer story.
I’m always hearing that opera is a dying art form. Companies around the world struggle to draw an audience and so rely on the La Bohemes and Carmens to stay afloat. It makes sense. The classics sell tickets. So, how then does opera stay current?
The relevance of Harvey’s story is the second reason this piece should be seen. I was speaking to a journalist recently who suggested the difficulty in promoting Harvey Milk may be that it’s seen as an American story. Well, when it comes to equality for the LGBTI community, Australia and the US have had a lot in common for a long time. With the plebiscite looming, Australia is on the precipice, but is apathy stalling the inevitable?
Harvey was anything but complacent. He encouraged LGBTI people to let their friends, colleagues and family know who they were and what they wanted. When it comes to politics, I’ve often reminded my parents that they need to vote with their son in mind. That’s what Harvey was all about, and it’s a timely message.
These two reasons have kept my co-producer Michele Bauer and I thinking about how to present Harvey Milk for five years. Last year, we finally approached the Melbourne Gay & Lesbian Chorus and together, presented excerpts in a semi-staged concert for this year’s Midsumma Festival. The response from many was: “I don’t normally like opera, but I loved this”.
Wallace and Korie’s score isn’t conventional opera. It’s an eclectic combination of Puccini, music theatre, jazz and modern opera, and the mix of voices reflects that. We have principals from Opera Australia, Victorian Opera and a number of major musicals, and thanks to their talents and the support of the City of Sydney, we’re now teaming with the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Choir to bring Harvey Milk – The Opera in Concert to Sydney Town Hall.
Perhaps one day there will be another full production of this great work, complete with sets and orchestra. But for now, audiences can experience our stripped-back telling of Harvey’s incredible story, produced and performed by a group of people to whom his legacy means something. For whom life is easier because of men and women like him. A lot of passion has led to this performance. Harvey Milk deserves nothing less.
‘Harvey Milk – The Opera in Concert’ is on November 15 at Sydney Town Hall. Details: click here