The first thing I notice the morning after opening night is his hair, or rather, the lack of it. Playing Oberon, the king of the fairies, in Baz Luhrmann’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, counter-tenor Graham Pushee trills under a massive two-toned dreadlocked wig. Onstage he looks like the love child of Bob Marley and Susan Sontag, but sans hairpiece in the heart of Surry Hills’ Opera Centre, Pushee couldn’t look more different.
The Graham Pushee member of the fairy kingdom sits comfortably within the skin of a charming and pleasantly attractive older gay man. Pushee notes on a number of occasions during the interviews that he’s not getting any younger, though it’s a broad anxiety that seems unwarranted. He’s successful, in love, back in Australia and playing one of his favourite roles.
It’s nice to keep coming back to it, especially when you do productions like this that are so varied, Pushee says. The last one I did about five years ago in Italy in Turin, it was completely different. Oberon was in a silver lam?uit with huge hair and sparkles all over it and a silvery knobbed walking stick and it was very strange -¦ almost like a king of the disco.
Baz Luhrmann first directed A Midsummer Night’s Dream for Opera Australia in 1993, with the production featuring what would become familiar motifs: the scarlet curtains, unashamed romanticism and lavish production design (courtesy of partner Catherine Martin). Set in India of the 1920s, the lovers are the foppish English, tricked and transmogrified by fairy spirits costumed in the manner of Indian spiritual icons: a little bit Krishna, a dash Ganesh.
This time around revival director Julie Edwardson has retained the commitment to strong characterisations and an unusually energetic staging and it’s stunning. It’s not often two divas (in this case Lisa Harper-Brown as Helena and Suzanne Johnston as Hermia) catfight while singing and throwing each other into a pond.
Pushee’s all for the drama. I feel that the dramatic side of performance, the actual acting part of it, is every bit as important as the vocal part of it, Pushee says, echoing composer Benjamin Britten’s own thoughts on the matter. For me, I’m actually prepared to sacrifice vocal -“ a little bit -“ but I’m always prepared to go right to the limit dramatically, even if it means I can’t quite do everything vocally that I might be able to do if it were a concert performance -¦
That’s the challenge in opera, I think, for a singer. That’s why we do opera. It’s not just meant to be a concert in a fancy frock, he says.
Pushee’s methods seem to have served him well. As well as being a recipient of a Mo and a Green Room Award, he’s also performed all over the world, from the Berlin Staatsoper to the Paris Opera. It’s been glamorous but, to his own surprise, he’s over it.
Since I moved back to Australia to live, I’m kind of going through sort of a transition stage, which is deliberate, Pushee says. I was in Europe for about 24 years, and I just got fed up with being alone. I went through a relationship that lasted for 14 years and one of the reasons we split was because we just never saw each other -¦
For my level of ambition and drive, I’ve done almost everything that I’ve wanted to do-¦ you think yes, it’s fabulous, it’s La Scala, Milan, then at the end of it you think it’s just another opera house, really. I mean, it’s dreadful!
Now based in Newtown with his partner of two years (who works at Opera Australia as head cutter of men’s costumes in the wardrobe department) Pushee is performing less and teaching more. Roles for counter-tenors in Australia are rare, so he supplements his performance work with coaching at the Con and doing some part-time artists management work. I also wanted to stop while I was still on top of it and not get to the stage where people were saying, -˜Ten years ago he used to sound really good -¦ why doesn’t somebody tell him to shut up?’ says Pushee.
For the time being, the voice remains powerful and mesmerising, in an intelligent production with a satisfyingly post-colonialist bent.
I think you do get the sense here of the British colonials -“ our Western culture -¦ is completely at sea almost in this foreign setting, Pushee says. Although they may think they have the upper hand and are the ruling party or whatever -¦ the other people have hold of the reins.
And the final word on his costume?
Fabulous! And those nails! Oh, it’s a dream, he grins. So to speak.
Opera Australia’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream continues at the Sydney Opera House on 10, 16, 18, 24 and 30 October at 7:30pm, with a matinee on 1 November. Phone 9318 8200 for bookings.