The launch of Sydney’s winter opera season this week brings with it a strange mix of feelings for Opera Australia members and their fans.

The program on offer brings everything from kitschy Rossini mini-operas to the rigorous delights of Wagner. With Puccini’s Butterfly, Strauss’s Salome and Berg’s Lulu, there’s something for everyone.

But the other fact underlying the tone of the season is the impending and controversial departure of music director Simone Young. Although she’s won the heart of audiences and critics, the Opera Australia board decided late last year not to renew her contract as they claimed her vision was too expensive to fund.

It is her third season as director and, given the long time line for season planning, it’s only now that her vision has really come to fruition.

Young is remarkably buoyant when I talk with her in her Surry Hills office in between rehearsals.

It’s exciting because this is what we’ve been working towards and it has a certain poignancy because, now that it is my last season with the company, it has a slightly different dynamic to it. But it’s a phenomenal season that we have been gearing towards for a long time. We have some young singers taking on new roles for the first time that we’ve been planning for a couple of years, Young tells me.

When asked, Young can talk excitedly for ages about her rise in the international opera world, the people she’s met and the unexpected challenges and opportunities that have been thrown her way. But she talks just as passionately about the group of young musicians and singers she has brought together in Sydney.

That is exactly the joy of being the music director, she tells me. It’s certainly not all the crap and the politics. What you’re putting on the stage is the result of your creative thinking, whether it’s that you’ve worked on the music or whether it’s the fact that you’ve looked at this singer doing something and you’ve thought, I think this singer can do that and you’ve taken them in a new direction. I love it when that works -“ it’s really exciting.

Young started at Opera Australia almost 20 years ago as a rehearsal pianist and came under the spell of Stuart Challender, the great Sydney conductor whose burgeoning career was cut short by HIV in 1991. She still talks with great fondness of her friend and mentor.

Stuart meant an enormous amount to me not just musically but in the way he thought and the way he dealt with society. He always thought that an artist had to have a social conscience and have the courage to say what they thought and I fully agree with him. I kind of feel like I have inherited Stuart’s mantle. His death was a huge tragedy. I often think where Australian music would be if Stuart hadn’t died so young. I think it would be a lot further advanced, she says.

At Challender’s behest, Young went overseas to learn her trade and returned some 15 years on as one of the hottest Wagner conductors in Europe. It’s ironic that this season will be the first time she has conducted Wagner in Sydney. She simply refuses to conduct Wagner in the Opera House’s small hooded pit. But this week will see her in the pit at the grand Capitol Theatre for Wagner’s Meistersingers Of Nuremberg.

The first time she conducted Meistersinger was in Munich when she was called in at the last minute after the scheduled conductor ripped his shoulder.

They rang me on the Friday night and said, -˜Will you come and conduct Meistersinger for us on Sunday because our conductor’s torn his shoulder?’ -¦ I took the train from Vienna to Munich because it takes four and half hours, which is exactly the length of Meistersinger. At the start of the journey I opened that score and went through it in real time -¦ every now and then there’s a performance where everyone’s on the edge of their seats and you find something extra, it was an extraordinary performance.

In a sense the Sydney performances will be just as exciting. Her own team assembled over the last three years. Her first Wagner with Sydney audiences. An opera she knows and absolutely loves.

It’s an exciting, uplifting, energising night in the theatre and, if we get it right, you won’t notice how long it is, she laughs.

Although it’s Wagner, it’s billed as his only comedy.
It’s a very gentle comedy, it’s not a belly laugh kind of humour but it’s the kind of humour that will leave you with a smile on your face for most of the evening, Young explains.

And she promises to leave you in bliss. Young has a theory about music in the key of C Major and the release of human endorphins.

I get to the end of the night and the last five minutes are in C Major and I’m actually whacked by this stage and along comes the C Major and you just suddenly feel really, really great. I’m sure there is something about that set-up of harmonics and the sort of colour of the key that just makes you feel good.

Young seems unstoppable -“ there isn’t a trace of bitterness, in spite of what she refers to as the mess that happened last year. Her only concern is that the show goes on.

I’ve been incredibly lucky and I feel really appreciated and cherished by the general public and that includes people who’ve never been to see me work -¦ I was very young when I went to Europe and I was a girl going to the bastion of conventional sexual stereotypes and I never let that influence my choices in any way. If people value and celebrate me for that, I can’t tell you how humbled and grateful that makes me feel.

Simone Young conducts Wagner’s Miestersinger on 5, 8, 11, 16 and 19 July at the Capitol Theatre. Make bookings on Ticketmaster 7 by phoning 1300 136 166.

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