January 2006

A true man of the theatre- plus food and art


John Wregg's 15 years as a resident director with Opera Australia, and his continuing work in that area, obviously mark him out as an opera director. But that is not all he has done in his working life, a point that is made by one of his latest ventures: leading a three-week tour of Italian opera, art and food. The pieces of this jigsaw puzzle of Wregg's longterm loves - that is, all four of the above, including the country - begin in his Melbourne childhood. He recalls persuading his mother at the age of about eight that he didn't need a babysitter when she went out because he was perfectly capable of preparing his own dinner and looking after himself.

As a university student, he worked part-time in the food industry and went on to establish himself in the role of a butler called Johns. (Yes, his first name with an s on the end. (Very proper sounding.) A few years on, in the 1970s, he worked as a chef to stars such as Carole Channing when she toured Australia, and Cyd Charisse. He has an astounding story to tell of preparing a wedding feast for Michael and Jeni Edgley. Jeni phoned him the evening before the event, explaining she and Michael were getting married in Melbourne the next day but had to fly to Sydney for a premiere in the evening, so they wouldn't be able to begin the celebrations back in Melbourne until midnight.

They didn't know how many were coming but he had cooked in the apartment before and he knew where the key was: how about it? In the following 24 hours, Wregg prepared a six course sit-down dinner for 16 that could be a buffet for 60. In the event, there were 82 guests and apparently no one went away hungry.

Cyd Charisse was so ridiculously easy to cook for - a boiled egg - that they came to a mutual understanding that she didn't need a personal chef. He did, however, create a fabulous gilded birthday cake for her. Carole Channing was the opposite in that she was super-sensitive to any chemicals in food. Everything had to be organic in an era when nothing much was, and she would eat only one type of food in a day so she would know what had upset her if she became ill.

Wregg has never lost his love of food and its preparation. Meanwhile, he had graduated with a law degree, despite his growing involvement in theatre which took him on tour with the Melbourne Theatre Company as an actor in his final year of university studies. His fellow student actors included Graeme Blundell and Patrick McCaughey. Jack Hibberd started writing for them and as an evolving group, they became the starting point for the Pram Factory.

After doing some directing, which was what he most wanted as a career in the performing arts, Wregg went to London to try his luck. Nothing came his way in three months so he took off to Italy for 10 days holiday in January 1970.

He stayed two and a half years, working initially as an actor in spaghetti westerns that were being made in Rome.

One day, when he stepped off the set after a half-day call for a David Niven film called The Statue, in which he was playing an English bobby, he noticed Fellini making a movie on the set next door.

Too good a chance to miss, he thought, so he slipped inside at what happened to be a break and sat down where he hoped no one would notice him.

Next thing, Fellini came and sat in front of him. "He just ignored me. I sat there for three and a half hours while he tried to get an extremely simple effect going. He wanted a very tawdry stage effect for a mermaid in a circus. But no one knew what to do. Eventually I couldn't help myself. I said: ‘What you need is the strand ripple effect of a number 46 - a lighting effect using a revolving cylinder. He said, you had better stay. So I went back for the rest of the shoot.’"

Wregg's movie career ended when he returned to Australia, cooking during the day and directing amateur theatre groups at night. He found Australia in 1973 "very in-your-face and crass after Italy. I retired into my parents' back garden and built a replica of a Roman fountain."

By 1976, he was running Australian Theatre for Young People and wanting to direct opera, for which he was considered both too experienced and not experienced enough. He recalls going to Aida when he was about 10, and then, at university, dressing up and going to the opera with a fellow student, who happened to be Elijah Moshinsky.

It was 1981 before he finally achieved his aim of joining what was then the Australian Opera as a resident director. He assisted John Copley on Madama Butterfly: "He was a hard task master but I learned a lot; he was a fantastic mentor."

Then he worked with George Ogilvie on Falstaff and reconstructed La Traviata from a video. In all, he directed 20 revivals - "it was very important they were kept at a high standard" - and five new productions.

One of the most memorable operas for him is Lucia di Lammermoor in which he worked first with Joan Sutherland in 1983 and most recently with Sumi Jo in 2004. There was one nightmare occasion when he was directing Jennifer McGregor in the title role after the set had not only been swapped between the Opera Theatre and the Concert Hall at the Sydney Opera House but lent to the State Opera of South Australia, where it had been changed to suit its production. He knew the position of the staircase, essential to two acts, had been changed at some point: where was it now?

The video, he says, told him nothing because it was so tightly focused on Sutherland. His predecessor as director had written nothing down about the staircase. He had a floor plan, but that had the South Australian production marked out on it. He made his directing decision for rehearsals and, finally, the set was brought out for the season.

It was only then, with Copley due to arrive for the stage call the next day, that Wregg made the awful discovery: "The staircase was in a completely different position!" With the cando spirit of the man who created a midnight wedding breakfast for an unknown guest list in 24 hours, he restaged those scenes for the 30 chorus members whom he had coming and going right where the staircase turned out to be, and overnight wrote each of them an essay as to what they should do instead. And it all happened!

Wregg has particularly proud memories of one of his original productions for Opera Australia: that of Aida in the mid-1990s, the first that Simone Young conducted on her return to Australia, with designs by Kenneth Rowell and starring Lisa Gasteen. Most recently, he has directed Un Ballo in Maschera for Opera Queensland, for whom he is engaged to direct Lucia in 2006, and a double bill of Suor Angelica and Pagliacci for Canterbury Opera in NZ. He has been teaching young artists and is involved in a singing competition sponsored by the popular pasta makers, Barilla. He advises everyone to watch out for its successful Melbourne-based entrant Christopher Tonkin who has earned coaching in Italian language and musical style and stagecraft, as well as performances as Marcello.

On the visual arts side of his life, Wregg is personally interested in art - especially contemporary and Aboriginal art - and professionally involved with theatre design. He has a tiny gallery at his home - the only gallery in the world devoted to theatre designs, so far as he knows - and he represents the top Australian designers for theatre, opera and dance, selling their designs from his gallery. "I thought it was terrible that these beautiful things could be kept in people's drawers and never seen again."

In Italy, where he and his wife Judith own a home, he is developing a project that brings together Pietro Mascagni and the theatre of Livorno, the town where he was born.

In Australia, he is involved with Simply Opera, which takes small scale productions on tour about every two years to places where opera doesn't usually go. He is writing a play about a company putting on a production of Tosca where "everything goes wrong but the singing is wonderful." And more.

So if ever there was any question about the background to lead a tour in Italy on food, art and opera for the firm Convivial Times, this man surely has it.

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