It's been a good year for Richard Gill. As musical director of Victorian Opera, he had the arduous task of guiding the company through its inaugural season and was rewarded with appreciative audiences.
"There's undeniable approbation. People are feeling a sense of ownership and saying it's about time we had our own company again."
Victorian Opera has reached the end of the year with a financial surplus due to a combination of frugal administration and healthy ticket sales.
The Gala in July filled the 2,400 seats of Hamer Hall. "It was great to walk out and see a full house," Gill says. The concert version of Metamorphosis and the education program Noye's Fludde also sold out.
"I'm really thrilled with the way the kids responded to Noye's Fludde. There was a fantastic feeling in the house. It was a very successful event as it introduced a whole range of families who have never had any taste of opera. That's an aspect of our work we will maintain and nurture."
A highlight of the year was the company's production of Cosi Fan Tutte "I loved working with Jean Pierre Mignon. He's one of the few opera directors who really understand how the music works, particularly Mozart, so we had a wonderful collaboration. The cast was essentially local, aside from Chris Saunders who's a Queenslander, and it was great to know that Melbourne could mount a first-class cast."
The company's developing artists were featured throughout the season and will continue with the program next year.
"I think they've done remarkably well. They were all asked to write a reflection on their year and the response was overwhelmingly that it was a turning point for them. Because we treat them not like students, but as you would treat a professional. And they have responded really positively with what they've learned from drama, language, and music coaching.
"A lot of them got a shock about the nature of preparation and now they understand they really need to be absolutely on the money the minute they walk into the rehearsal room to get the most out of it."
This year also saw Gill promoting the cause of opera through television. He appeared as a guest panellist on the music quiz Spicks and Specks, one of ABC-TV's top-rating shows, and was a judge on reality series Operatunity Oz. The final episode of the series attracted close to a million viewers, which is not far off Spicks and Specks figures. The viewing audience was even more impressive considering Operatunity Oz screened up against Australian Idol.
"Operatunity Oz has had a extraordinary effect on people's understanding and views of opera. We've had kids who normally watch Idol switching to Operatunity Oz because they could see that these people were seriously talented, and the judges were serious, not flippant or trying to be TV stars.
"We were there trying to find somebody who might one day end up on the main stage so the concept made really good television. I think it's done nothing but good for opera."
Gill believes the series winner David Parkin and the two runners-up may have operatic careers in the future, though they all have much hard work to do.
"I was very concerned the whole time that we didn't give the public the impression that you could make an opera singer overnight. Emily Burke is a soprano and there are seven trillion sopranos in the world and Roy Best is a very useful tenor who made leaps and bounds.
"But David Parkin was for me the voice. A true bass voice is very rare and when you find one, it's really exciting. He's also very tall, solidly built and easy on the eye. When he walked into the room I thought OK, this is the one."
Another event bringing opera to the community is Sing Your Own Opera, one of Gill's activities with Victorian Opera next year. Accompanied by Orchestra Victoria, eager amateurs can enjoy a four and a half hour sing-along of favourite choruses and arias. "It allows everyone to come and find out about opera and the way it can be enjoyed by participation."
The opening show for the 2007 season will be a Stravinsky double-bill at Hamer Hall compromising Les Noces and Oedipus Rex in concert, providing an outing for a sizeable chorus.
Next is the education program, The Snow Queen, which is a work for secondary school and university students. "We've already had a keen interest from lots of them who want to take part," says Gill. The performance will involve the Victorian Youth Orchestra, with designs provided by the VCA School of Production.
In the new season, the company increases its main stage productions to two with the Berlioz arrangement of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice directed by Stephen Page, and a new Australian work, Love of the Nightingale, in a cost effective co-production with five other organisations from Queensland and Western Australia.
"The criticism some people might make of the season is that there's no 19th century work in there. There's no Verdi, no Puccini, Massenet or Bizet. In response, I would say that to do those works properly we would need to go into the State Theatre which is an expensive exercise, plus outlay the cost of sets and designs that a work in the State Theatre generates.
"In time we will get down to that sort of repertoire but I also need to bring repertoire to Victoria that Opera Australia doesn't bring all the time and that provides a balance to the other local companies."
Cosi Fan Tutte returns for a regional tour in 2007, to be performed in English by a cast comprised mostly of the developing artists, with a scaled-down orchestra that can fit into rural venues. "I'll be going out on the tour and visiting the local centres and getting a taste for what's happening in regional Victoria," Gill says.
Currently he remains working in Melbourne, this time for Opera Australia, as he conducts Handel's Giulio Cesare in a revival of the popular production originally devised by Francisco Negrin in 1994.
Gill is now a resident of Melbourne and will be joined by his wife at the end of the year. "But I don't know that one settles anywhere," he says of the musician's life. Nonetheless, his enthusiasm for the Victorian Opera venture has endeared him to Melburnians.
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