Opera Queensland meld languages, cultures, and epochs in an award-winning production of ‘A Flowering Tree’, opening at Queensland Performing Arts Centre this April.
Taking its cue from a Southern Indian folk tale, ‘A Flowering Tree’ tells the story of a beautiful (but, of course) peasant girl with the ability to transform herself into the eponymous botanical. Suitably impressed, the Prince insists on marrying her. However, the couple do not live happily ever after.
The production’s video designer Mic Gruchy elaborates. “Poor old Kumudha [the female protagonist] has a horrible time. Her mother-in-law and sister-in-law are just evil! They're trying to thwart the marriage and persecute the beautiful young commoner. It's real drama.”
He continues, “It's one of those classic mythical fairy tale stories in terms of love and rejection. Really it's human nature.”
Opera fans might note the themes of magic, metamorphosis, and redemptive love are similar to Mozart’s ‘The Magic Flute’. It’s no coincidence: composer John Adams was inspired by Mozart’s final opera when he wrote ‘A Flowering Tree’ in 2006, in honour of the 250th anniversary of the Austrian wunderkind’s birth.
An Indian story, composed by an American, which premiered in Austria – what language can the audience expect?
Mic explains, “The principles sing in English. The main story is in English, but because when it was first produced, the singers they had were all South American, the chorus sing in Spanish.”
“There are three principals and a large chorus. It's actually written as a concert piece, which is a much more real, fully involved musical experience. The principals move around the orchestra and the chorus. It’s very different compared to your standard full production of a dramatic opera with a set and everyone in full costume.”
Technology is an essential part of the production. Mic says, “video allows us to visualise a lot of that stuff [namely, the soprano turning into a tree and – spoiler alert – a disfigured torso] in a lyrical way, rather than a literal way. There are a lot of completely lyrical elements that tell the story in poetic images.”
“It’s beautiful. We’re blending an old folk tale, timeless themes, a 500-year-old art form, and new technology.”
Mic is unconcerned that opera purists might resent the encroachment of technology onto a venerable tradition.
“Opera is the original multimedia form. It's always had everything in it. Think of ‘Aida’ – dancers, drama, the set, the lighting, the animals on stage if you want. It's always integrated a number of different mediums. That's why opera is such a useful medium for integrating technology, because it's always had everything in it. “
This particular production premiered in Perth in 2009, where it won a Helpmann Award (accolades for the live entertainment industry). Mic is excited to be resurrecting the show ten years later.
“The technology is much better. To look at it all again, and see how much more resolution, how much more power [we’ve got]. The scale of the event is larger and more complex. It’s really lovely to get an opportunity to do it again, and do it better!”
‘A Flowering Tree’ acts as a gateway opera for neophytes. “This is a beautiful, highly-accessible piece. My friends are bringing their young daughters along. A lot of people enjoy it and it's not four hours long.”
'A Flowering Tree' plays Queensland Performing Arts Centre from 2-6 April.