A different kind of opera: Matt McFarlane on ABC and Opera Australia’s The Divorce

A landmark artistic event is taking place over four nights this week on ABC1 and it’s pretty darn exciting. Our national opera company (Opera Australia) and our national broadcaster (ABC TV) have come together to bring The Divorce, a unique, multi-platform project that will reinvent opera for television, film and online audiences all across the country.

Matt McFarlane
Matt McFarlane

The Divorce is billed as a “contemporary comedic opera written and designed especially for the screen”, and it stars some of Australia’s most loved TV and stage performers including Lisa McCune, Hugh Sheridan, Marina Prior, Kate Miller-Heidke, John O’May, Peter Cousens, Melissa Madden-Gray and Matt McFarlane.

It’s essentially a soap opera, in the most literal way possible, and it’s set to be a game changer. Australian talent, Australian content, presented by two of our national arts bodies – what is not to love about this project?

After three weeks rehearsing Aussie composer Elena Kats-Chernin’s complex music (commissioned especially for the show) in a studio, four weeks of shooting and countless hours of editing, Princess Pictures in association with ABC TV and Opera Australia are presenting the show on ABC1 over four evenings this week.

WAAPA graduate, actor, singer and all round nice-guy Matt McFarlane plays the role of William in The Divorce and he took time out to chat with AussieTheatre.com about this groundbreaking new production!

Had you heard of an opera TV series before this?

Has anyone?! Haha it’s such a strange concept, that I don’t know if anyone has had the guts to do something like this before!

How did your involvement in the project come about?

I auditioned after my agent, Catherine Poulton, sent me the brief. It was a no brainer, and the opportunity to be part of this sort of project does not often come by! I had to record a short video singing a piece of opera/musical theatre. I was lucky enough to get a call back, then I bombarded the ABC, Opera Australia and Princess Pictures with gifts and hampers, until they caved and gave me the job!

How do you think audiences will respond to the show?

It’s so hard to know. It is not a piece that will please everyone, and it’s not designed to. It is a contemporary opera/musical comedy, designed to make opera and musical theatre more accessible and fun, while even poking some fun at itself in the true Australian way! If you enjoy a stage show and appreciate light-hearted fun, you’ll love The Divorce!

What was the most challenging part of the process?

I think the music was! Elena has written such a complex and rich score. The melodies don’t head in the direction you anticipate, and the orchestrations tell such an impressive story on their own. We all needed to be on our toes every step of the way.

The lead cast of ABC and Opera Australia's The Divorce
The lead cast of ABC and Opera Australia’s The Divorce

What was the most rewarding part of the process?

When the filming part came around, we were acutely aware of a need to be accurate and quick. Like all film sets, there is never enough time, so I think the finished product is something we are all very proud of. Thank goodness for Dean Murphy our Director and DOP Roger Lanser. We were all in safe hands.

What did you learn about both TV and opera during filming?

That the two are like siblings that grew up in different countries. They rarely speak but they are still from the same family. On Monday night, the two are catching up for a dinner and some wine at a bar in the city. It will be a little strange at first, but after a few minutes, they will be gas bagging and laughing uncontrollably! They may even kick on afterwards for a kebab on the way home… Who knows?

Best moment in the show for you?

The big party scenes were epic! One of them was a scene with Jed (John O’May) and my character William. Our characters meet in the middle of the party and are forced into an awkward conversation about the woman we both love. Around us are twenty five of some of the country’s most experienced and respected performers, many of whom I have admired growing up. They were dancing and drinking wildly, and to get the chance to film a scene in amongst that was a great moment!

How would you describe The Divorce?

Imagine if the cast of The Bold and the Beautiful made a baby with Downton Abbey, and the child received a heap of singing lessons… That’s The Divorce!

Opera Australia and ABC are both government funded organisations – do you think there is a future in this kind of collaboration between our national broadcaster and our national opera company?

I really hope so! Opera suffers because of it’s stigma. Many people still feel as though it’s is only for boring, old, serious people. That’s why this project is so exciting – we are making it more accessible. The ABC is known for taking risks with content, and it’s exciting to consider what is possible if this project is received well!

What’s on the horizon for Matt McFarlane?

I am currently touring with Cats the Musical, playing Munkustrap. We have a few months left and then I’m heading over to the U.S for a while to see who I can annoy into giving me a job. Film and TV is the goal – so I will see what LA brings! If you see me on a corner wearing a toaster board and shouting slogans about a local suit manufacturer, tell me to come home.

The Divorce will be airing on ABC1 December 7-10. Also available on iView

Monday 7 December, 9.30pm
Tuesday 8 December, 9.30pm
Wednesday 9 December, 9.30pm
Thursday 10 December, 9.30pm

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Erin James is AussieTheatre.com's Editor in Chief and a performer on both stage and screen. Credits include My Fair Lady, South Pacific and The King and I (Opera Australia), Love Never Dies and Cats (Really Useful Group), Blood Brothers (Enda Markey Presents), A Place To Call Home (Foxtel/Channel 7) and the feature film The Little Death (written and directed by Josh Lawson).

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