In the 2013/14 season, La Traviata was the most performed opera in the world, and it consistently ranks in the top ten of similar lists. Verdi’s enduring masterwork is never too far away from Sydney audiences; it launched the now- iconic Handa Opera on Sydney Harbour event, and it played in the Sydney Opera House earlier this year as part of the Opera Australia 2015 season.
It’s a story that has been transformed many times in the pop culture canon, from Pretty Woman to Moulin Rouge. The opera itself is an adaption (from Alexandre Dumas’ novel “The Lady of the Camellias”). It’s about a rich courtesan who abandons her lavish lifestyle for love, but who sacrifices her love for her lover’s reputation at his father’s behest, retreating to her old life to die an honourable death.
A story that was radical at the time for daring to be Romantic and for daring to redeem a courtesan and grant a woman some sense of self and some agency, time has since eroded those daring edges to see the work become the pinnacle of the safest, most traditional elite arts. The most performed opera in the world! The safest programming choice, made hundreds, thousands of times over. The sumptuous, indulgent, melodrama that is guaranteed to bring results (money) to any company that may wish to stage it.
In our impending era of “excellence” in the arts, when Arts Minister George Brandis will have the opportunity to approve or deny funding without arms-length review, we are at risk of a sea of La Traviatas: conservative, safe, art – art without political dissent, art without marginalised, oppressed voices; art without innovation, experimentation, or a healthy sense of risk.
So here come Sisters Grimm, Melbourne’s queer DIY theatre outfit (creators Ash Flanders and Declan Greene, who also directs), the company who started in parking lots and now have a Helpmann nomination and well-earned mainstage success under their belts, to throw some genuine excellence in the face of “excellence.” It’s exactly what we needed.
Downstairs at Belvoir, joined by opera performer Michael Lewis, actor and music-maker Zindzi Okenyo, and performance artist Emma Maye Gibson (AKA Betty Grumble), Sisters Grimm are tackling the big questions: is corporate-driven, pre-packaged art actually art? What good are the traditional roles of gender, sexuality, and love and in art when these ideas are no longer liberating? When artists must exchange creative self-expression and innovative, small-space ideas for advertorials and jean sponsorships, what remains of an original idea or concept?
The ideas within these questions are explosive and igniting in the Australian live arts powder-keg and they are all the more forceful for the fact that they are never turned into a lecture; rather, La Traviata is an exploration and a conversation between artists and audience about our mutual, unspoken contracts: Sisters Grimm are constantly asking and re-asking us to join them in their space, inviting us into each new iteration of their take on the classic; we are re-accepting their invitation, re-aligning ourselves into new formats like broad physical comedy, like satire, like Q&A discussion. Together we are creating the vessel for the work by letting it be presented as-is, not as-was, and by letting the artists be artists. It’s enormously rewarding as an audience member to follow Sisters Grimm under Greene’s sharp direction through this bright indictment of arts culture, and feel united.
It’s a staple of Sisters Grimm to interrogate, and ultimately abandon, narrative form. This isn’t unusual for queer works across the board, particularly in the current Australian movement; more often than not queer artists are rejecting the constraints of traditional theatrical formats that have struggled to host and include marginalised voices, and making their own – frequently non-linear and image-driven – vehicles for ideas, concerns, stories and truths.
It’s one of the best things about Sisters Grimm, who fuck with gender without batting an eyelid, throwing mustaches on and off as the mood strikes, encasing Gibson (by now a stand in for Traviata’s Violetta) in a bird cage to shine a light on her function as the woman who is motivated only by men; who dress Okenyo as a male operatic lead with touches of electric pink.
Marg Horwell’s set design is a sly comment on contemporary artistic standards in itself – the set is a blank paint-by-numbers scape, the ultimate corporatisation of artistic invention aligned to conventional, restrictive, shrink-wrapped standards of beauty. Then, the exaggerated pastoral set pieces that slowly engulf the stage as the work moves into the story of the opera are an outrageous, overstuffed joke, a smart reminder of the excess of opera with all its piles of fresh flowers and live animal processions.
Horwell’s costumes don’t stop their commentary at bird cage skirts and hot pink knee-socks, either: in the opening scene, when Flanders, Gibson and Okenyo are playing failed artists/ad execs, they are wearing T-shirts containing three separate riffs Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup Cans. It’s all references upon references upon references, a nod to another theme of the work, that contemporary culture is an ouroboros, constantly repeating itself, the old writ new with some tiny new spin, with appropriation, with an overdose of air-quotes.
And as if all of this wasn’t enough of a real gift, the show ties itself firmly to the tragedy of Violetta in La Traviata by exploring grief and loss; there is a bereavement early in the Sisters Grimm piece, and then later a near-miss. The show never belabours its point here but challenges us to think about how death is usually explored in our media, particularly on stage and particularly in traditional narratives. Death is not a beautiful sacrifice or necessarily redemptive; we escape its ugliness by coating it with arias, with colour, with artistic catharsis. Lewis is transformed in an elegiac, transcendent commentary on exactly this that mustn’t be spoiled.
The company is also brilliantly funny; their approach to comedy is a broad church, from the slapstick to the subtle, from hysterical to darkly agonised. This sophisticated use of humour to propel tragedy, pathos and political commentary is another staple of queer art; subversion of heaviness into lightness. Greene is a master conductor of it and Flanders a master conduit – there’s a moment early in the show when his ad-exec persona is pushed to his breaking point and it’s spectacular – but so too are Okenyo, and, particularly, Gibson: when her fluffy, outrageous opera stage trimmings are ripped from her and she is left without tricks to beguile her audience except ones she can create herself, she treads an exhilaratingly fine line between cringe comedy and heartbreak.
The great pleasure of La Traviata is that it is like nothing else that has been on Sydney stages this year. It is truly ambitious, truly packed with ideas, truly overflowing with innovation and interrogation and question and a sense of giddy audaciousness; the show challenges you to realise that yes, this is theatre at Belvoir, yes, this is exciting and rewarding theatre. Yes, this is what we shove aside for sure things. This is what we stand to lose in the age of “excellence”. Why are we not rioting in the streets?