Sandra Willis – Manager of Oz Opera

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Chris Ross-Smith interviews Sandra Willis, Manager of Oz Opera, which presents Mozart’s Don Giovanni at Lazenby Hall on August 22. 

Apart from being a check-out chick at Coles during her years as a student, Sandra Willis has spent all of her working life in the management and technical areas of the performing arts. Originally wanting to be a performer, she soon realised that although reasonably accomplished, she actually preferred the challenges of working behind the scenes and production management. Following a successful work experience at the Australian Opera, she undertook the three year technical production course at NIDA and then was immediately invited to become a stage manager at Opera Australia.

She has worked for numerous companies and festivals, including being the Company Manager for The Bell Shakespeare Company and also being the inaugural Company Manager for the Australian stage production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert in Sydney and Melbourne. In that production she was confronted by enormous challenges in a company of 120 people, while the show was re-worked four times. She felt then that if she could do that, she could do anything.

When I talked to her yesterday, she seemed more than pleased with the early performances of Don Giovanni, so I began by quoting an extract from the company’s publicity.

“To many people, Don Giovanni is the best opera ever written. I want to make sure everyone knows why, by giving Australians from all walks of life an experience of this opera that will knock their socks off!” says Lyndon Terracini, Artistic Director of Opera Australia, who has selected this show for the 2012 Oz Opera National Tour and cast Michael Gow as Director and a raft of young Principal Artists to perform.

“The reason I wanted to have Michael Gow direct Don Giovanni for the Oz Opera Regional Tour was that as a theatre director, he has a great sense of showmanship. So it won’t just be good opera, but a great show! … And we have some of our best young performers in the lead roles, so we make sure the standard is one that we can be really proud of.”

Why are you so excited about Don Giovanni?

It is a really tight, exciting production. The director Michael Gow has brought to it all his skills as an artistic director of a large theatre company, a director of actors and an established playwright. He has treated the singers as actors, although they remain beautiful singers and encouraged bold, believable performances with excellent diction.

Many experienced opera aficionados have said they have enjoyed this production more than many others. The cast is very strong and although most of them play two roles, they are all so accomplished.

What particular aspects will please our audience?

I have never seen such strong and successful double casting. Such handsome men playing opposite such spunky women. Luke Gabbedy, who plays the principal role of Don Giovanni, is quite excellent amongst an outstanding cast of twelve. He has played over fifteen separate roles at Opera Australia, including Papegeno, Demetrius and Mercutio. The orchestra is terrific, and most people thought it a much larger group than its nine performers.

This is a great theatrical production adapted and staged beautifully by Michael Gow, with a new exciting translation from Anthony Legge.

To quote Michael Gow: “It’s really fast-paced, really passionate, really violent and really funny. It has a kind of 1950s ‘La Dolce Vita’ feel to it. If you’ve never been to the opera before, this is a great one. It’s got the big operatic numbers, a very famous duet, some comedy, and great twist at the end!”

I promise that Armidale will really enjoy it. This particular production is strong indeed and easy to understand … a variation on the story of Casanova and his last 24 hours. Although a very dubious character, he presents with enormous charm. So much so, that during one of his important serenades, I was quite affected and said to myself, “Yup – that’s what it is all about!”

Why has Michael Gow set it in the fifties?

This has been done deliberately. Michael lives in far north Queensland, where there are many Italian immigrants. He has seen the opera performed there and knew that the Italians missed their language, so that influenced his decision to have one serenade kept in Italian. He has set it in Italy in the 1950s, because that was the last period where women’s roles were carefully defined by marriage and preserving virginity was highly regarded, although challenges were strong. Additionally, it’s just such a stylish era.

How do you answer those who question why your touring productions are always sung in English, rather than the language of the opera? 

The problem is the necessity of accessibility and audience development. We are attempting to encourage and develop an audience for opera. Most newcomers to opera only speak English, and we have evidence that they would be discouraged if they couldn’t understand it. The English Opera Company has the same approach. Once people become opera enthusiasts, then they may want the original language as well. We have to accept that our policy does not always satisfy those who are passionate about hearing the original language of the opera. However, I do love this translation.

What is the difference between Oz Opera and Opera Australia?

Opera Australia is our national company performing in the big cities, with sets, musicians and casts of such size that their productions would seldom fit into even the largest regional Performing Arts Centre.

Oz Opera has been the touring arm of Opera Australia since 1996, bringing high quality opera to all Australians, regardless of where they live. The annual core activities include a nation-wide regional tour of a full scale opera and two schools company tours to primary school students across metropolitan and regional Victoria and New South Wales. Each year Oz Opera performs to an audience of up to 100,000 people.

Oz Opera’s schools company aims to introduce young people to the experience of live performance and to enhance classroom learning in the areas of music and drama.

What is the purpose or mission of Oz Opera?

Our job at Oz Opera is to reduce the scale of Opera Australian productions, but maintain their quality so that operas can be presented in towns all over this country, including places like Tennant Creek, even though there are not enough hotel rooms to accommodate our company. Our mission is to enrich Australia’s cultural life with exceptional opera that excites audiences outside of the capital cities. Oz Opera has presented a highly successful regional tour every year of its existence.

Engagement and accessibility – geographic, artistic and financial are central tenets of our organisation, as is the development of new audiences. We conduct opera workshops to over eighty thousand students a year, with some of our best artists singing in their classrooms. Janet Todd, who plays Zerlina, found her love of opera witnessing such a classroom production.

Do you have evidence that your mission is being accomplished?

You wouldn’t have us back if there wasn’t a demand. We have more demand nationally than we can service. Armidale is the only centre in NSW to have presented every opera since our inception. We have an established relationship and a growing audience in the Armidale community, starting in 1997 with The Magic Flute and then followed by six operas including La Traviata in 2010, and now we look forward to performing our new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni on 22nd of August.

One of my favourite quotes was hearing a young girl at school, when asked if she had any questions about our opera workshop, saying: “I don’t have any questions. This is the first opera I’ve ever seen, and I love it.”

Why should a city like Armidale have a Performing Arts Centre when we have several smaller venues?

The challenge of performing in Armidale is quite definitely the lack of a suitable venue for my type of company.

We have always performed in Lazenby Hall, part of the UNE campus. The hall is the only space with a seating capacity of over 400,  which means all production, publicity, insurance and venue hire costs can be covered by a reasonably full house. However, as the hall contains too small a stage, we’re required to use the auditorium floor, bringing and building our own system of rostra pieces in order to elevate the performance space so the audience can see the performers. Armidale is the only centre on our tour where this is required, which means we have to transport a whole set of rostra for thousands of kilometres for just one performance. This comes as a large additional expense to Oz Opera.

Most medium to large touring companies are simply unable to perform in this venue due to these factors. As you know, this also has the effect of restricting the number of tickets available for sale, as it omits the first eight rows of floor seating, meaning a loss of over 200 seats – which affects your ability to cover costs as a presenter.

In addition, the venue is owned and used by the university, meaning that its use for the regional performing arts touring circuit is very limited and reliant on fitting in with the university‘s own commitments, which are not planned anywhere near as far in advance as regional tours.

Apart from being a centre for education and agriculture, you are certainly well known for your cultural activities throughout Australia, yet you’re missing so much of what’s on offer from the professional touring circuit.

There would be many advantages to building a dedicated Performing Arts Centre in Armidale, which would be of great benefit to the city. These include a suitable loading dock and orchestra pit and a stage with sprung floor appropriate for a variety of medium to large scale productions. It could enliven the centre of town and your Mall, act as a community centre and venue for your local productions, yet encourage visitors to see many more touring performances to the region, including dance, drama, music theatre, opera and classical music.

Port Macquarie’s new Arts Centre has done this so successfully that apart from now hosting many touring productions, it has gone from presenting one to three performances of Oz Opera in two years.

Is there any evidence that your type of company has an economic impact on a town such as Armidale?

It is important to note the economic impact that a regional touring company can have on the local area. For example, when Oz Opera tours in 2012, we will book 30 hotel rooms for two nights at a cost of at least $120 per night and have approximately 180 meals there, most of which will be in local cafés and restaurants. The company members act as normal buying tourists in their spare time, so over $12,000 may be spent by Oz Opera in Armidale over two days. You may also have audience members coming to town from surrounding areas.

If Armidale was to have a dedicated Performing Arts Centre, I am sure there would be much more touring to Armidale by many of Australia’s leading performing arts companies, which would stimulate the local community economically and provide artistic experiences that would not otherwise be available. Extra activities such as workshops and master classes would provide professional development opportunities for local artists, arts workers and students.

Oz Opera very much enjoys coming to Armidale. It is one of the few cities in Australia that has been part of every Oz Opera tour since the very beginning. You have a committed and enthusiastic audience and The Armidillos Theatre Company is a very reliable presenter and one we enjoy working with.

Has Oz Opera experienced any serious mishaps?

Not on my watch, but a singer in one of our earlier productions in north Queensland was bitten by a truly venomous snake before taking his curtain call. He was saved by his thick pants and spats, but was seriously unnerved.

Thank you Sandra.

Oz Opera’s Don Giovanni will be appearing at the Lazenby Hall on August 22 at 7.30pm.

Tickets are available at Readers Companion from July 23,
Beardy Street Mall, Armidale.

This story was published in issue 63 of New England Focus

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