Pinchgut Opera is bringing French opera Platée to the Sydney stage this December. It marks the Australian stage debut for this opera by Rameau, which was the first French comic opera.
We had a chat to Erin Helyard, co-founder and Artistic Director of Pinchgut Opera, while deep in rehearsals for Platée.
Bonjour Erin, and thanks for taking the time to chat with me. You’re currently in rehearsals for Platée, a Pinchgut Opera production which is on in Sydney this December. Could you tell us a little about this production?
Platée is one of the great masterpieces of the Enlightenment. It is ostensibly a tragédie lyrique in drag: a burlesque adorned with all the finest trappings of the French baroque. Everything is subverted in this piece, the leading man is a water nymph in drag, and the leading lady is portraying madness (La Folie). Audiences were completely divided. Voltaire saw it and hated it (although he was deeply conservative in the theatre) and Rousseau thought it a masterpiece. It is the first French comic opera, and it is magnificent.
It’s an Australian stage debut. Why do you think no other Australian or touring company has taken on this masterpiece before?
It is very hard to cast the role of Platée. First you need a haute-contre, which is a tenor who can sing in a high register. The French never liked castrati, but they loved high tenors. Not only do you need someone extremely musical, but you also need someone who is a fine actor and is able to extract all the comedy and be able to improvise. Kanen Breen is the only person who has all of these qualities in abundance and is one of the finest artists I’ve ever had the pleasure of working with. Without Kanen, I would never have chosen this work.
Has Pinchgut Opera performed Rameau’s other works before?
Yes! We have performed Dardanus, Castor et Pollux, Pigmalion, and Anacréon.
Do you speak French – I note you spent some time in Montreal so may have also spoken it there?
I do speak French! I read it better than I speak it these days, although I don’t have much trouble understanding it. I spent 8 years in Montréal, studying at McGill University. I had a Francophone boyfriend, François, and he helped me learn it. I’m not as fluent as I used to be, and I have a Québécois accent, which makes everyone laugh. The interesting thing is that the Québécois accent is MUCH closer to eighteenth-century French diction than modern French, so I learnt a lot about eighteenth-century French poetry this way.
Pinchgut Opera prides itself on being the only Australian company dedicated to Baroque opera and vocal music. How does Platée sit within the Baroque operas?
“Formons un spectacle nouveau” (Let us create a new entertainment) sings the chorus in the prologue. Ostensibly they are referring to the allegorical birth of comedy itself. Thespis (the inventor of comedy) plans with L’Amour (Cupid), Momus (the god of ridicule) and Thalie (the muse of comedy) to expose and satirise the frailties and faults of both the mortals and the gods. But this “spectacle nouveau” was also something else completely: the birth of a comic opera every bit as sophisticated and sublime as the epic tragedies that dominated the French stage at the time. A contemporary observed that “Platée will remain without a rival as it is without a model”. Platée was unique and original.
How do you choose the operas that Pinchgut Opera will perform?
With difficulty! As there are just so many. I like to balance seventeenth-century Venetian opera with eighteenth-century French and Italian opera.
You’re the Artistic Director at Pinchgut Opera and the conductor for this particular opera, Platée. Could you please tell us a little about these roles and whether each one fulfils a different creative need?
Being artistic director means having a broad vision for the creative direction the company is taking, whereas conducting each show has specific challenges unique to each production. I conduct from the harpsichord, just as Rameau did.
What made you decide to pursue a career in music?
Music chose me as much as I chose music.
Did you play music as a child? Is anyone in your family also musically talented?
Yes! I played piano and my mother encouraged me to do so. There aren’t any musicians in the family, just lots of creativity (writers, artists, teachers).
You’ve both studied and worked here and in Montreal. What has been your career highlight to date?
It was wonderful working in Montréal as there is a large early music scene there and I had the pleasure of performing a lot, which is important to any artist’s development. I would have to say that so far my career highlight was conducting the revival of Barrie Kosky’s Saul at the Adelaide Festival in 2017.
Your university studies ranged from harpsichord to fortepiano. Do you have a favourite instrument? Or is it like choosing a favourite child (best not to choose/say out loud!)?
I love all keyboard instruments and am equally (and differently) inspired by all of them.
How has COVID-19 affected Pinchgut Opera’s 2021 season?
It forced us to adapt and change and but also to refine and strengthen our vision. It was horribly tough and depressing but also very rejuvenating, as we had the time to recognise what was essential and important to us as a company.
What’s your favourite opera to conduct?
Any Cavalli opera!
What’s your favourite opera to listen to/watch?
L’enfant et les sortilèges
Anything else you’d like to tell us about Platée?
Buy a ticket and see it! It will be extraordinary, and it may not ever be performed again in Australia for a long, long time.
We thank Erin Helyard for his time talking to us about Platée.
KEY INFO FOR PLATÉE
WHAT: Platée, a French comic opera by Rameau
WHO: Pinchgut Opera
WHERE: City Recital Hall, Sydney
WHEN: 1, 2,4, 5 and 8 December
HOW: Purchase your tickets to Platée at the Pinchgut Opera page: https://www.pinchgutopera.com.au/2021-season
You can also book your tickets by phone on 02 9318 8300.
Ticket prices exclusive of $9.80 booking fee are as follows:
- Premium Reserve $200
- A Reserve $167
- B Reserve $136 (under 30 $65)
- C Reserve $99 (under 30 $55)
- D Reserve $69 (under 30 $55)
- E Reserve (Restricted view) $55 (under 30 $55)
Have you seen any Rameau operas before? Or been to any Pinchgut Opera productions? Do you have a favourite French opera?
For other events with French links happening around Australia and online, take a look at our article What’s on in November.
If you like opera, you may also be interested in our article about Bohème on the Beach.