It was
supposed to be a celebratory occasion, but Richard Gill sounded like a
man on the defensive as he hosted the inaugural performance of his new
opera company.

Friday night in Melbourne saw the birth of the
Victorian Opera. And this was a company taking the idea of infancy
almost literally, with many of the performers not that long out of
kindy. It was an all-student event: 130 of them, aged eight to 24,
making up the cast, chorus and orchestra for a performance of Noye’s Fludde, an opera about Noah and the Ark that Benjamin Britten wrote especially for kids.

Aside
from a very impressive set design by Melissa Page, this event had the
feel of a Year Six prize night. Sure, the performances were all
competent and it was impressive that director Naomi Edwards had managed
to wrangle so many young things in such a short space of time – the
rehearsal period was less than a fortnight. But this production never
rose above competent amateurism, which is a lot less than Melbourne had
been expecting from this much-heralded company.

All the
political rhetoric that surrounded the establishment of the VO was
about providing opportunities for Victorian opera practitioners and
providing a better deal for local audiences, who were allegedly poorly
served by the diminished Melbourne seasons offered by Opera Australia.

More
recently, however, the rhetoric has shifted, with Richard Gill pushing
the education angle, arguing that the VO is all about securing the
“future” of opera in Victoria. I got the feeling on Friday night that
the future was a long way away.

In two opening-night speeches,
Gill hit back at criticism over his decision to launch the VO with a
youth production, arguing that education should be a priority for any
arts company. His defenders say the school holidays may have forced the
scheduling of Noye’s Fludde ahead of a big gala concert on July 15. Mercifully, the gala promises to be a more grown-up event.

Peter Fray

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