Jocelyn Hickey, Christa Hughes and Benjamin Namdarian (left to right) in How To Kill Your Husband | Malthouse Theatre

Kathy Lette is like, say, rock climbing: I understand the appeal, it’s just not for me. There’d be many who’d say the same about opera, I suppose. So are you attracting new audiences by stitching the two together, as some sort of theatrical Frankenstein, or just alienating even more?

Perhaps a bit of both. You’ll have to be a committed fan of either to really embrace Victorian Opera’s new tortuously domestic quasi-operetta How To Kill Your Husband (And Other Handy Household Hints). Or “cabaret opera” as the company’s avuncular musical maestro Richard Gill describes it in the program, a phrase that will strike fear into the hearts of subscribers alone.

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HTKYH (AOHHH) stands as more of a musical achievement than a theatrical one. The hash of bawdy jazz and bright, bubbly baroque, among other musical infusions, is a showcase for gifted Australian composer Alan John. He returns to the Malthouse Theatre, where his 1998 chamber opera Through The Looking Glass won plaudits, with another accomplished work. It’s sweetly accessible — unlike other home-grown operas such as last year’s Bliss, which challenged many ears — while still managing to jolt the audience out of their comfort zones with unexpected shifts in style and mood.

Together with Timothy Daly, who adapted the book and co-wrote the libretto, they borrow the sharpest barbs from Lette’s fiction. But the book’s tale — I haven’t read it; the Sydney Morning Herald‘s review shrewdly questioned whether “the mummy martyrdom schtick is getting old” — feels dated after just five years. Or the idea of desperate housewives compulsively shopping and endlessly complaining about their layabout husbands wasn’t particularly fresh to begin with.

Lette’s nightmare of matrimonial prison and maniacal escape plans surely insults more women than it relates to. And others fairer and smarter will debate the contribution this sort of rancour chic-lit has on feminism and gender relations. It’s dark satire, to be sure, with a good dose of wit. But the premise seems a stretch even in opera standards.

Under experienced theatre director Naomi Edwards, two creative missteps stand out. The first is in design: Jasper Knight’s staging could be best described as economical, or at worst unimaginatively cheap. Gill’s well-reherased chamber band, cleverly enough, take centre stage on a backyard deck, reminiscent (if far less enchanting) of Baz Luhrmann’s bandstand in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The brisk scenes play out with just a few props —  a couch, a kitchen bench, a bar — wheeled into place on fork lifts. A fibreglass pool shell is strung up as the only backdrop, and the projected lighting design isn’t particularly helpful.

The second grating note, and only real criticism of John’s score, is in the decision to cast one of the good-for-nothing blokes as a counter-tenor. Tobias Cole (he was in Midsummer last year, too) handles it well, and the point of emasculation isn’t lost, but the strained vocal was more distracting than trenchant. The young cast, though, are all sound: Cole as the philandering doctor Studs, Dimity Shepherd as his well-heeled wife Jazz, Jocelyn Hickey as overworked mum Cass and Benjamin Namdarian as the deadbeat daddy Rory. Their vocal ability impresses, even if the characters are cardboard-thin.

Daly ties the story together by introducing a narrator and guardian angel for the female protagonists, allowing a blindingly sequined Melissa Langton, a consummate musical performer, to deliver a typically brassy performance. Cabaret performer Christa Hughes also hogs attention as Bianca, the uninhibited sex therapist called on by Cass and Rory. Gary Rowley plays three minor roles, and Matt Snooks is cast purely for aesthetics as a silent toy boy.

What must be celebrated is Victorian Opera’s ambition. Its investment in new Australian work is unparalleled, when the rewards for doing it are few. It will put more bums on seats and more money in its coffers with Mozart and Verdi and Britten. Its argument for why the art form remains vital and vibrant — not that many are making it — is compelling. Even if not everyone will find this production a satisfying theatre experience.

The details: How To Kill Your Husband (And Other Handy Household Hints) plays the Malthouse’s Merlyn Theatre until May 29. Tickets through the venue website.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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