Opera Australia

July 1986 to present
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Australia map: Sydney 11K jpeg
The Australian Opera 1991 Season Brochure 43K jpeg
David Hobson at the Così fan tutte prop harpsichord

The harpsichord has had an integral role providing accompaniment and direction from the rise of the opera in early seventeenth-century Italy, through Mozart and Rossini, to modern works like Richard Strauss’ Capriccio, Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, or Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

This is the continuing story of my involvement with Opera Australia, one of the world’s great performing arts companies.

In 1986, I was approached by Simon Musgrave, Music Co-ordinator of The Australian Opera as it was then known, to inspect and report on their harpsichord, a Zuckermann Flemish Double II with bone keyboards. The instrument was in poor condition and not proving reliable, with cranky keyboards and action, many soundboard cracks and the original tapered tuning pins replaced at some stage with inconsistently-angled zither pins. My quotation for substantially reworking the harpsichord—including structural repair, repinning, restringing and revoicing—was accepted. The results were judged so musically successful I was immediately asked if I would like to be further involved preparing the harpsichord for all needed rehearsals and performances in the Opera Theatre (now Joan Sutherland Theatre) at the famous Sydney Opera House, taking over from my predecessor.

Sydney Opera House at night 37K jpeg
Sydney Opera House at night

My first production was The Marriage of Figaro in October 1986 conducted by David Agler. (The cover of the program book is reproduced below.) I’ve been involved in some way with all productions using early keyboards since then. I regularly tuned for Linnhe Robertson, who was then Head of Music at The Australian Opera and played continuo on her own harpsichord, a three-choir Flemish single made by Michael Johnson in England. If two instruments were required, it would be Linnhe’s Johnson and the TAO “Green harpsichord”.

The props department created a most pretty but silent harpsichord for the set of Göran Järvefelt’s production of Così fan tutte. The image of David Hobson seated at the instrument was used for the cover of the 1991 subscription brochure and much else. Sharolyn Kimmorley became Director of Music Administration and continued to enjoy playing harpsichord continuo in the pit for many years before she left to join the staff of the Sydney Conservatorium Opera School. Highlights of this period with Sharolyn included the simulcast and video recording of Don Giovanni on the ABC label, and a tour in May 1990 to Perth for a season of five Così fan tutte performances in His Majesty’s Theatre.

It wasn’t long before the work became more ambitious with different or additional keyboard instruments required. The late Christopher Hogwood spent substantial time in Australia, not only for the Opera, but also for the Australian Chamber Orchestra or Sydney Symphony. He hired a large clavichord for his apartment in Elizabeth Bay and wanted a nice Italian harpsichord for Paul Dyer to play continuo throughout his 1991 La clemenza di Tito: They chose my then almost-new 1990 Grimaldi. I’ve enjoyed receiving a credit line below Wigs & Wardrobe in the PLAYBILL programs, and usually on the nightly cast sheet as well when one of my instruments is used: The program and cast sheet from this show are reproduced below.

Baz Luhrmann set his production of Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream in India after World War I, with the large orchestra squeezed in an onstage band rotunda. The orchestra, conductor and even the harpsichord tuner had to dress in band garb including beret. This was a challenging show to tune for: Not only was the floor of the rotunda directly above a shallow and foggy lake for the pink-painted Gobis to splash through, but the stage remained live during the intervals with crickets and other sound effects evocative of the Indian bush summer constantly playing. This captivating production toured to the 1994 Edinburgh Festival, where it had the reputation of being the first show ever sold out before the commencement of the Festival. Unfortunately, I wasn’t taken on that trip!Opera Australia 8K gif

Harpsichord credit on The Australian Opera 1991 cast sheet 32K jpeg
Extract from La clemenza di Tito cast sheet, Friday July 19, 1991

My 1983 Flemish harpsichord was played by Narelle French for Richard Hickox’s Julius Caesar in 1995, accompanying Yvonne Kenny and Graham Pushee—also simulcast and later released by ABC Classics. In 1996, the company changed name to Opera Australia. My Fortepiano has frequently appeared in the pit for various Mozart or Rossini operas, sometimes with conductors preferring to accompany the recitatives themselves. Trevor Pinnock used my 2003 Ruckers Double side by side with Benjamin Bayl on the OA harpsichord for Rinaldo in 2005, and gained the most prolonged ovation for any conductor with his performance of Sound 1K gif Handel’s virtuoso harpsichord obbligatos in the Act II aria “Vo’ far guerra, e vincer voglio”. A photo of Trevor at the two harpsichords in the opera pit appeared in an interview in the The Australian.

The music in the pit of the Joan Sutherland Theatre is provided by the Opera Australia Orchestra on modern instruments, and in many productions has been supplemented by baroque continuo specialists on theorbo, gamba or harpsichord. The AOBO itself does not have a keyboardist: The harpsichord is usually played by a highly-skilled repetiteur from the Music Staff of Opera Australia who has been closely working with the singers from the earliest stages of development of each production. Occasionally, we’ve had complete period instrument bands in the pit: The Australian Brandenburg Orchestra played for an early production of The Coronation of Poppea, and Antony Walker conducted the Orchestra of the Antipodes for the 2009 Baroque Masterpieces Double Bill.

As my overseas reputation grew throughout the 1990s, my commitments saw me traveling more and spending most winters in the Northern Hemisphere. During Sydney’s colder months especially, I’ve been fortunate to rely on the assistance of my deputies including Colin van der Lecq from Perth to help fulfil the intense Opera Australia requirements.

This is a journey in progress, and I guess I might be already a little more than half way through. It’s not only the operas, but also New Year’s Eve Galas, the free parks concerts, singing contest finals and more. It has been a distinct privilege. Already the list of conductors of these productions is impressive: Graham Abbott, David Agler, Mikhail Agrest, Ivor Bolton, Richard Bonynge, Alexander Briger, Roderick Brydon, Brian Castles-Onion, Carlo Felice Cillario, Brad Cohen, Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo, Christian Curnyn, Jonathan Darlington, Richard Divall, Luke Dollman, Peter Erckens, György Fischer, Myer Fredman, Johannes Fritzsch, Richard Gill, Jane Glover, Andrew Greene, Marco Guidarini, Richard Hickox, Simon Hewett, Christopher Hogwood, Emmanuel Joel-Hornak, Julia Jones, Simon Kenway, Dane Lam, Anthony Legge, Andrea Licata, Shao-Chia Lu, Richard Mills, Andrea Molino, Stephen Mould, Benjamin Northey, Trevor Pinnock, Julia de Plater, David Porcelijn, Carlo Rizzi, Alexander Sander, Patrick Summers, Ola Rudner, Guillaume Tourniaire, Antony Walker, Mark Wigglesworth, Tom Woods, Xu Zhong, Simone Young…

2024 Theodora [Co-production with Pinchgut Opera] • Idomeneo
2023 Don Giovanni
2022 The Marriage of Figaro
2021 [no operas using early keyboards]
2020 Don Giovanni
2019 Così fan tutte • Il Viaggio a Riems • The Marriage of Figaro
2018 Il turco in Italia
2017 [no operas using early keyboards]
2016 The Barber of Seville • Così fan tutte
2015 Don Giovanni • The Marriage of Figaro • L’elisir d’Amore
2014 Il turco in Italia • Don Giovanni • L’elisir d’Amore
2013 Partenope
2012 The Marriage of FigaroCosì fan tutteThe Barber of Seville
2011 The Barber of SevillePartenopeCapriccioDon GiovanniThe Love of the Nightingale
2010 A Midsummer Night’s DreamThe Marriage of Figaro
2009 Baroque Masterpieces Double Bill: Dido & Aeneas / Acis & GalateaCosì fan tutte
2008 La CenerentolaDon GiovanniOrlando
2007 FigaroAlcinaBarber of Seville
2006 L’elisir d’AmoreThe Rake’s ProgressLa clemenza di TitoJulius CaesarThe Marriage of Figaro
2005 Così fan tutteRinaldoDon Giovanni
2004 The Marriage of FigaroThe Barber of SevilleBaroque Double Bill: Dido & Aeneas / Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda
2003 Don GiovanniLa CenerentolaRossini Double Bill: Il Signor Bruschino / La scala di setaA Midsummer Night’s Dream
2002 The Marriage of Figaro
2001 Così fan tutteL’elisir d’AmoreThe Barber of Seville
2000 Julius CaesarIdomeneoThe Marriage of FigaroCapriccioA Midsummer Night’s DreamDon Giovanni
1999 The Barber of SevilleLa clemenza di TitoRinaldo
1998 Così fan tutteThe Marriage of FigaroThe Coronation of PoppeaLa Cenerentola
1997 La clemenza di TitoDon GiovanniL’Italiana in AlgeriJulius Caesar
1996 A Midsummer Night’s DreamAlcina
1995 Julius CaesarThe Barber of SevilleDon Giovanni
1994 IdomeneoA Midsummer Night’s DreamCosì fan tutteLa Cenerentola
1993 The Coronation of Poppea A Midsummer Night’s DreamDon Giovanni
1992 The Marriage of FigaroAlcinaL’Italiana in Algeri
1991 Don GiovanniLa clemenza di TitoCosì fan tutte
1990 Così fan tutte
1989 The Marriage of FigaroThe Barber of Seville
1988 The Coronation of PoppeaThe Rake’s Progress • Don GiovanniLa Cenerentola
1987 AlcinaLa CenerentolaDon Giovanni
1986 The Marriage of Figaro

The Australian Opera 1986 Figaro program cover 28K jpeg
    The Australian Opera 1991 La clemenze di Tito program 24K jpeg
    The Australian Opera 1991 La clemenza di Tito cast sheet 39K jpeg
The Australian Opera program cover for Figaro 1986   Title page from La clemenza di Tito program 1991   La clemenza di Tito cast sheet 1991
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