In a Bachtrack world dominated by the cultural riches of Europe and America, it may come as a surprise to find that distant Australia has its own specialist Baroque and Early Classical Opera Company. The quirkily named Pinchgut Opera was founded in 2002 to tackle one work a year, but has succeeded sufficiently to move to two a year in 2014.
It took a rare compounding of age and youth to bring Pinchgut into being – the name taken from the island in the middle of Sydney Harbour where the worst of the worst convicts in the 1790s were isolated and starved. The age came from Liz and Ken Nielsen, who'd grown weary of traditional operas that seemed to be just “entertainment with sets and costumes” and wanted to create something that prioritised the music. Fortunately, the Nielsens were led to the 23 year old Erin Helyard, a self confessed “opera nerd, babbling on about old operas that I kept discovering. And there are, of course, far more of them than 19th and 20th Century works”.
Semele started the ball rolling, followed by Purcell's The Fairy Queen and Monteverdi's Orfeo – relatively familiar works to build support. Liz Nielsen recalls that from the beginning, wooing the audience was of equal importance to selecting the musicians. “We wanted to develop the best possible audience: one that understood what we were doing and trusted us to come to unknown works and composers like Charpentier (David and Jonathan) and Salieri (The Chimney Sweep). That required lots of communication; and a group of them became key supporters with generous funding that has saved us from being dependent on government money. We assumed, rightly, that would never be reliable”.
Salieri's The Chimney Sweep was the first biannual opera in 2014. Its balancing act with Gluck's Iphegenie en Tauride – comedy then high drama – was perfectly planned; better, one might argue, than last year's Armida (Haydn) and Theodora (Handel) which may have delighted musically but suffered from confusing plots and productions that were wanting.
Pinchgut's home is the City Recital Hall in Sydney, opened just before the company came into existence, and acoustically just about perfect for early opera. However, its size is a mixed blessing. There's no pit, so the Orchestra of the Antipodes is invariably out front, directed from the harpsichord by Helyard and winning reviews like Sandra Bowdler's for Theodora: “The Orchestra was more than up to its usual standard, creating a sumptuous and subtle stream of sound, always in the service of the singers”. But making a production and a set that assists in the telling of the story on what's just a small concert platform is another matter. Significantly, three time directors Lindy Hume and Mark Gaal have the highest success rates, Hume's Iphegenie standing as my high-point over the years in adding just a contemporary touch of Islamic State to her Scythian fighters without damaging Gluck and Guillard's classical mythodrama.
Helyard has his eyes on Lully, and the gap between Cavalli and Lully – what he calls “the third phase of opera”, led there by the little known names of Cesti, Sacrati, and Rossi. “There's also a gap in operas from Naples in the 1730s – though you need coloratura superstars to present them. Fortunately, I'm a really good score reader and so many are digitised online these days. But you still need a compelling story – that makes it easy to direct”.
Having developed a taste for this era of music, pioneering Pinchgut has, arguably, inspired both the Australian Haydn Ensemble and the Australian Romantic & Classical Orchestra to establish themselves as Historically Informed. In Melbourne, the Victorian Opera challenges Opera Australia – which eschews any competition with Pinchgut these days – with a broad range of opera. And the Sydney Chamber Opera, with founders as young as Helyard was, is totally contemporary. That makes Pinchgut quite a role model.