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.

Rachelle Durkin (Armida) and Leif Aruhn-Solén (Rinaldo) in <i>Armida</i> (2016) © Brett Boardman
Rachelle Durkin (Armida) and Leif Aruhn-Solén (Rinaldo) in Armida (2016)
© Brett Boardman

Why would youthful Australia – at the “arts (or was it arse) end of the world”, as Prime Minister Paul Keating never quite clarified – patronise Baroque and early Classical opera? The history was not particularly encouraging. Opera Australia had a go at that period every three or four years with successful stagings but an orchestral sound that was swallowed up by the notorious Sydney Opera House pit. But then along came the Australian Brandenburg Orchestra with a showmanship and a close approximation of historically informed performance which revealed considerable demand.

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”.

<i>L'amant Jaloux</i> (2015) © Prudence Upton
L'amant Jaloux (2015)
© Prudence Upton

Now Pinchgut's artistic director, via 8 years in Canada, an academic career and an international reputation for interpreting historical scores, Helyard was reliant at first on founding artistic director Anthony Walker, an Australian who already had international experience of opera production and singers and has gone on to head the Pittsburgh and Washington Concert Operas in the USA. But the emphasis on “operas not in mainstream that deserved to be heard and given musical priority” has never wavered.

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”.

<i>Theodora</i> (2016): Cantillation © Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera
Theodora (2016): Cantillation
© Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera

Despite steady box office, it took 7 years to break even – Cavalli's L'Ormindo starting the process of building up enough reserves to go biannual. Sadly, it was also the only opera not recorded because of a hiatus between ABC Records and Pinchgut's own label. “And those recordings are essential”, says Nielsen. “For one thing, they give us an international reputation at a time when we're just about the last company left recording full operas live. And they're essential for the artists, allowing them to show off and increase their chances of an international career. We're also selling Erin's performing scores – his Salieri is unique, for instance; there are no other versions”.

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.

<i>Armida</i> (2016) © Brett Boardman
Armida (2016)
© Brett Boardman

As Helyard puts it, “Pinchgut can't do spectacle – nor do we want to”. Coincidentally, he's currently Musical Director on Barrie Kosky's spectacular Glyndebourne Saul, playing at the Adelaide Festival. There are many more Australian names involved than in its original iteration. “And the Glyndebourne people are impressed”, says Helyard. But for him, Historically Informed Performance has come a long way since Leppard's rediscovery of Cavalli for Glyndebourne in the 1970s: “I've listened to Leppard's LP's with the scores, and he re-wrote them, you know. It sounds more like Puccini today! But I saw L'Ormindo at the Sam Wanamaker Theatre in London, done by candlelight. It was surprisingly nuanced, and made me realise we need HIP opera houses. Just think what a Venetian design on the Harbour shores would be like – operas alternating with HIP Shakespeare!”.

Valda Wilson in the title role of <i>Theodora</i> (2016) © Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera
Valda Wilson in the title role of Theodora (2016)
© Robert Catto | Pinchgut Opera

More realistically, Pinchgut would love some international festival exposure. And more currently, it's working towards “a riotous evening of fabulous French opera” with a double bill of Rameau's Anacreon and Pigmalion, and an anniversary Monteverdi, Poppea, both later this year.

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.