February 2005

Insufficient work to keep Lisa Gasteen in Australia


Lisa Gasteen as Isolde in Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.

Vision, passion and the will to do it, rather than funding or lack of it, is what drives great operatic projects such as State Opera of South Australia's Ring cycle, according to the production's Brünnhilde, Lisa Gasteen.

"Adelaide was wonderful, absolutely fantastic, a massive achievement for the company," said the soprano as she packed her bags to return to live in England after almost five years back in her home city, Brisbane.

There is simply not enough work in Australia anymore for the diva who wins accolades as one of the world's top Wagnerian sopranos, not now that Simone Young is no longer music director at Opera Australia where she scheduled the kind of repertoire that is now Gasteen's metier.

Travelling and working in the northern hemisphere for months on end, away from her family and home, just became too hard. So at the end of last year Gasteen and her husband Barry made the agonising choice of returning to the UK, leaving their teenage daughter Eve and son Henry, who is in the last years of high school, with family in Australia.

"Of course it's not easy to be leaving. No one is happy, really. It's not a great thing for our family, but I'm the principal bread winner and that's the way it is. Barry has been magnificent," Gasteen said.

They met before her singing career began. It was in the registry of a Brisbane magistrates' court. She was an office girl doing her errands. He was an articled clerk filing documents. The singing began a year after they married and he has supported her career decisions all the way.

"How do I feel? I don't know. How do I feel? It depends on my mood really. I'm optimistic and excited and all that but at other times I feel quite bereft. My children are staying here, but it just makes no sense for me to be here. That's what is so sad. It's not a very nice feeling. Those people who attain a certain amount of expertise, the country wants them. They're valued in the community, and recognised and they're able to make their base here. But it doesn't go for people in the arts, unfortunately."

Ask Gasteen is there sufficient audience to support regular doses of Wagner in Australia, and could it happen in Queensland and her answers are swift and certain. "Yes, of course there is," she responds to the former. Adelaide showed that. Nor does she believe audiences need to be educated into The Ring.

"Not necessarily. No. I don't see why. Now they have surtitles. Much of the music would be familiar to them but they don't realise that it is. It's very accessible. It's a fantastic story. Look at the success of Lord of the Rings. There are the same Nordic legends. I really don't see what the fear is. A lot of people in Adelaide were first-time Ring-goers and they were just over the moon. Audiences were transfixed. People were overwhelmed and were coming up to me in the street embracing me, weeping. It was extraordinary.

"I had that in Meiningen. The Ring does that to people, it really does. They weren't expecting to have their lives changed and it does change your life. It changes how you look at life. It opens your thinking and I guess that's what people are afraid of - or don't have the opportunity to experience."

Gasteen believes Queensland could emulate Adelaide's achievement. It's all a matter of choice and vision. Managements have their own preferences, styles and choices. "But it's not just Brisbane, Queensland. Years ago the Australian Opera had the funding to do a complete Ring and it just petered out. They couldn't carry it through. They had support and extra funding from the German Government, the Australian Government, but it didn't happen because nobody really wanted it to happen, you see.

"It's too easy to blame it on lack of funding because I believe when the will and the passion are there, people make things happen. People make extraordinary things happen out of not very much. Nobody really wanted it to happen. It's very tight all over the world yet people are still managing to do The Ring.

"The State Opera of South Australia have four permanent staff members and they work out of a warehouse. They pulled it off, not because of the funding. It's because of the will and the passion to make it happen. I believe you can put anything on on a completely blank stage with three boxes and make a success out of it, if the music standards are high and you have good direction. We did that in Meiningen (in 2001). We had one set for the whole cycle.

"Musically it was of a very high standard. It had this incredible woman with an incredible brain doing the direction. It worked to high critical acclaim. It was a 725-seat theatre and people came from all over the world to see it. You couldn't get a seat. So I know you can do it. You just need the will, the passion and the vision. If a certain type of music is not to a management's taste they're not going to put it on. That's normal."

Leaving Australia on January 22, Gasteen begins rehearsals in London two days later for the Covent Garden production of Die Walküre, a swift recovery from jet-lag for the singer who generally takes a week to get over the long flight, another reason why she needs to live closer to the action.

A concert in Hamburg with Simone Young, a Ring cycle in Vienna also with Simone Young in April- May, a Fidelio in Berlin, another concert in Stuttgart, more Walküre at Covent Garden follow in quick succession, then it's back to Brisbane in July for a Tristan and Isolde concert for the Queensland Music Festival.

In September Gasteen starts rehearsals for a Covent Garden Siegfried, followed by a Tristan in Paris, taking her to the end of December. With bookings into 2008 it is no wonder she has decided to return to Europe where she can work continuously in the repertoire towards which she has been working for years, as her voice gained the strength and staying power needed.

She knew when her voice was ready for Wagner and now she is hooked, on the power of the music, the legends, on its insights into the human condition.

"It's always about the human condition, the greed of people forsaking love for riches, it's about betrayal, it's always current because it's human. Wagner studied philosophy. He was very involved in reading and discussions on the human psyche and behavior and he's written it into the music.

"You can dissolve into tears with three simple chord changes. It's much, much deeper than any of the Italian operas, it's deeper than the French, it's deeper than anything. It involves philosophy, and a German did it. It's the Germans who analyse and discuss things until they're blue in the face.

"It's just unfortunate that Wagner came to be associated with World War II. He was the favored composer and why wouldn't he be? He was a fantastic composer, and it's powerful music. That's the thing. It has enormous power."

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