In my experience, when you go to a Shakespeare with fellow Shakespeare lovers or a Chekhov with a Chekhov lover there is something that happens beyond shared engagement. Reverence is too trite a word, communal too overused, immersion too visceral. The word that springs to my mind is quietude. There’s stillness where understanding meets art. The 1995 New York Times review of the first performance of HARVEY MILK the Opera, noted the cheers of the audience. In Sydney’s Town Hall this evening there was no such reaction. Like the aforementioned classics, everyone in the hall knew the story and why it needs testament.
HARVEY MILK is a 3 act opera, music by Steward Wallace and lyrics by Michael Korie. The man of the title was a San Francisco hippy camera shop owner turned politician. On his third attempt, after a change in the laws to allow district elections, Milk became a San Francisco City-County Supervisor on January 9, 1978. This was a milestone for what was then the LGBT community. One of his fellow supervisors was Dan White.
White murdered both Milk and his political supporter Mayor George Moscone on November 27, 1978. White received what was considered a lenient sentence because of the infamous ‘twinkie defence’. His lawyers argued that he was not in his right mind due to the junk food he had been consuming since his marriage had broken down and he was living in his car. Milk remains an icon and martyr to the cause of LGBTIQA equality and Milk Day on his birthday, May 22nd is celebrated worldwide by the community.
In an Australian first, Left Bauer Productions partnered very successfully with the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus to present selections from the opera for the Midsumma Festival early this year. In Sydney for just tonight the co-production is with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Choir. Truncating the three acts is a risky move but the choices are excellent and the story flows successfully from Warm Night in June when the Stonewall Riots took place to the Kaddish of The Messenger reflecting the candlelit vigils which honour him.
The accessible length and the concert style of this particular interpretation provide a perfect place for introspection. Introduced by Alex Greenwich, Independent Member for Sydney who reflected the hope that we might soon be “walking down the aisle to equality” there was no great noise in the audience response. Applause, approval, a few tears but no standing ovation; no audience gasps at lines like “learned a way to survive self-hate”; no abandoned yelling at “come on out”. Instead a universal sigh at the homophobic quotes like “Run for Dairy Queen” as Milk is initially rejected by voters and a pervading understanding that the community still has a fight on its hands.
The younger members of the audience might have been drawn by the Sean Penn Oscar winning performance in the biopic; older patrons know the grainy 1984 documentary and some of us remember the tiny snippets of information that leaked into the Australian press at the time of the assassinations. However, to make this a successful shared space where a story can be absorbed any show needs quality work at its heart. And HARVEY MILK: THE OPERA IN CONCERT brings together some wonderful talent.
As Milk, Tod Strike is very charismatic and has a charm in the role which flows gently over the footlights. Combined with a great use of the more baritone of his register, he is commanding without commandeering the stage and for such a big man, he succeeds in elucidating the softness and self-doubt which round out the character. His duet with his lover Scott Smith, played by Edward Grey, after his first election loss is heartbreaking. Grey is excellent as his support and his rock and Milk’s cry of “I’m a loser” was responded to with some very fine acting and voice work from him.
Strike is equally matched vocally and physically by Jacob Caine as Dan White. The aria and duets chosen for this concert present White’s interior life and Caine approaches his character with compassion and the murderer is sympathetically and emotionally interpreted. He and Strike share the stage several times and their physicality is arresting. Strike’s high notes pull him up and fill out his wide chest while Caine’s upper voice reflects that interior life which twists and bends him low. Also arresting, is the always superb Jud Arthur as the ill-fated mayor. His resounding bass delivers the echoing line “we’ll talk about it in the morning” with the eerie redolence and premonition they deserve.
The direction by Cameron Lukey is clever. There is so much here to take away. For example White’s solo ‘I can’t take this anymore’ is very relatable and logical. He is a man who is understandable, driven by his circumstances… not the crazy that defence argues. It’s a subtle point and one which reflects Lukey’s intelligent and knowledgeable approach. The movement of the artists around the stage is excellent and terrific use has been made of the magnificent venue.
There are big statements like the use of a soapbox and travel into the audience but also smaller details like the stripping away of the man to show the boy who loved his mother through Milk’s divesting of his suit. When the tie floated down to lie on the stairs, in my mind’s eye, I was transported to that pervasive space between the camera shop and the residence above.
Similarly expressive is Sarah Penicka-Smith’s conducting of the piece. The Gay and Lesbian choir, serving as both audience and participant, were in good voice and were well controlled by their conductor whose theatrical timing is equal to the task of being the on-stage director. It is complex music and the conductor sometimes left a note hanging or allowed a silence to envelop rather than rush to the next phrase. Accompanist Chris Cartner was technically impressive in his playing of such a difficult score. His work was equally excellent in his energetic command of the overture or the mournful sadness of the introduction to Why Stay? I especially responded to those single notes before the entry of the streetwalker … so evocative and well placed.
Left Bauer is a rising theatre company and I have loved their other two shows this year Playing Rock Hudson and Masterclass. To me this production is a clear statement of intent. Fill an important building with an important story. The use of the Sydney Town Hall was a topic of considerable discussion. For my friends at the back of the crowd, the voices did suffer somewhat in clarity and carry but all agreed that support for LGBTIQA people requires grandeur and political visibility and HARVEY MILK: THE OPERA IN CONCERT provides both.