Evan Lawson, artistic director of Forest Collective
Ahead of the Metropolis New Music Festival, Lawson puts a spotlight on a little understood, but very big genre
Meg Crawford, April 11, 2016
interview with matthew lornezon for limelight magazine
While the Ring Cycle prepares for its third run at the State Theatre and Chamber Made Opera celebrate their twenty-fifth birthday, one of Melbourne’s youngest contemporary arts organisations is mounting their first-ever opera. Calypso by Evan Lawson will draw on Forest Collective’s experience producing breath-taking hybrid arts spectacles.
It all began in 2009 with Lawson, five other musicians and a visual artist at the now-defunct Guildford Lane Gallery. An improvised visual arts and music night around the theme of “forest” led to a string of performances in Melbourne’s independent arts venues. An active supporter-base allowed the group to commission new music, theatre and visual arts works from emerging and established artists. Four years on and the small group has developed into a not-for-profit organisation with a reputation for lavish, immersive concert experiences. Audiences mingle around sculptures that also serve as stages for pop-up theatre performances. A solo clarinettist leads the audience through a corridor to an installation waiting in a distant room and the core musical ensemble strikes up unexpectedly, catching the audience in mid-step to the bar.
“At the end of the day I don’t want to put on something that is available everywhere,” Lawson explains to me in between rehearsals for Calypso. “I love going to see contemporary music, I love going to see plays, I love going to see contemporary dance, but I want to see all of that integrated into one event.” A Forest Collective concert is a rare opportunity for music, theatre and visual art fans to meet and discover their shared interests. It is not for nothing that the concerts of Forest Collective’s 2013 season explored the “Shared Sounds,” “Shared Lines,” “Shared Songs,” “Shared Experiences” and “Shared Ethos” of the organisation.
It is strange that opera does not already inspire such artistic camaraderie. Perhaps this is because of the perceived conservatism of the genre. Much of the non-narrative, multidisciplinary spectacle that is presented in Australia as contemporary opera would be called “music theatre” in Europe, where other terms are available for musicals. But Lawson is not interested in rebranding opera. To the contrary, Calypso is an explicitly narrative work in keeping with Forest Collective’s “shared ethos” of accessibility.
Lawson and librettist Samuel Yeo want to effectively communicate the myth from Homer’s Odyssey to new audiences. “One of our aims in Forest Collective is to promote traditional art concepts to young people who might not be exposed to the arts.” Lawson and Yeo have kept the opera under an hour as a stepping-stone for future Ring fans. Lawson’s compositional style also reflects his underlying concern for accessibility. “I didn’t want the opera to be too long. My philosophy in composition is not to be too hard-hitting. I want the music to be complex, new and challenging, but I want it to be understandable and approachable for someone new to contemporary music.”
Though Forest Collective spent the last year exploring their common ground, there is still an air of excitement about the unknown world into which Calypso is taking them. If anything, Forest Collective’s challenge will be reining in their penchant for the spontaneous and the fragmentary to produce a sustained dramatic work. This has been a challenge for the group, who according to Lawson have had to ask themselves “well this is how we work; how do we do it with opera?” But Forest Collective have attacked the project with the same vigour of the past four years. As Lawson remarks with an air of apprehension, “Everyone’s under thirty in the ensemble so there is an air of bravery in the room when we put on concerts. There is a sense of ‘Let’s just do it, let’s see what happens.’”
- Matthew Lorenzon November, 2013, Limelight Magazine
In Good Company
The Lithuanian Club. Until March 28 2010
IN ACT four in this production directed by Hugh Halliday, smugglers in the mountains outside Seville explicate their liberty. ”Freedom lies there,” they sing, ”but take care”.
That is the theme of this richly orchestrated opera, here reduced to a force of piano and strings conducted by Evan Lawson. Carmen (Olivia Cranwell) who mocks male desire is drunk on the drug of an uninhibited life.
Her nemesis Don Jose (Carlos Ramirez) is a country boy clenched tight between morality and lust. Ramirez gave ample evidence of this repression in his interpretation of the first two acts. His Flower Song was a painful tug of war between warm open-throated singing and timid sotto voce, which wobbled on the edge of strangulation. Yet in the passionate second half he burst into splendid, assured singing. There is untapped talent there that needs coaching.
Matthew Thomas’s Toreador suffered from the same split personality. He possesses a rich lower register but tentative head notes at the other end of the scale. This work is a big undertaking for a young cast. Placed on a bare stage the emphasis was on the singing.
There was committed work from the chorus but the performance that held the work together was Cranwell’s Spanish spitfire. Generous in her support of the other leads she effortlessly established the prowling alley cat quality of the heroine and sang with a rich beauty throughout.
- John Slavin for The Age, March 30th 2010