Portrait

A conversation side-stage with the director of Victorian Opera’s Lorelei. By Elizabeth Flux.

Opera director Sarah Giles

Thirty seconds into our conversation and director Sarah Giles has already jumped from opera to science fiction. “Have you seen the film Elysium?” she asks. Nothing about this morning has been what I expected.

The building we’re in is one I’ve passed hundreds of times without giving it a second thought; it’s wedged incongruously between a petrol station and a traditional barber. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting for the headquarters of the Victorian Opera. Lush velvet curtains and chandeliers, perhaps? A lot of mahogany? Maybe a ghost? Instead, we are in an eclectic building that is all things at once: grand, functional, busy. Office spaces and rehearsal halls. Everything a mishmash of eras.

Rehearsal isn’t due to start for half an hour, but I can hear cancan music spilling out of the giant room. At the far wall two people are practising an energetic dance number – not for this show, I’m told – and above them hangs a giant beige bag. But we’ll get to that.

When we speak, Giles is in the home stretch of rehearsals for Lorelei, an opera-cabaret that subverts the traditional German tale of a drowned woman who lures sailors to their death. Comparing their version with the original fable, Giles smiles and says: “We just like the idea of going, ‘Maybe the boats crash because the sailors are shit at, you know, sailing’ – as opposed to, you know, blaming everything on women.”

Giles studied directing at NIDA and works in both theatre and opera – a combination that, she tells me, is actually quite common. She asks me about Elysium – a dystopic film where most of the human race is left to languish on an overpopulated Earth while a select few live in luxury in a space habitat called Elysium – because there is a good comparison to be made.

“[Elysium] is like a metaphor for the refugee crisis,” says Giles, “and I think that’s a useful analogy, because what I think Lorelei gives us is the opportunity to look at the inequality and the problems with the structures – the problems with patriarchy, democracy and these institutions – and look at it in a different way.”

Victorian Opera’s Lorelei is staunchly feminist. This and the fact that it’s an original work are two of the main reasons Giles was attracted to the project.

“You don’t get a chance to do new operas often,” she says. “To me, it presented the opportunity to debunk a kind of misogynist myth.

“Over time you feel like your body of work amounts to something or speaks to a certain kind of idea,” Giles explains. “I think you’ve got to be true to yourself … To say yes to a project that you’re not excited by, or you don’t believe … you’ll end up doing the work a disservice.” She pauses. “And for me now I think with kids that whole idea has doubled down – because to say yes to a project is time away from children.”

Her passion for Lorelei is palpable – and it’s clearly shared by everyone involved, from the performers to the librettists. Later, when I am observing the semi-dress rehearsal, the egalitarianism and enthusiasm on display takes me aback. Everyone’s ideas are listened to, and they’re all having a great time – even though they must have covered the same songs, the same scenes hundreds of times by now.

Giles lights up describing the outrageous dresses that are so big and unwieldy that the performers have to put them on while on stage. It’s one of these dresses I saw earlier in the giant beige bag, suspended above the practising dancers.

“It’s this idea of extreme glamour and heightened femininity and also I think it speaks directly to the form of opera,” says Giles. The dresses are not the only way Lorelei takes aim at opera itself, however.

“It’s something the girls talk heaps about in rehearsals in terms of the roles you have to play as a classical opera singer,” says Giles with frustration. “Ninety per cent of the time you’ll end up dead. You’ll probably get raped. Just the stories that women have to embody in the opera are exhausting.”

She fires up talking about the one-dimensional roles that are prevalent throughout traditional opera. “Women can only be one thing. You can be a seductress, or you can be a virgin, or you can be a mother. But heaven forbid you’re a seductress mother, or – oh, I don’t know – a virgin murderess.”

The premise of the production is that when the original Lorelei hit the rocks, she splits into three – and in Victorian Opera’s version, each of the three Loreleis represents a different approach to feminism. It’s good, but it does present a problem when it comes to concluding the show: to neatly wrap up Lorelei would be to neatly wrap up the problems that exist between different kinds of feminism.

You can’t solve the world in 70 minutes, Giles agrees, “but hopefully you can ask people to think about something”.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 24, 2018 as "Grounding the sirens". Subscribe here.

Elizabeth Flux
is a Melbourne-based writer and editor.