Midsumma: Harvey Milk the opera in concert

While the national opera company is being lampooned for regurgitating the easier-sell popular works, it’s great seeing smaller companies presenting works that broaden the opera experience. The year has just begun and Melbourne Opera’s new production of Der Freischutz and Emotionworks-Cut Opeta’s attempt to make opera accessible with La Beatles Boheme are underway. Then, sneaking in, comes a presentation of the opera Harvey Milk.

Harvey Milk opera

I imagine few expected the depth of performance achieved by Left Bauer Production’s advertised concert performance of the Australian premiere of American composer Stewart Wallace’s opera, recently presented at the St Kilda Town Hall as part of Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival.

With no concert program issued, conductor Kathleen McGuire introduced the evening with a short background to the work which premiered in Houston in 1995, and which illustrates the simply packaged ideology fought for by the assassinated 1970s gay activist and politician Harvey Milk – being both an invitation and determined call for gays to come out of the closet. Most will have greater familiarity with the 2008 film starring Sean Penn.

Milk is depicted as a pivotal force in pressing the right to express one’s sexuality without fear and repression. Gays coming out promoted greater visibility in the city but, pertinently, this new liberation impacted the social and physical nature of San Francisco’s run-down working class Castro district. Not quite everyone was happy.

Though described as a series of excerpts which concentrated on the Act 3 original, this one-hour abridged format most unexpectedly flowed with effortless storytelling, full-throttle dramatic performances and an overall visually engaging wholeness, up-lighted, down-lighted and shaped by Brendan Jellie’s evocative and heavily choreographed lighting. Role-defining costumes and a few props added to proceedings.

When Harvey Milk hand-shook his way through the audience and Scott, his partner distributed “Vote 1: Harvey Milk” leaflets, all the energy of political campaigning and vociferous rallying resonated. This was no ordinary concert performance but one brought with the nothing-is-ever-too-much flare of being “out”.

Accompanist Toni Lalich provided the bulk of the musical support with well-rehearsed precision but it was McGuire who took ownership with an impressively crisp and nurturing-style of conducting while clearly communicating the drama with all her artists and vice versa.

Powerfully voiced soloists soared over the complex rhythmic lines, living their respective roles, led by a gutsy Tod Strike as Harvey Milk. Strike gave an impassioned performance as an urgent and authoritative politician while displaying trusting tenderness with his supportive quasi-heroic partner, Scott Smith, finely depicted by an eager and agile Nigel Huckle. The pair’s duets shone like a halo over the night.

Jacob Caine was robust and compelling as Milk’s assassin, Dan White, the ultra-conservative ex-cop, ex-fireman and Vietnam veteran. Fine supporting performances came from Dimity Shepherd as Milk’s campaign manager Anne Kronenberg, and Jerzy Kozlowski as Mayor George Moscone, but both got stuck in muddy diction.

The Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus slotted into central position with dynamic and well-rehearsed singing and crowd participation.

In the end, however, Milk’s assassination is less momentous than his subsequent recorded voice-over, which achingly magnifies injustices. The work’s raisin d’être is a homage to Milk’s determination, culminating in a moving vigil encircling the audience, drawing reference to the annual candlelight march through San Francisco’s Castro District commemorating the day Milk and San Francisco’s mayor, George Moscone, were killed.

The performance was a well-worth-seeing taste of Harvey Milk, whetting the appetite for the complete piece. But sitting on the aisle, I also felt sadly invisible during the handshakes and handouts despite being swept into the buzz. I’ll get over that. There were more important aspects to ponder. As Milk remarked, “If a bullet enters my brain let it shatter every closet door”. His legacy lies in such a work as this to keep his fight alive.

Paul Selar

Also known as 'OperaChaser', Paul's passion for attending opera in performance spans 30 years. With a background in architecture and an unstoppable need to travel, Paul's foray into the world of reviewing started as Opera Australia's inaugural Critic-in-Training. He has reviewed opera for various other websites and currently blogs at operachaser.blogspot.com.au.

Paul Selar

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