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28 July 2009

Opera Queensland: Dirty Apple

Brisbane // QLD // 18.07.2009

Kristian Roche (Ryan), Kiandra Howart (Josie) and Jordan Pollard (Ben) in <em>Dirty Apple</em> Image: Kristian Roche (Ryan), Kiandra Howart (Josie) and Jordan Pollard (Ben) in Dirty Apple  

Dirty Apple, as part of the Queensland Music Festival of 2009, was an impressive project. With much of the cast, ensemble, and creative team made up of young and emerging artists (many still students), the production was remarkably professional. Up and coming talents seemed to be leaking out of the mortar in the Powerhouse Theatre’s brick interior.

The opera, produced by Opera Queensland, relays the story of four seniors at an imaginary Brisbane school as they seek revenge on their music teacher and then have to deal with the serious consequences. In particular, it focuses on the current issue of virtual bullying and identity manipulation; the students create a fake personality profile indicating this teacher may be having inappropriate relations with students.

Composed by Queensland Conservatorium Masters student Jonathan Henderson, the score is a colourful representation of teenage life, brought to life by director Michael Futcher and his assistant Andrew Cory. Henderson’s music embodied the intensity of teenage emotions, somehow so much more concentrated and physically affecting than in adulthood. Fear, horror, grief, doubt, regret, jealousy, love – all were treated to the subtle power of musical suggestion and skilfully woven together into a delicately complex yet approachable score. In particular, the chorus sections showed some very promising and powerful writing.

But, as with many theatrical musical productions, there was far more than just music. In fact, the music itself was almost difficult to properly discern amongst the myriad images and themes being thrown at the audience; by the set, stage craft, libretto and storyline. Most initially striking was the brilliant and functional set, whose design (along with that of the performers' costumes) was by the eclectic Sharka Bosakova. Behind its eye-catching plethora of sliding screens, dual levels, projected images, and distinctive spaces, it took a few moments for the mind to adjust and register the music as it began.

And then there were the performers themselves. The main characters were drawn from both school age and tertiary students, with only one Conservatorium graduate and two 'grown-ups'; the chorus was mostly secondary school students. All had undergone a fair amount of professional vocal training, and there were a number of performance aids employed (the chorus was conducted from in front of the audience, and miked), but considering their ages (the youngest of them are just 15!), they were far better singers than could reasonably be expected. The 'pit' orchestra (they actually played on stage, only partially obscured by movable screens) was composed predominantly of Queensland Conservatorium students. They were led by 24-year-old conductor Dane Lam, a Brisbane native, only recently returned from a stint at the Julliard School in New York.

Shaun Charles’s libretto was very realistic, though not overly adventurous or lyrical. Its mostly serious stance was punctuated with occasional humour, especially with regard to the use of technology (the audience had some giggles at the projections of text messages with code-like contractions, such as '143' for 'I love you'). The singers performed the lines clearly and with genuine conviction, but even this did not smooth out the gradual increase of clichés that found their way into the text. Especially towards the end of the work, these began to be reflected in the musical content, which was a shame because for the most part the music was sincere and well-crafted.

Dirty Apple wasn’t afraid to portray some elements of teenage life as they are – the power of gossip, gang violence, alcohol consumption, sibling relationships, the inability of adults to connect with adolescents, parental pressure and the reality of private school life – and yet somehow avoided falling too far into the trap of preaching the straight and narrow. Such an ambitious and successful production deserves to have its praises sung! Still, when it comes down to it, there is one element of the storyline that negatively affects its believability, and it is this: who ever heard of anyone so disliking their music teacher?

Event details

Dirty Apple
An Opera Queensland production in collaboration with Backbone Youth Arts and co-produced by Q150, Queensland Music Festival, Queensland Performing Arts Centre and Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University
Music: Jonathan Henderson
Libretto: Shaun Charles
Conductor: Dane Lam
Director: Michael Futcher
Soloists: Milica Illic, Jordan Pollard, Kiandra Howarth, Kristian Roche, Zoe Giddings Jones, Hayley Sugars, Stephen Beck, Alana Klein
18-25 July, 2009
Powerhouse Theatre, Brisbane Powerhouse, New Farm, QLD

Further links

Dirty Apple website (www.dirtyapple.com.au)
Opera Queensland (http://www.operaqueensland.com.au)
Queensland Music Festival (http://qmf.org.au/)

Subjects discussed by this article:


Hannah Reardon-Smith is a flautist, radio announcer, writer, singer, teacher, arts administrator and vegetarian. After graduating from her BMus at the Qld Con in 2008, she's keeping herself busy by saying yes to everything - completing a mentorshop through Youth Arts Queensland under Janet McKay, getting an ensemble by the name of Musicians Against Complacency off the ground, singing with The Australian Voices, freelancing as a soloist, announcing on 4MBS Classic FM, administrating for Southern Cross Soloists and Clocked Out and giving a music class at the Mater Hospital Special School. Hannah was the AYO Music Presentation Fellow in 2008.


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