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Photo by Clare Hawley

MELBA, A New Musical, Book and Lyrics by Nicholas Christo. Music by Johannes Luebbers, Adapted from the book “Marvelous Melba” by Ann Blainey. At the Hayes Theatre, Greenknowe Ave, Darlinghurst. 15 August – 9 September.

MELBA, is a new Australian Musical. It has been nurtured through the New Musical Australia, Hayes Theatre Co’s musical theatre development program. In 2014 TRUTH, BEAUTY AND A PICTURE OF YOU, by Tim Freedman and Alex Broun was presented by the company. THE DETECTIVES HANDBOOK, by Ian Ferrington and Olga Solar was presented in 2016 and now MELBA, by Nicholas Christo and Johannes Luebbers is on show.

Johannes Luebbers and Nicholas Christo in their program notes tell us of their fascination with the great Australian opera star of the late nineteenth, early twentieth century, who became ‘our first, great, international presence.’ A woman who, defying the conventions of her period, gifted with one of the great singing voices of her time, carved out a spectacular career and lived a personal life of some event. ‘We were fascinated by the woman behind these exploits after reading Anne Blainey’s I AM MELBA (2009), (and, as well, MARVELOUS MELBA – 2008). We have spent the past eight years and countless drafts creating this, our first, large scale music work.’

It is important to have this offer taken from the page to the stage. The difficulties and the labour of love in developing any new work has to be experienced for it to be appreciated, let alone the courage and altruism that needs to be invested in the preparing of a musical work which has so many other technicalities and obstacles (the financial commitment being a major one) than the so called ‘straight play’, to expect fruition.

So, it is great to see this work with a set of Directorial and Production commitments up in front of us to be able to truly evaluate what is there in this new inspiration to tell the story of Dame Nellie Melba, and to understand why we in 2017 should become acquainted with her. At this stage of development/nurturing at the Hayes Theatre one anticipates that what we are witnessing is what was known in the ‘old’ days (these days) of the Broadway musical as a ‘try out’. In my experience of the contemporary musical development in the US of A (mostly while working through my time at the American Conservatory Theatre [ACT] in San Francisco), any musical that reaches the Great White Way in New York, has had many productions and the scrutiny of many audiences across a wide spectrum. Australia with an industry and population much smaller does not have that multi-resource which highlights the importance of the New Musical Hayes Theatre Co’s venture and courage.

What one comes away with about Melba in this iteration of her life is the understanding of her great gift, as impersonated and sung, in operatic terms by Emma Matthews (herself, contemporaneously ‘Australia’s most highly acclaimed and awarded soprano’). Too, we are told the story of the carving out of a career to perform in all the premiere opera houses around the world and to become Australia’s first self-made business woman, managing her career impeccably, whilst also having to commit to the ups-and-downs – travails – of a personal life, a family, and all its incumbent difficulties and pleasures in a time of prejudicial expectations of what a woman’s responsibilities should be.

The book, by Nicholas Christo, at the moment, is a relatively conventional telling – adaptation from the biographical book sources – of Melba’s life: This happened, then this, she met so-and-so and that lead to that, to this etc etc., with the sprinkle of appearances of some major figures that proved to be defining influences on the way Melba embarked and conducted her life, her unconventional, ‘revolutonary’ path: her father, David Mitchell (Michael Beckley); her Australian husband, Charles Armstrong (Andrew Cutcliffe); her son, George (Samuel Skuthorp); her European singing teacher, the famous, Madame Marchesi (Genevieve Lemon); some of her European ‘patrons’ that facilitated vital contacts, Gladys de Grey (Caitlin Berry), Frederick de Grey (Blake Erickson) and ‘lover’ Philippe D’Orleans (Adam Rennie).

It makes for a predictable and, when measured against modern musical theatre storytelling techniques, more than a little dull. My mind travelled to an upcoming (revival) musical telling of another woman’s life, that of Evita Peron, and wished that the Australian writer’s in this case had taken a more powerful contemporary (political?) point-of-view, as that team (Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice) had done, even controversially, way back in 1978. For me, this iteration of the work of these artists now can be seen, both its undoubted strengths and obvious weaknesses, so that one can now, begin again. Bring in the ‘axe’ and hew anew. The task to bring the achievements of Melba to the stage for a thrilling and relevant modern meaningful experience has just begun. It is a laborious commitment (it has already taken eight years!), but in this case, I believe worth pursuing.

This is true of the music written by Johannes Luebbers, as well. Within the limitations of the orchestration possibilities at the Hayes Theatre, led skilfully by Michael Tyack, I took no musical phrase or lyric home, away, from the evening, nothing really sticks in memory to hum or ‘sing’. The work is voluminous but not as yet memorable. It is the Mozart, Donizetti, Bizet, Rossini Puccini and, especially, Verdi, that one remembers and hums.

The decision to give us two Melba’s, playing side -by-side is the biggest ‘risk’ and ‘inspiration’ of the production: the young journeywoman, Melba, created by Annie Aitken, who carries most of the book and contemporary music demands – not always convincing in the acting schematics – alongside Emma Matthews who, mostly, takes on the mature singing of Melba’s repertoire.

The most impressive work comes from Caitlin Berry, creating three personas, and singing with real clarity of intention; Samuel Skuthorp, as George, totally disarming, despite the puppet-persona he carries for most of the show; Andrew Cutcliffe as Charles (latterly, in the work); and especially Genevieve Lemon, in her expert (and unintentional) scene stealing bravura (what a year we are having with her gifted offers – THE HOMOSEXUALS OR ‘FAGGOTS, WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF? and now Madame Marchesi!).

Wayne Harrison, as Director, manages all the demands of the book with aplomb, although the design by Mark Thompson, provides him with some challenges, as it squashes the already tiny space of the Hayes Theatre into a relatively ‘ugly’ solution for movement and aesthetic pleasure. One should acknowledge the Sound Design by Caitlin Porter as she balances the back-stage orchestration with and against the micro-phoned performers with some skill for this intimate space.

MELBA – A New Musical, is in embryonic form, and one hopes that it has a life to develop further its potential as a story of a woman of extraordinary achievement. It is a necessary experience for all of us who have an interest in new Australian work, and especially in the New Australian Musical. In 2018, New Musical Australia will present EVIE MAY A TIVOLI STORY, by Naomi Livingstone and Hugo Chiarella, at the Hayes Theatre.