A classy concert presentation with plenty of polish, Harvey Milk the Opera proves to be a timely, absorbing, affecting piece.
The perfect match of Milk and Midsumma is heightened with the extra layer of relevance achieved by staging this political opera at St Kilda Town Hall. The venue has a grandeur far more striking than any theatrical backdrop, and Brendan Jellie’s lighting enhances the visual appeal of the textured walls beautifully.
With a compelling mix of passion, conflict and tragedy, the story of outspoken politician Harvey Milk is an ideal source for an opera. This edited version of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie’s 1995 opera briskly covers the main parts of Milk’s later life, following him from self-appointed “Mayor of Castro Street” to member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors. The first openly gay person elected to pubic office in California, Milk inspired a generation and shaped the changing face of a city.
Korie’s libretto wisely avoids ominous portents of doom, focusing instead on the vibrant positivity of Milk’s all too short public life. Dan White, assassin of Milk and Mayor George Moscone, is shown as a deeply troubled man who simply believed his irrational paranoia to be the truth.
Wallace’s music has a silvery beauty and a simple majesty that convey both the grand and the intimate moments of the story. The fact that the significantly reduced arrangements work so effectively is largely due to the skills of pianist Toni Lalich and percussionist Louis Sharpe. Lalich in particular has an exquisite touch on the grand piano.
The challenging score is held together flawlessly thanks to the careful precision of conductor Kathleen McGuire. The idea to use an actual choir for the chorus is an inspired one; the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus (augmented for this concert) perform with clarity and wonderful harmonies. Extra points go to the chorus members who memorised their material.
Artistic director Cameron Lukey has overseen a slick production, which balances a friendly community feel with the air of an event of significance. Lukey does away with the static music stands and scores of an opera concert, presenting dynamic direction with all lead cast impressively “off book.” After a brief introduction from McGuire, characters are clear and well defined.
Redoubtable, in-demand music theatre performer Tod Strike achieves a relaxed charisma as Milk, effectively conveying the personable magnetism and wily ambition of the great man. On stage with a trio of experienced opera singers, Strike more than holds his own as a singer of fine quality.
Fellow music theatre performer Nigel Huckle makes an auspicious Australian stage debut as Scott Smith. Newly arrived from the US, Huckle has a ready charm and a fine pure tenor voice.
Powerful tenor Jacob Caine gives a commanding performance as Dan White, capturing the conviction and the dark nature of the man without a hint of overplaying the drama.
Delightful mezzo-soprano Dimity Shepherd has a delicious cameo as a streetwalker before filling the more significant role of Milk’s successful campaign manager Anne Kronenberg.
In strong voice, experienced bass Jerzy Kozlowski is a distinguished presence as Mayor George Moscone.
Both the cast and the audience could surely have appreciated the chance for the full opera to be presented. Hopefully this concert is just a taste, and the full opera will be staged in the not too distant future. I was certainly left wanting more.