Singing from the Rooftops

Art, Ambition and Hometown Pride in Liselle Mei’s Love Opera

The Brisbane River

Following a group of young singers from audition to performance at a prestigious Brisbane opera school, Liselle Mei’s documentary is an intimate representation of female friendship and artistic development that doesn’t shy away from some of the less edifying aspects of opera culture. As Rebekah Brammer writes, the film is also a production thoroughly situated in the city of Brisbane – both diegetically and behind the scenes – and ultimately serves as a paean to its setting.

Founded in 2011, the Lisa Gasteen National Opera Program[1]Referred to in the film as the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School, which was the program’s official title until a rebranding in May 2020. – based at Griffith University’s Queensland Conservatorium and headed by Gasteen herself – proclaims itself as ‘the premier elite training program for young Australian opera singers’, providing a short and intensive course that enables students to train locally in a way previously only available overseas.[2]‘Support Us’, Lisa Gasteen National Opera Program website, <https://lisagasteennationaloperaprogram.com/support-us>, accessed 14 August 2020. Attaining a coveted spot in the program involves a rigorous application and audition process, a journey that Liselle Mei’s documentary Love Opera – which first screened at the 2019 Brisbane International Festival – observes in detail. The initial set-up of the film readies the audience for a classic ‘talent quest’–style narrative; and, while this structure is mostly adhered to, there are nonetheless plenty of interesting detours along the way, including explorations into the personalities and pasts of some of the key players and an affectionate visual emphasis on the city that provides the film’s backdrop.

Music Director Alondra de la Parra

Personal histories

In between following a group of students in the program’s 2017 intake, Love Opera also spends considerable time telling Gasteen’s story. Producer Trish Lake says of the program’s founder and chief mentor that ‘people like […] Gasteen are just as important as our sporting stars’, and Love Opera treats her accordingly.[3]Trish Lake, quoted in Phil Brown, ‘Film Has a Sing in Its Tale’, Qweekend,14–15 September 2019. The film’s exposition of Gasteen’s illustrious opera career as a world-class soprano, which led her to many of the world’s great opera stages and roles, does more than just provide background; it reveals why she is so driven to nurture future talent. 

Gasteen’s own singing career was halted by an accident about a decade ago, an event that she recounts in the film. Because she has been in their shoes, she demonstrates an awareness of how hard her young charges need to work, along with the emotional fortitude they will require in order to survive in the industry. As ABC presenter Paul Barclay has noted, in the film Gasteen acknowledges both the dizzying heights and great personal costs of success, knowing that her students must have the mental strength in order to handle the pressures of both triumph and failure.[4]Paul Barclay, Love Opera post-screening Q&A, Brisbane International Film Festival, 9 October 2019. She functions so well as the linchpin of Love Opera’s story due to her inherent likeability: she is about as far from the proverbial diva as imaginable, presenting as kind, down-to-earth, yet quietly tough. 

Although Love Opera does not explicitly present itself as a film about women, it emerges as such organically.

By Gasteen’s side throughout the film is her friend and colleague Nancy Underhill, herself an esteemed arts academic and opera supporter. It is notable that we see them both within and away from the audition process, scenes that bear witness to the longevity of their friendship and their deep trust and care for each other. As the singers move closer to their performance date, they begin to work more closely with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra under the baton of its music director, Alondra de la Parra, who becomes another key player in the story. The film also chooses to give more screen time to two female singers taking the course, Rachel Pines and Morgan England-Jones. 

Although Love Opera does not explicitly present itself as a film about women, it emerges as such organically through these depictions. This is unsurprising, as not only the singers but also the drivers of their journey – Gasteen, Underhill and de la Parra – are female, as is the director and one of the film’s two producers. And issues surrounding gender and sexuality are not absent from the narrative, with Pines’ and England-Jones’ experiences both revealing unexpected prejudices within the opera world. A moment in which plus-sized England-Jones is bluntly told to lose weight shocked director Mei, who admits to having subscribed to the assumption that, for opera singers, it ‘doesn’t matter how big you are; it’s about your voice’. This incident revealed to her that in the opera world, as in other arts industries, ‘how you look matters’.[5]Liselle Mei, Love Opera post-screening Q&A, Brisbane International Film Festival, 9 October 2019.

Soprano Pines was likewise disappointed to discover that she did not always feel supported or accepted in her identity as a gay woman in opera spaces, a revelation that destabilises common perceptions of the arts as a queer-friendly environment. These insights into the singers’ private lives and anxieties mirror the way the film delves into intimate details of Gasteen’s own story, and demonstrates the trust that was established over the course of filming between the director and her subjects.

Program participants on stage, including Rachel Pines (right)

Place and story

Love Opera is as much a love letter to its Brisbane setting as it is to its titular artform; after the premiere screening, Barclay referred to it as a ‘hometown story’ premiering at its ‘hometown festival’.[6]Barclay, op. cit. Aerial shots of the city, taken with drone photography, feature in the film’s opening and closing scenes. Set to the ‘Flower Duet’ from Léo Delibes’ opera Lakmé, these sequences are as slick and polished as a tourism commercial: the opening shot weaves its way into Brisbane on an early morning, over bushland and along the river, before finally revealing the CBD. The closing shots, taken at night, begin at the South Bank cultural precinct and move outwards, with spectacular night views of the Brisbane River. Even though the film inevitably spends much of its screen time indoors, the moments in which we are taken outside are treated with care. 

For viewers familiar with Brisbane, and Australian suburbia in general, there are recognisable landscapes and spaces. In people’s homes, outside of the inner-city rehearsal studios, interior and exterior spaces alike are beautifully shot by cinematographer Esteban Rivera. Something as simple as the singers having lunch together in Underhill’s home – a classic Queenslander – is given a strong sense of place and space. In another scene, we see a relaxed dinner involving Gasteen and other friends taking place on Underhill’s wide verandah. Many of the scenes that further the story of Gasteen and Underhill’s friendship take place outdoors in typically Australian landscapes, such as bushland (the pair share a holiday home they nickname ‘Heaven’ in the Sunshine Coast hinterland, another landscape that will resonate with local viewers). Elsewhere, aspiring singer Morgan is depicted in her kitchen and backyard, and we see Rachel and her wife in their home – everyday settings that take us out of the sterile confines of the rehearsal spaces and into the subjects’ private lives, and that again reinforce the film’s recognisable milieu.

Issues surrounding gender and sexuality are not absent from the narrative, with Pines’ and England-Jones’ experiences both revealing unexpected prejudices within the opera world.

This close connection between narrative and setting brings to mind another documentary set in the entertainment world, Every Little Step (Adam Del Deo & James D Stern, 2008). The film follows New York City dancers from auditions through to opening night in the Broadway revival of the classic show A Chorus Line, which is itself a musical about dancers auditioning for a Broadway musical. The film opens with archival footage of a snowy New York in the 1970s; this is bookended by the same visual motif of snow falling at the end of the film. As in Love Opera, much of the action happens indoors – in rehearsal studios or inside a theatre – but the film makes frequent visual connections to New York throughout. We hear interviews with the auditionees over images of New York streets, with iconic visuals including the neon lights of the theatre district, classic brownstone apartment buildings and the ubiquitous yellow taxis. Aerial shots of the city at various times of day are also used throughout the film as transitional shots between different stages of the story. Much as Every Little Step contrasts the original creative process of A Chorus Line in 1975 with the 2006 production it is documenting, the film conveys a strongsense of time and place. For example, archival footage of Chinatown is accompanied by a voiceover from a member of the original cast, and a new auditionee is later interviewed in a similar location. This mirroring is echoed in Love Opera, whose historical elements take the action out of Brisbane and to Gasteen’s former haunts as an international opera star, such as London’s Covent Garden; Gasteen and Underhill are shown visiting the iconic opera house in the present day, a sequence intercut with footage of Gasteen’s performances in her heyday as a singer.

As well as expressing a deep affection for its host city, Love Opera centres Brisbane talent in its production and distribution. The process of making the film began with the support of Brisbane’s South Bank arts precinct, within which Gasteen’s program operates, and which also includes the Griffith Film School and Queensland Performing Arts Centre. The interest of producer Lake, of Freshwater Pictures, was initially piqued when artists working within the precinct publicised the work that the then National Opera School had been doing within the arts community; Griffith Film School academic Margaret McVeigh subsequently came on board as screenwriter, while Daniel Schultz, the film’s other producer, has also lectured at the film school.[7]See ‘Filmmakers’, Love Opera website, <https://www.loveoperafilm.com.au>, accessed 14 August 2020. The film itself was shot on a shoestring budget, with belief in the project from participants carrying it through. Speaking after the film’s premiere screening, Lake pointed out that the extent of this commitment is exemplified by the fact that, at the time of filming the performance at the film’s climax, which involved some twenty crew members, Love Opera was yet to be fully financed. Over the two-year process of shooting the film, most financing came through towards the end, necessitating considerable faith from all parties involved. She cited in particular the assistance of the film school and Screen Queensland as supporters in getting the film completed, as well as a number of other local businesses such as Brisbane legal firm Broadley Rees Hogan, which contributed to its production and provided legal services. Independent Brisbane company Antidote Films came on board to distribute the film, and investor The Post Lounge, partially based in Brisbane, doubled as the film’s production house. In contrast, Lake lamented the lack of support from federal agencies such as Screen Australia: while acknowledging the competitive nature of their funding, she cited a lack of support generally for films about the arts, and classical music in particular.[8]Trish Lake, Love Opera post-screening Q&A, Brisbane International Film Festival, 9 October 2019.

Morgan England-Jones on stage

Arts critic Phil Brown suggests that Love Opera’s audience may be limited by perceptions of opera as an elitist artform, but argues that the story it tells is ultimately a universal one.[9]Brown, op. cit. This is a quality that it shares with numerous films, including Every Little Step: Mei’s documentary is an intimate portrait of those pursuing their dreams of success in a given field that provides behind-the-scenes access to the world they inhabit. Love Opera was initially slated for a March 2020 theatrical release and further screenings at the Gold Coast Film Festival in April; the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, then changed our world irrevocably, with the arts being one of the sectors hardest hit by the catastrophe. Nonetheless, as the film shows, artists are tenacious and passionate people – and opera, like all artforms, will survive and thrive through its practitioners’ love of art, both for its own sake and for the power it has to create and bring together communities. 

Endnotes
Endnotes
1 Referred to in the film as the Lisa Gasteen National Opera School, which was the program’s official title until a rebranding in May 2020.
2 ‘Support Us’, Lisa Gasteen National Opera Program website, <https://lisagasteennationaloperaprogram.com/support-us>, accessed 14 August 2020.
3 Trish Lake, quoted in Phil Brown, ‘Film Has a Sing in Its Tale’, Qweekend,14–15 September 2019.
4 Paul Barclay, Love Opera post-screening Q&A, Brisbane International Film Festival, 9 October 2019.
5 Liselle Mei, Love Opera post-screening Q&A, Brisbane International Film Festival, 9 October 2019.
6 Barclay, op. cit.
7 See ‘Filmmakers’, Love Opera website, <https://www.loveoperafilm.com.au>, accessed 14 August 2020.
8 Trish Lake, Love Opera post-screening Q&A, Brisbane International Film Festival, 9 October 2019.
9 Brown, op. cit.