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New State Opera artistic director's international ambitions

Arts & Culture

State Opera South Australia has appointed a new artistic director, in a change that points to greater international collaboration and a push to launch homegrown local talent to the world.

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In the final piece of a changing of the guard for State Opera, Australian-Chinese conductor Dane Lam has succeeded Stuart Maunder, who is moving on to a similar role at Opera Victoria after four years in the Adelaide role. The company also welcomed a new chair, Ashley Miller, in August and appointed a new executive director, Mark Taylor, a year ago.

Lam, who takes up the position immediately, is the recently appointed music director of the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra – a position he will retain – and has been principal conductor and artistic director of China’s Xi’an Symphony Orchestra since 2014.

He has worked with the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra as a guest conductor, along with a series of career highlights across the globe.

The Brisbane-born talent is hoping the trans-Pacific triangle of appointments will bring opportunity and collaboration for South Australian performers and the opera company.

Lam told InReview from Hawai’i – where he and his wife, operatic soprano Sofia Troncoso, are awaiting the birth of their first child – that opera has been a central part of his career.

“Opera is such an important part of my life that it’s great to make a contribution in my home country,” he said. “I’ve always been passionate about opera and what a human art form it is – how it weaves together so many elements of the human experience. Opera unites so many different art forms: it’s just something that connects with people.”

He’s hoping that human connection will cross borders, with his appointments in China, Hawai’i and South Australia.

“Absolutely, there’s got to be collaboration. I know that Hawai’i as a place really sees itself as part of the Pacific region, and Australia is a really important player in that, so this trans-Pacific collaboration is really important.”

It’s all about uniting the very best of what opera’s given us and looking towards what opera can mean to us now, as a society in 21st-century Australia.

Lam’s London debut was with Rossini’s La Cenerentola at Opera Holland Park, and he is a staunch supporter and defender of the form, which is often used an exemplar of artistic “elitism” – an accusation he rejects.

“I hate it,” he said. “One of my bugbears in movies is that the super villains always listen to opera. It gives opera such a bad rap because, in a certain way, opera is a fantastic gateway to the so-called classical arts because there’s so much to grab onto – you have music, the visual element, the story, language, sets, costumes and lighting. There are just so many handholds for people to get into this world.

“This is a form that’s been around for hundreds of years – yes – but it deals with emotions and experiences that we are still going through today and it does it in a way that embraces so many different art forms.

“Elitist is a term that’s thrown around all the time – for some reason it’s okay to speak about elite sportspeople and that as soon as it’s associated with arts it’s somehow a dirty word. We shouldn’t be apologetic that we have trained for years and years to be able to perform at the highest level. I think that’s something people can get behind. That’s the best thing about having the chance to lead an artistic institution: people can get to know their local stars – local singers, conductors and creators – and follow them in the same way they’d follow a local sports team. These are the best of the best.”

Given the time of the year, next year’s State Opera program is locked in. Lam says the first full season he will program will be in 2025, but he will be guiding the formation of the artistic teams for next year’s operas, as well as taking up the conductor’s baton for one – a role he intends to take for at least one show each season.

Lam has noted the Adelaide Festival’s success in programming blockbuster operas, typically produced first elsewhere. One of his ambitions is to create work here that can be similarly exported to the world stage.

“We do have a wealth of visionary directors and designers and storytellers – opera makers – in Australia and I think it does need to start going the other way,” he said. “Where else can young Australian – and young and emerging South Australian artists – have the opportunity to share their vision and to share their work with the world, if not from Australia?

“One of the advantages of having conducted opera around the world is that I hope to do just that – to share our South Australian talent with the world. To create our own productions.”

In his role at Xi’an, he has been successful in attracting global stars – such as Korean soprano Sumi Jo – to introduce western opera to the city. He’s also championed living composers and neglected composers of the past. More recently, he led the Hawai’i Symphony Orchestra in a benefit concert for Maui, in the wake of that island’s devastating wildfires.

His approach to programming in Adelaide, he says, will be informed by a love for the traditional canon, but also finding new voices.

“It’s about reimagining the old. I don’t believe in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. I think we have a vibrant, relevant, arresting and transformative art form and we just need to have conversations around it – open it up to the whole community so that new voices are heard, but the wonderful, transformative power of opera is preserved and maintained and taken to new audiences.”

He also will not shrink away from difficult conversations about problematic aspects of older works that, despite this, remain enduringly popular.

“People are just taken by the power of act three of La Boheme, or the end of Traviata or whatever… these are visceral experiences when you’ve got the sound of the unamplified human voice being supported by an orchestra of 70 or 80 – these are the experiences that speak to people.

“And it’s true that there are works and there are ways that operas have been presented in the past that have offended or marginalised people, that haven’t included people in the conversation. I think that the answer’s not to throw out these great works of art that have spoken to people for hundreds of years, but it is a good chance to have a conversation.

“I don’t want to shy away from the hard questions with what we do at State Opera – it’s a good chance to have a conversation to work out why things are problematic and try to find threads in these works that are universal, that speak to us, and to also examine why aspects of these works are problematic.

“Sometimes it can shine a light on domestic violence or racism, and we can have a really honest and frank conversation about how this has to change in 21st-century Australia.

“Speaking about 21st-century Australia, there are also new stories to tell. Commissioning and finding Australian stories – and South Australian stories – to put on stage with fantastic Australian and South Australian artists is also a big part of what I want to do as artistic director. It’s all about uniting the very best of what opera’s given us and looking towards what opera can mean to us now, as a society in 21st-century Australia.”

Lam plans to make his first trip to South Australia in the role before the end of the year.

State Opera executive director Mark Taylor thanked Maunder and outgoing chair Elizabeth Olsson for their work.

He said the new team would shape the future of the company.

This article is republished from InReview under a Creative Commons licence. Read the original article.

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