Content and trigger warning: This production contains strong coarse language and adult themes.
After being postponed for a year due to COVID-19, Lorelei has finally made it to the QPAC Concert Hall and it is a witty, provocative, political work of operatic cabaret that turns a modern lens on an ancient myth.
In German lore, the Lorelei sit atop the cliffs of the Rhine River, their sweet song enchanting sailors to crash onto the dangerous rocks below. Positioning the audience as the most recent doomed boatload, Lorelei interrogates the myth of the singing sirens further – who was Lorelei? Where does her power come from, and who is really in control of her story? Tired of their complicity in watery deaths, the three Loreleis choose to rebel, defy the unspoken rules that have held them in place on the rock, and define the future for themselves. But they soon discover that things are not so simple.
The music of Lorelei was created by Julian Langdon, Casey Bennetto, and Gillian Cosgriff, with the latter two having also written the lyrics. I was not expecting to laugh as much as I did, and the humour and wit of the writing took the edge off the darker themes the work touched upon. Parallels were drawn between the plight of the sailors and victims of sexual assault and harassment, flipping familiar refrains on their head as Lorelei A wondered if the sailors were “asking for” their deaths, sailing intentionally into the dangerous waters where the Lorelei sing.
Set and costumes designed by Marg Horwell included huge, gorgeously impractical gowns and headpieces, physically restricting the leading ladies before they decided to cast off their frills and high heels. The removal of layers shifted from symbolising empowerment to indicating vulnerability as the performance – and the Loreleis’ quest for meaning – progressed.
Directed by Sarah Giles, the trio of Lorelei was performed with sass and flair by Ali McGregor, Antoinette Halloran and Dimity Shepherd, whose electric energy and powerful voices soared across the Concert Hall. They were accompanied by twelve musicians from Queensland Symphony Orchestra, with musical direction by Phoebe Briggs. I don’t have the technical knowledge to speak much to the singing or the music, only to say that it was enchanting, goosebump-inducing, and no doubt a demonstration of immense talent and skill despite the apparent ease with which it was performed.
I personally find opera more intimidating, more unfamiliar, than most performing arts, and that from someone who has had the privilege to see many different kinds of performances. I saw my first opera in 2019, when Opera Queensland and Circa staged Orpheus and Eurydice at QPAC, and it was an eye-opening experience. Maybe it’s that I have no technical knowledge of music or voice; maybe it’s that opera is mostly performed in languages other than English; largely, I think I’m worried that I “won’t get it”. However, Lorelei is easy to understand and enjoy and, from my limited perspective, seems like a significant step in not only pushing the boundaries of the form, but in making opera more approachable for the uninitiated.
It was a novelty to be able to watch a new Australian opera sung in English, when my understanding is that opera, much like ballet, draws primarily from the extensive repertoire of the past. The presentation of the surtitles, projected on a screen below each Lorelei, added to the comedic timing and emphasised the modern setting through the use of emojis, hashtags, and capitalisation, despite a few minor tech hiccups. References to texting, the use of colloquialisms and strong coarse language (stronger than your usual, I would say – people appeared to leave the theatre) also made the work feel closer and more recognisable to a modern audience.
Lorelei is a fresh, fierce piece of work featuring outstanding performances, generous helpings of humour, and an unflinching examination of gender roles, victim blaming, and the vital question of who is permitted to control their story.