The pied pipers of Oz Opera

By , 10/03/2019 15:50

OPERA would seem to be an unlikely entertainment for primary school children but Newcastle-born performers Ashley Giles and Alex Sefton have found that they enjoy it as much as adults.
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Giles and Sefton are trekking around NSW in a 50-minute adaptation of Mozart’s opera The Magic Flute that is being staged by Opera Australia’s touring wing, Oz Opera.

The show will be staged at four Newcastle primary schools this week: at St Columban’s, Mayfield, and New Lambton South Primary today; and at St Joseph’s, Merewether, and Cardiff South Primary tomorrow.

In a second Hunter tour from August 26 to 30, The Magic Flute will play at primary schools at Newcastle East, Elermore Vale, Hamilton South, Gloucester, and St Mary’s, Scone.

Oz Opera, which has been touring NSW schools since 2000, expects 45,000 students to attend this year’s 230-plus performances.

The Magic Flute is an opera with elements of fairytale, with a prince, Tamino, and a bird-catcher, Papageno, joining forces to combat a mysterious and seemingly evil figure, Sarastro, and Tamino finding romance as the two men try to rescue princess Pamina, daughter of the Queen of the Night, from Sarastro and his cohorts.

The title flute is given to Tamino by a mysterious woman who tells him its music has the power to help him in moments of danger.

Ashley Giles is certainly familiar with The Magic Flute. This is the sixth production he has appeared in over 12 years for companies Opera Hunter, Newcastle Festival Opera, Opera Australia and Oz Opera.

He has done more than 1000 performances of the show, frequently as Papageno and sometimes in the chorus.

In the current Oz Opera schools production, he is one of seven actor-singers and alternates with other performers in the roles of Papageno and Sarastro.

Alex Sefton shares the role of Sarastro with him. While the two men grew up in the same city, they were involved in Newcastle musical theatre and opera at different times, and only met on the first day of rehearsals for this staging of The Magic Flute.

Ashley Giles graduated with a bachelor of music degree from Newcastle Conservatorium of Music in 2001 and relocated to Melbourne to study at the Victorian College of the Arts Opera Studio.

He has been based in Sydney since 2004 but has returned to Newcastle to appear in Newcastle Festival Opera productions of Cosi Fan Tutte, The Merry Widow and The Magic Flute directed by his Newcastle Conservatorium mentor, Ghillian Sullivan.

He played Papageno in the latter production, staged in 2009, winning a CONDA nomination for his performance. He was also CONDA-nominated the previous year for his Count Danilo in The Merry Widow.

Alex Sefton, who appeared during his school years in Tantrum Theatre productions, was persuaded by his singing teacher, Annabella Redman, to get stage experience in musical theatre productions after doing the HSC in 2004.

He played an Elvis Presley lookalike in Maitland Gilbert and Sullivan and Musical Society’s Bye, Bye Birdie in 2005, following up as one of the noblemen in the company’s Iolanthe the next year.

In 2009, he was accepted into the bachelor of music in classical voice course at the Western Australian Academy of Performing Arts, then did the academy’s graduate diploma of music last year after graduating.

His membership of the Oz Opera The Magic Flute company is his first major employment since completing his academy studies, but his record while at that institution confirmed his talent.

He won third prize in the 2010 Joan Sutherland and Richard Bonynge vocal scholarship for 17-to-25-year-old classical singers, and was acclaimed for his leading role of Petruchio in the academy’s Australian premiere last year of a new opera version of The Taming of the Shrew, as well as for his singing as the title character in Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah.

A full-length Magic Flute runs for about three hours, so the 50-minute schools version has been heavily trimmed. But, as Ashley Giles notes, there are just five minutes of dialogue in the show, so the performers have to ensure that their singing and acting keep the young audience members attentive and happy.

Giles is used to accommodating changes to the opera. He has performed three different translations of the original German text and in many different venues.

However, appearing each day in different school and community halls means that those on stage have to quickly adjust to changed settings. And school children are among the most demanding of audiences.

Alex Sefton said young watchers ensured that the performers never lost focus, and were quick to voice their feelings if there was a lapse.

But he and Ashley Giles agreed that if those on stage put the necessary passion into their singing and acting, the children reacted enthusiastically, applauding loudly at the end and eagerly asking questions.

Sefton is looking forward nostalgically to the Newcastle school performances. He was a student at both New Lambton South and Hamilton South schools, and attended his first acting classes at the Hamilton South venue at age nine.

BIRD MAN: Ashley Giles as Papageno in The Magic Flute.

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