Photo - Jeff Busby
"Post-post-modern cabaret diva" Meow Meow’s mesmerising performance of Reinbert de Leeuw’s Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai is the sort of wonderfully eccentric and exciting work that Australians rarely have the chance to see, and then only in international arts festivals. Unclassifiable, Wunderschön straddles cabaret, theatre, and classical music in its re-imagining of 21 Lieder by nineteenth-century composers Robert Schumann and Franz Schubert.
Accompanied by a small orchestra of students from the Australian National Academy of Music, cabaret performer Meow Meow sang, whispered, growled and shrieked her way through well-known Lieder such as Schubert’s ‘Der Erlkönig’ and Schumann’s ‘Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai’.
The work is structured as a three-part journey from “tender love”, through darkness and torment, and finally ending in a cynical “world-weary sophistication”. The first third was the weakest part of the show; full of self-conscious anguish and melodramatic gestures, Meow Meow’s performance here was tinged with insincerity and I felt unable to empathise with her as she writhed on the floor, tore at her hair and dress, and paced back and forth on the stage. But her connection with the audience in the second part was much stronger. The growling fury of Schumann’s ‘Ich grolle nicht’ was extremely powerful, and the theatricality of her voice finally came into its own in ‘Der Erlkönig’, where she managed to portray three distinct characters in one song: a young frightened boy, a gruff but fearful father and a sly and nasty Erlking.
The syrupy cynicism of the first few songs in the last part of the work was captured perfectly by Meow Meow as she interacted more with the orchestra and their music, as well as approaching the audience in true cabaret style. The highlight of this part of the show was Schubert’s ‘Heidenröslein’, a song about a red rose that does not want to be picked by a young boy. The song was so effectively dramatised, both visually and vocally, that I found myself holding my breath as I knew the rose was about to be picked, and then in tears as it was plucked from its bush.
The 14 members of the ANAM ensemble should be commended for a sensitive and intelligent performance. Playing without a conductor would have made this work quite demanding given the need to be highly attuned to each other as an ensemble, as well as working with Meow Meow as a performer. Brett Dean, Artistic Director of ANAM, should also be applauded for creating the opportunity for these students to be involved in the Australian premiere of an unusual and exciting work such as Im Wunderschönen Monat Mai.
Director and designer Rodney Fisher produced a simple set design that allowed the audience to focus on Meow Meow without distraction. The rare moments where she used props or interacted with the set were striking: her entrance from behind large black doors which parted as she arrived on stage, a few pink rose petals which fluttered onto the stage as if in response to her presence, and a glass of red wine which she offered to audience members only to teasingly whisk it away at the last minute.
Despite being disappointed with the first part of the performance, by the time the show ended I felt I had been on a journey with Meow Meow, seen the Lieder of Schumann and Schubert through her eyes (and those of de Leeuw) and experienced her descent from the innocence of love to the deepest despair.
The Australian National Academy of Music present
Venue: The Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street, Southbank
Dates/Times: Thursday 18 till Saturday 20 June, 9pm, Sunday, 5pm
Tickets: $50 / $25
Bookings: M-Tix box office or 9685 5111