Timothy Sexton is the Musical Director of Maria de Buenos Aires, a co-production between the State Opera of South Australia and Leigh Warren and Dancers. He spoke to Australian Stage's Daniela Kaleva.
Daniela: Timothy Sexton, thank you for speaking with Australian Stage Online. You have conducted a wide range of operatic genres from the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries. What is it like working with a new music theatre genre which is based on tango music?
Timothy Sexton: Quite a lot of the work I’ve done has been involved with dance and it is actually very rewarding to work with a music form which is so intrinsically imbued with a feeling of dance. The tango is obviously a very popular medium at the moment now but Piazzolla’s music is quite unusual. It takes quite a different slant and tells much more of a story in the music that he writes. So it’s not just dance music or operatic music with a dance focus. It is actually music that really tells a story through dance. So, it is harmonically rewarding and it is rhythmically rewarding. The rhythms are great and it is music that is very satisfying to perform.
Daniela: This production of Piazzolla’s ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ is another collaboration between you and Leigh Warren and his dancers. What do you enjoy about working with dancers in opera specifically and about working with Leigh Warren?
Timothy Sexton: I’ve worked with Leigh Warren for about 18 years. We go back a very long way and there has been quite a number of collaborations between Leigh and his Dancers and the Opera of South Australia. So I’ve worked on the Philip Glass trilogy that we did Akhnaten Satyagraha and Einstein on the beach. It’s really nice to have music physicallised. And we’ve got to be careful referring to ‘Maria’ as an opera. Not even Piazzolla himself refereed to it as an opera. He called it an operita (a little opera). But even so, the original version of the work wasn’t operatic. It was very much poetry with music behind it and sort of the vocal stuff develops within, but it is certainly not operatic in any true sense of the word. It is a music theatre work. It really is a music theatre piece; much more so than specifically an operatic work. But getting back to the question of working with dancers, it is just really exciting because you really feel that energy of locking in, providing rhythms, providing rhythmic support to support the dance. It is very much a synergy between the orchestra and the dancers, often more so than you actually feel with the singers. Singers, when singers are performing the work, they are very much the heart of the ensemble, that has happened to be more prominent but their sort of rhythmic lock in. With the dancers, it's a totally different dimension and it’s actually pretty exciting finding that connection between the dancers and the orchestra and making sure that it is as strong as possible.
Daniela: Who have you cast in the main roles and what do these artists bring to this new interpretation?
Timothy Sexton: There are three sort of main roles - two of them are sung, one of them is spoken. Cherie Boogaart is singing the role of Maria. I’ve worked with her for many years. She is a gorgeous looking woman. She is tall, slim, has really striking features. I think what she brings to this particular role, apart from a really great voice and a really great stage presence, is believability. She is very believable in the role. It’s not what you look upon, saying that is an opera singer singing Piazzolla. She is Maria. Mark Oats plays the role or sings the role of the Cantor. Mark is a very highly experienced music theatre performer. He has done operatic work with us as well but a lot of his work is done in music theatre. He has sung the role of Jean Valjean in ‘Les Miserables’, he has done things like that and comes with really a very different sort of experience. And it is not an operatic baritone role, these are songs, they are not arias, and he has been able to capture the proper quality in the sound of his voice. The narrator in the original production was Horacio Ferrer, who wrote the libretto - so Alirio Zavarce as a very experienced Adelaide actor (who is also from Venezuela, not quite from Argentina but it is close), is able to bring again a really great dramatic sense. Because he understands and speaks Spanish, he can really make this text come alive. So, each of them brings something very different to the roles but which is very appropriate.
Daniela: To what new discoveries has the research on ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ taken you?
Timothy Sexton: It’s indicated that there is a lot of confusion about the work. There are different versions of it out there. Piazzolla never really completed it, he put it aside, tried together on a number of times. There are conflicting versions of the work and actually it took us a long time to work out what it was we are actually meant to be performing. I’ve done quite a lot of Piazzolla’s music in other straight instrumental areas. I think his particular popularity is becoming because of the popularity of tango at the moment and the way contemporary music has come back too, to being very tonal, very harmonic. His music is suddenly finding a new popularity because it sounds new but is actually old. Yes, it sounds new but is still forty years old. I think research has shown that there are a lot of ways of doing Piazzolla.
Piazzolla himself did his own music in different ways. What we are trying to do and what we are creating is as authentic a sound as we can. This is one of the reasons we’ve brought a bandenon player over from Argentina to perform with, to try and get as authentic a sound as possible but it is a movable thing. There are so many different schools of tango which we’ve discovered. They all say they’ve got the right way of doing it and none of them are the same. It’s a bit of a boiling pot, bit of a mix of things. Research has certainly shown us what sort of direction we should be taking but it is a very difficult thing to nail down exactly because there is there is no one way of doing it.
Daniela: Maybe this is excellent then you have a bit of freedom there with the interpretation.
Timothy Sexton: We certainly have a freedom to interpret it but we have to be careful so that it does not come too far away from what it is meant to be. Certainly musically we are trying to keep it as accurate as we possibly can. Where Leigh is going, I think, dance-wise in a fairly dramatic direction, he’s taken very dramatic forms of the tangos but because it is a theatre piece. We are not doing a concert version; we are creating something which is a living theatre piece. There are certain liberties that we are taking with that.
Daniela: This leads me to my next question. What do you think the audience will like about this particular production and the work?
Timothy Sexton: They will love the music. I think visually, it puts the story in some real context and I think that’s going to be very beneficial. I think the way it’s been staged and set will bring the stories to life. So certainly visually it‘s going to look terrific but musically it is going to be a very satisfying experience for them aurally.
Daniela: Timothy Sexton thank you for speaking to Australian Stage Online.
Maria de Buenos Aires opens at the Adelaide Festival Centre, October 15, 2010. Further details»