Richard Watts | ArtsHub

Contemporary art form meets 17th century tradition; an unlikely pairing rich with potential.

Il Ritorno photo by Damien Bredberg

Though collaboration is common in our sector, it’s often between artists working in similar art forms or sharing methodologies. Rarer are collaborations which push audiences and artists alike outside their comfort zones, such as two upcoming productions which unite performers from the disparate worlds of opera and circus.

Laughter and Tears is a new collaboration between Circus Oz and the Victorian Opera, together with State Opera of South Australia, which reimagines the operaPagliacci by reconnecting it to its commedia dell’arte roots. 

Fusing the two art forms has long been a dream of Victorian Opera’s Artistic Director, Richard Mills, as the company’s Managing Director, Andrew Snell, explains.

‘Richard’s never been particularly happy with the marriage of Pagliacci and another opera – obviously it’s usually Rusticana, though not exclusively – and his view was that as the whole notion of Pagliacci is based around this idea of the commedia dell’arte production of a play within a play, and because so many of the circus traditions are based on thatcommedia archetype, that therefore it was a logical thing to try and pair that with circus. And perhaps even make the circus element the play within the play in Pagliacci,’ he said.

Yaron Lifschitz, Artistic Director of Brisbane-based company Circa, has a different justification for fusing circus and opera in the acclaimed Il Ritorno, which premiered at last year’s Brisbane Festival and soon plays venues in Melbourne, Lismore and the Gold Coast.

‘Opera is one of my great loves, and since no one would give me an opera director gig so I thought I should just make my own. Of course I’m being facetious but I do really love opera and I’m genuinely interested in it as a thorny, difficult art form – in the same way that I’m interested in circus as a thorny, difficult art form,’ Lifschitz said.

‘I don’t love opera because of the bel canto arias, I love it because trying to communicate sung drama inherently hovers between the sublime and the ridiculous, as does trying to communicate art with circus, or inhabit art with circus.

‘So I’m interested in these troubled children of the theatrical genre or theatrical pantheon which don’t necessarily fit easily and which invite the odd raised eyebrow – and I’m interested in lowering the eyebrow and opening the mouth, because my experience of great opera, my experience of great circus and physical performance, is that your jaw drops and your eyes fill with wonder. I’m just trying to find that immediacy and that connection.’


While collaboration between companies and art forms can often seem an attractive proposition, Snell warns peers to approach such projects carefully.

‘They always seem like a really good idea,’ he laughed. ‘But what you tend to find is that all the different art form companies that we work with, they all do things differently. And so while it might seem quite logical to do this, once you actually start to put the two together you find that the processes involved in circus and the processes involved in opera are really very, very different, and so it becomes a much more complex marriage. It’s not just as simple as “let’s do the show and have a few acrobats in it at the same time”.’

Even something as simple as blocking out rehearsal time can be a challenge when working across art form boundaries, according to Laughter and Tears cast member and circus artist, Kate Fryer.

‘The Victorian Opera were amazing when we first had meetings with them. As circus performers we went in with, “These are the ways we do things,” and they were wonderful in going, “Ok great, we’ll give you those two weeks there and then we’ll have time to build things, and then we’ll do another two weeks there.” But opera rehearses very differently. In fact they don’t spend anywhere near as much time on a rehearsal room floor as we do,’ she said.

‘So the challenges have been understanding each other’s form but the wonderful thing about this production has been just how generous both of the forms have been in supporting each other and also making allowances for each other.’

DJ Garner and Kate Fryer rehearse an aerial routine during a performance by Shakira Tsindos and Elvira Fatykhova in a Laughter and Tears rehearsal. Photo by Charlie Kinross. 

The fundamental differences between the ways that circus and opera prepare was a stumbling block, but far from insurmountable, Snell told ArtsHub.

‘An opera production is a very detailed planning process; you’ve got a really good idea of how the show’s going to be prepared and how the characters are going to develop, where things are going to be, what the basic concept is. Circus is a much more organic art form,’ he said.

‘It sounds a bit trite to say it but [circus artists] tend to come into the room and play around with concepts to start with, rather than coming in with a fixed idea of how the show is going to be. So we didn’t necessarily know which particular elements of circus were going to feature in this production when we first started putting it together.’

Of all the art forms, circus is particularly suited to collaboration, Fryer said.

‘I think the skill that circus performers bring means that it is one of the most ideal forms to collaborate in with any other form. Because although obviously you train hard and have a gladbag of tricks and you may be a specialist in handstands or you may be a specialist in aerial, circus performers especially in Australia generally are not necessarily masters of everything. But really we work to a very high standard across the different forms of circus, so that when you come into a production like this you’re sort of going “What would fit and what would suit this part of the show?”,’ she said.

‘So you can immediately go “Oh well we could work with equilibration or you could work with aerial or you could work with ground-based tumbling.” This show is drawing a lot on the commedia dell’arte tradition which again, the physicality of circus works brilliantly for, so you’re absolutely right – very much so, circus is an ideal art form to collaborate across the other forms – and lift the forms, you know? And if you can really make it work then you end up with a new form that’s really quite exciting.’


One of the benefits of a cross art form production like Circa’s Il Ritorno, which fuses the story of Ulysses as told by Claudio Monteverdi’s Il Ritorno D’Ulisse in Patria with circus arts and the contemporary stories of the refugee crisis, is that it can reach audiences to whom one art form or the other is unfamiliar or unsatisfying. The circus aspects of the work may attract an audience for whom opera is unfamiliar or inaccessible, and vice versa. At least that’s the theory.

‘On a good day and under the right light that’s exactly what happens; on a bad day you just piss everyone off. Circa treads that dangerous line – we’re too circus for the dance and movement mob, we’re too posh for the carnie mob, we’re too international for the Australians and we’re too Australian for the internationals,’ said Lifschitz.

‘That said, what we’ve been able to do I think is find this kind of connection of audience members, a demographic of people who’ve got really open minds and hearts. Because I think the essence of it is when someone is trying to communicate with you with authenticity and passion and skill, this should be a way through most of the time.

‘Not everything we do is going to work but on the whole – and something like Il Ritorno is a dangerous balance – but we definitely hope to bring audiences to it … One of the great things that we can do is open up our genre to new forms and new audiences, to meeting places between art forms. That’s a really special thing to do with one’s life,’ he said.

The addition of a refugee story to Il Ritorno – an exploration of diaspora and homecoming, of yearning and loss – adds additional nuance to the already complex production.

‘I would love nothing more than for this show to be completely irrelevant but sadly it’s not. I think that it’s a real pity – the fact that we’re still in 2016 and still trying to figure out that humanity never benefits from close-mindedness and insularity and isolation and small-mindedness. We have a kind of moral and spiritual duty as members of this species, as members of this civilisation, to help those who are being left behind. And the fact that we are becoming quite the opposite – small minded, insular, self-centred – is absolutely appalling,’ Lifschitz said.


While purists may turn their noses up at the hybridisation of art forms, Snell believes such cross art form and cross-company productions as Laughter and Tears can only benefit opera as a whole.

‘There’s obviously a massive tradition in this art form, and you can’t just completely reinvent the wheel without some kind of reference back to it. But I think … trying to reinvent the art form and broaden it is exactly what we are doing. We don’t want to be that staid museum piece that unfortunately so many people think that opera companies are. We try to that with pretty much every production that we do, to be really honest –  even if it’s an existing work as we are with this. I mean, Pagliacci is relatively standard rep for opera companies around the world but I can pretty much guarantee that nobody’s done it this way,’ he said.

‘And even when we take existing work we like to try and bring a new idea to the production, let audiences see and experience something they haven’t [seen before] but obviously add into that the fact that we have this real commitment to new work, particularly Australian work. It means that our audience get a very varied diet in terms of repertoire, I guess, not just a top ten repertoire of Bohemeand Carmen and Magic Flute. Not that there’s anything wrong with those shows but we try and mix it up and make our output as varied as is humanly possible.’

Lifschitz also believes such diversification is important – not just for opera, but for all art forms.

‘A friend of mine describes opera as an art form as a “covers band”, and I think we’re all in danger of becoming our own greatest hits album. I think as an art form, as artists and individuals, that same kind of isolationism that you see in the political sphere with the refugee and immigration crisis that we are currently experiencing absolutely also happen artistically. That said, there’s also the plague of collaboration where unless you have four novelty items you can’t actually do a show. You also need to guard against that,’ he said.

Circa’s Il Ritorno
Arts Centre Melbourne, Playhouse: 17-20 August
Arts Theatre, The Arts Centre Gold Coast: 26-27 August 2016
NORPA, Lismore City Hall: 31 August – 2 September 2016

Laughter and Tears
A Victorian Opera and State Opera of South Australia co-production presented in association with Circus Oz
Palais Theatre, St Kilda
13, 16, 18 August 2016