A burlesque in drag: this ain’t your grandma’s opera

Pinchgut Opera is celebrating its birthday with the most lavish, spectacular production in its 20-year history, a rollicking 18th-century opera described by artistic director Erin Helyard as a “super-sophisticated burlesque”.

Platee, by Jean-Philippe Rameau, is reputedly the world’s first comic opera. In Pinchgut’s production, directed by Neil Armfield, tenor Kanen Breen plays the key role of the water nymph Platee in full drag, wearing thigh-high pink vinyl boots with 10cm heels. Add in the blonde wig and Kanen’s own 185cm and he hits 213cm – or 7ft in the old scale.

Your grandma’s opera, this ain’t.

Big shoes to fill: Tenor Kanen Breen in his dressing room.Credit:Janie Barrett

“When it was staged for the first time, people didn’t know what to make of it,” says Helyard. “It really divided audiences. I think it is the most extraordinary piece of theatre in the 18th century. There’s so much sophisticated parody and inversion in the show.”

Platee has been a long time coming for Pinchgut, with preparations repeatedly interrupted by the lockdowns. Even now as the company rehearses at Surry Hills’ Opera Centre, it has imposed ultra-strict rules with all the company and visitors submitting to regular COVID tests in an effort to avoid any further shutdowns.

But there is an air of joyful expectation around rehearsals after such a long lay-off and Helyard in particular is thrilled to be getting the company back on stage.

Pinchgut’s Erin Helyard believes Platee is one of the jewels of the 18th century.

“It’s an amazing all-Australian cast and an Australian creative team,” he says. “It really shows off what Pinchgut aspires to be as a company that supports Australian artists. We’ve never had to rely on international artists – we certainly bring them in, but the ethos of the company is to support local talent.”

The work is being staged at the City Recital Hall in Angel Place, Pinchgut’s regular home. But while the venue has great acoustics, staging an opera as big as this comes with some difficulties.

“I was always aware of the challenge of presenting work written for the most elaborately equipped theatres of the Baroque,” says Armfield, who is directing a Pinchgut production for the first time.

Neil Armfield is directing at Pinchgut for the first time.Credit:Tony Lewis

The celebrated director’s solution has been to set the stage for Platee, whose plot revolves around a sham marriage, as a “kind of wedding venue”, complete with videographer.

The fake wedding comes into play after Platee, the ugly water nymph, becomes the victim of a brutal joke by the gods and is led to believe Jupiter, king of the gods, is in love with her.

Much hilarity ensues until the final scene when the scales fall from Platee’s eyes and she realises the extent of the cruel deception.

“Platee just rages after having been scorned and humiliated,” says Helyard. “We’ve all been laughing and smiling and suddenly we realise the horror of the implications of this deep humiliation.”

Helyard says that final scene was one of the things that first drew him to the opera.

“As a gay man I’ve suffered scorn and mockery and humiliation for much of my life like Platee. When I first saw this show I remember crying at that moment. It holds a mirror up to the audience because you have to ask yourself – why have I been laughing?”

Platee opens at the City Recital Hall on December 1.

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