Voyage to the Moon may be opera as you’ve never heard it before – but its guiding principle would not have been unfamiliar in the 18th century. Baroque “pasticcio” (pastiche) operas consisted of music by several different composers, selected and brought together to suit a story and its performers. Such creations have long been out of fashion, but today the tide is turning and their potential for appealing to modern audiences is being explored by various companies, not least the Melbourne-based Victorian Opera and national arts organisation Musica Viva.
“Pasticcio suits us, as it did the entrepreneurs of the 17th and 18th centuries,” says Phoebe Briggs, Victorian Opera’s head of music. “It gives us a new piece suited to touring and co-production, and it offers flexibility in that the music can be chosen from a variety of composers. While the style is essentially the same throughout, each individual musical item will bring something special and slightly different to the piece.”
The brand-new pasticcio opera Voyage to the Moon therefore unites arias by Handel, Vivaldi and many more in an off-the-wall tale of madness, marvels, magic and healing. Its libretto is by the Australian playwright and director Michael Gow and the score was largely compiled by the musicologist Alan Curtis, one of the towering figures behind the revival of Handel’s operas in recent decades. Alan was appointed to create the score by Professor Jane Davidson who leads the Performance Program of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for the History of Emotions; a partner for Voyage to the Moon.
Tragedy intervened. Alan Curtis died suddenly in July 2015 while still hard at work on the piece. He had completed the lion’s share; the last stages have been completed by the Australian musicologist Calvin Bowman. The present writer was lucky enough to be in touch with Curtis only days before he passed away; with no hint of malady, he offered a spirited, fascinating interview overflowing with enthusiasm.
“I grew up equating ‘pasticcio’ with ‘hodge-podge’ and treating both terms as derogatory,” Curtis related. “Perhaps it was a memorable dish of ‘pasticcio di lasagna’ in a fine restaurant in Venice back in the 1960s that first suggested to me another point of view. But more seriously, it was Reinhard Strohm’s fine chapter on Handel’s pasticci in his book on 18th-century opera that first strongly aroused my interest.”
Voyage to the Moon, he added, was “the first pasticcio I have ever composed – though my half-century and more of conducting Baroque opera often led me to deal with many of the same problems: finding arias and ensembles to suit a particular situation and composing, in various styles, any parts that might be missing.”
The process resembled a game of musical ping-pong, batting words and music back and forth. “Michael Gow sends me words, though usually not yet the final ones,” Curtis said. “They often almost at once give me ideas which I then try to put down on paper. The recitatives and ariosi are mine; the arias, duets and trios are all by mid-18th-century composers: Handel and Vivaldi, of course, but also Telemann and various Italians, especially Neapolitans such as ‘Ciccio’ de Majo. I send suggestions to Michael and if he agrees that the aria is appropriate we both set about fitting his text to the existing music, sometimes by altering the music a bit, sometimes by changing the text.”
But why not simply perform an existing baroque opera? Curtis picked out several areas in which “pasticcio” might even have the edge over traditional baroque opera for 21st-century audiences. “Certainly the possibility of making the plot easier to understand, or more relevant, is worth considering,” he said, “but there is also the freedom to revive what, although often abused, was not in itself such a bad idea: the possibility to choose arias that particularly suit the available singers.
“An even more important advantage, to my mind, is the possibility of reducing the recitative to a minimum. Even the best baroque operas often come with acres of arid recitative that can be boring. This remains a major obstacle to the successful revival of most baroque opera.”
Curtis is sorely missed. Michael Gow pays warm tribute to his work. “Alan was incredibly generous with his knowledge and experience and staggering in his familiarity with the music of this period,” he says. “We hit it off straight away and the emails that flew between here and [his home in] Florence were full of great ideas, insights, wonderful asides into history and life.” Phoebe Briggs joins the appreciation: “Alan was absolutely delightful to work with,” she says. “He had so much to offer, and such a vast knowledge of the repertoire; it was a joy to see him so excited about the project.”
Finally, Gow encourages you to come and hear Voyage to the Moon, even if you’ve never seen anything like it before. “You will hear some great music you’ve never heard before, sometimes by composers you’ve never heard of, performed by three wonderful singers who are also very good actors,” he smiles. “It’s the best of both worlds: theatre and music.”
Voyage to the Moon tours nationally 15 February – 12 March 2016. For more information, and to book your tickets, please visit: www.musicaviva.com.au/voyage