Robert Lepage’s take on Igor Stravinsky’s short opera The Nightingale and the accompanying three fables – all of which feature animals – has previously been performed in Aix-en-Provence, Toronto, New York and Amsterdam, with a New York Times critic describing its use of puppetry as the “most affecting and intricate” he had ever seen.

In a co-production between Opera de Lyon, Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Canadian Opera Company and Dutch National Opera, in collaboration with Lepage’s Canadian theatre company Ex Machina, it will be presented at the Festival Theatre from March 1-6 during next year’s Adelaide Festival.

“I am thrilled to be coming back to the Adelaide Festival with an opera production that means so much to me,” Lepage, who was last in Adelaide in 2018 with the sold-out show The Far Side of the Moon, said in a statement.

“It is a true joy to deconstruct a work and explore the boundless potential of opera. The Nightingale and Other Fables weaves together the crafts of singing, music, puppetry, dance, acting, mime, architecture, and literature – it has it all and I very much look forward to bringing the work to Australian audiences.”

Stravinsky’s The Nightingale was inspired by a Hans Christian Andersen fairytale and tells of a nightingale that is invited to sing at the Emperor of China’s court but is later discarded when the Emperor decides he prefers a mechanical bird. Opera de Lyon describes it as a work of two parts: “Calm and bucolic at the outset, later becoming more energetic with innovative rhythm patterns.”

For the Adelaide Festival season of The Nightingale and Other Fables, State Opera South Australia’s 34-member chorus will join a cast of international soloists including Grammy Award-winning American contralto Meredith Arwady as Death, bass Taras Berezhansky (Ukraine), tenors Andrew Goodwin (Australia) and Owen McCausland (Canada), and soprano Yuliia Zasimova (Ukraine), as well as troupe of Canadian acrobats/puppeteers.

The Adelaide Symphony Orchestra will be moved to the stage, while a lake around 1.5m deep will be created in the orchestra pit, with performers standing in the water and boats floating across it. Acrobatic shadow play, Taiwanese hand puppets and Vietnamese water puppetry are all employed to tell the enchanting stories.

In a Canadian Opera interview about the opera, LePage said he was inspired to incorporate puppetry in the work after watching footage of Oedipus Rex, a previous production worked on by The Nightingale‘s puppet designer, American Michael Curry.

“It was the proof that you could push puppetry very, very, very far in the context of opera, and that the meeting between these two crafts was actually an ideal one,” he said, adding that it worked particularly well where some of the characters were animals. “It really felt like puppetry was… also a way of dealing with the poetry of opera.”

In another interview, Lepage said he had always wanted to create an opera where the orchestra was on stage, “because that’s where the emotion comes from, that’s where the ideas come from… Of course, the fact that we’re filling the pit with water kind of forces us to work in this manner.”

The Nightingale, which has a run time of 50 minutes, is preceded by Stravinksy’s The Fox and the short fables The Two Poems of Konstantin Balmont and Pribaoutki and Berceuses du Chat.

Adelaide Festival artistic director Ruth Mackenzie says she is happy to be working with Lepage, with whom she has previously collaborated many times: “The Nightingale and Other Fables is a production which has an instant appeal to young audiences and opera first-timers, as well as seasoned opera lovers.”

Pre-sale tickets for The Nightingale and Other Fables will be available from midday on July 3, with general-public sales open from July 11. The full 2024 Adelaide Festival program will be released on October 24.

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