Indie outfit Bellbontom audaciously stage a “new” operatic work called “Track Works” at Sydney’s historic Mortuary Station. This was once a central stop to pick up the dead and their living families for transport to Rookwood. Since the advent of the motor car made the transport of the dead to the cemetery a much less grand affair, Mortuary Station has variously been an animal depot, pancake roller skating restaurant with old school carriage on the tracks as the eating house, hosted heritage events, weddings, and parties and now a site-specific performance venue. The building is adorned with angels, cherubs, and gargoyles. The Venetian 13th century Gothic-style building was designed by James Barnet and is the perfect venue for an evening of opera under the stars (at a fraction of the cost of sitting on the harbour!). It feels like such a resonant place for art.
Arriving at the venue on a stormy weekday night, patrons are greeted with a cute bar and before long are ushered onto the performance platform. There are actual numbered seats, tiered so that all get a great view along the platform, and well-placed screens which display the re-written lyrics of some of the most well-known operatic repertoire.
Directed by Clemence Williams, “Track Works” explores the great equalising power of transport delays. It’s done by cutting and pasting well known operatic repertoire together, and rewriting the lyrics to reveal story and character. Four travellers and a station guard wait for a train that never comes and (spoiler) it never will! A homeless woman, Sam (Sophie Mohler) has taken shelter under the platform roof. Two schoolgirls Jess (Eden Shifroni) and Jo (Lily Harper) are breaking lose and enjoying their freedom with endless bottles of booze. An office worker (or maybe a teacher), Jane (Anastasia Gall) is at the end of a long day. Station Master, Bill (Michael Kauffman) tries to keep all in order and when he calls it a night his final act of compassion celebrates all that can be good about the bonds formed on a suburban train platform.
The operatic voices soar in this vaulted space. None more so than Eden Shifroni’s crystal clear soprano and her interpretation of “Sempre Libera” from La Traviata. Each character gets an aria and most often sings with another character as the story and relationships are revealed. Other moments that linger are “Song to the Moon” from Rusalka sung by Sophie Mohler; Anastasia Gall’s “Je Veux Vivre from Romeo and Juliet; “Io Sono Docile” from The Barber of Seville sung by Lily Harper; and Michael Kauffman’s rendition of “Largo al Factotem” also from Barber. The ensemble singing is magnificent and although the Humming Chorus was a bit obvious as a closer it was beautifully done. Interspersed are the recognisable chimes and announcements of delays and hold ups. They are humorous as are the altered lyrics. It really is the case “you have to be there” to appreciate the jokes so I won’t repeat some of the cleverer text here. Someone offstage is accompanying on an electronic keyboard and the sound is more or less well delivered to the stage. It would be great to sit in this location and hear more acoustic sounds - hopefully this team will return to the venue with an even grander production.
As we observe strangers interacting across the 45 minutes of the production, the composition of each scene is mesmerising. The performance was blessed by a fierce wind that didn’t interfere with the vocal projection but was and incredible addition to the movement of various props used – toilet paper, bunches of written notes and safety tape flew in operatic gestures in ways impossible in a traditional venue. Adequately lit by theatrical fixtures the real magic comes from passing commuter trains nearby, lit by their subtle interiors becoming ever more present as night fell. As we look out into the web of train tracks, and beyond to the looming city, humanity’s thrum subsides, and we start to make sense of the picture before us. The humble individual stories taking place on the now abandoned train platform really are the stuff of opera.
This unique event has all the hallmarks of stylish and upmarket opera meets indie, emerging artists strutting their considerable talents. Not to be missed!