By Cameron Menzies
“Theatre Genius”, “Melbourne’s Enfant Terrible”, “Artistic Leader”, “Visionary”, “Perfectionist”, are
a few quotes that have been used to describe Cameron Menzies. He has taken on many roles in his career some of which are Artistic Director, Creative Director, Writer, Designer, Associate Artist and Stage Director of Opera, Music Theatre, Cabaret and Theatre.
In 2008 Cameron was the recipient of the Bayreuth Opera Award and in 2011 the Berlin New Music Award through The Opera Foundation for Young Australians and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD). As part of these awards Cameron was generously supported in part by the Wagner Society in NSW. During his time supported by these awards he worked as the hopsitant regie on a then new production of Tannhäuser at the Deutsche Oper Berlin, studied German at the Goethe Institut in Hamburg and worked on and researched new music and staging of new compositions in Berlin. These two years were his entrée into the international world of opera. It is where he met with international companies with which he now holds important positions and where he has quietly and very successfully forged a career both overseas and in Australia. He talks to us about his time since these awards and how he has navigated.
22 February 2020, The Palais Theatre Melbourne, I am standing on stage in the curtain call, exhausted and relieved that the audience are on their feet applauding and cheering after the opening night performance of Victorian Opera’s latest production of Salome by Strauss.
I had been flying up and back from Melbourne to Sydney as I had also been directing and creating a new work with International Drag Artiste, Courtney Act, called FLUID. We had opened the previous night in Sydney at the Darlinghurst Theatre to a sold-out season. Also thrown into the mix I had been producing and directing a huge outdoor production of Puccini’s TOSCA as part of my role as Artistic Director for The Classics: Opera for the City of Stonnington, Melbourne. My January and February were absolutely exhausting and exhilarating in equal measure. I was about to jump on a plane back to London to begin work on two new operas. I had been spending roughly 6 months of the year working overseas and 6 months working in Australia since around 2014.
Looking into 2020, I was to be directing a new production of Carmen to premiere in Brive and Cormeilles in France and to then direct a remount of my 2014 production of Don Giovanni in London for Britain’s foremost chamber opera company, Diva Opera, where I am the Associate Artist to the company. I was to then return to Australian mid-year to work shop a new musical I have been working on, to direct the Melbourne season of our cabaret show with Ali McGregor about the Peruvian Songbird Yma Sumac for Victorian Opera. The Peruvian Songbird premiered at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival in 2018 and has since been performed at the Sydney Opera House and at Joe’s Pub in New York. I was also booked to direct another commercial musical at the end of 2020, an iconic work that I had been hoping one day would come my way, and It finally had (hopefully postponed now until the end of 2021. Fingers Crossed).
2020 was to be an epic year for me professionally; filled with more international travel throughout the United Kingdom, France, Germany and Japan. I had managed for the sixth year to be working both internationally and also in Australia. I felt like my career was gaining some true momentum and I was gaining a real foot hold in the industry. Around 23 March all my engagements started to vanish one by one. I, like everyone in the live performance industry and the freelance artist world was having careers decimated over a period of a few days. The next 12 months of work was now either cancelled, postponed indefinitely or in jeopardy of not being able to go ahead due to funding reasons. When you define yourself so clearly through what you do as an artist losing this was both professionally and personally devastating. What to do? How do you react? How do you combat this?
Since this shutdown of my beloved industry and career It has forced me to look back and reflect on what I have achieved and to take stock of where I am, how I got here and where do I want to be “after” this is all over. This article for the Wagner Society in NSW is the perfect excuse to slow down a bit and look at all this and to share some of my experiences and my career with you.
I have always tried to maintain a career that was able to work across genres to encompass all of the styles that I love. Music and theatre have always been a huge element in my life and I love that I have been able to work with them for my entire career. I originally started out training as an actor and a singer in Sydney. I vocally worked with two amazing teachers whom some of you might remember - Janice and Alan Light. Two very formidable characters who took me on as a very shy and timid person who not only helped my find my own voice but taught me to listen critically to voices and to find my footing and confidence as a young singer and artist. Alan Light was a foundation principal baritone of The Elizabethan Theatre Trust Opera Company (The Australian Opera) in 1956 and was one of the best-known singers throughout Australia in the 60’s and 70’s and Janice Light, his wife, joined the company in 1966. I was also studying with the renowned and equally formidable Hayes Gordon AO OBE at the Ensemble Theatre in Kirribilli at the same time. To have these three theatrical and musical forces in my corner at such an early age pushing, provoking and encouraging me was truly an extraordinary time.
This training over nearly four years with Hayes was gruelling and filled with many successes and failures. It was certainly a time of discovery and of growth both personally and professionally. It is this period of my training where I feel I gained and built my own structure and my ability to dissect and create. Hayes Gordon was originally brought out to Australia in 1952 by the Tait Family. They were producing under the very famous name of JC WILLIAMSONS to appear in Kiss Me Kate starring him and Evie Hayes. He subsequently stayed in Australia after being blacklisted as a communist during McCarthyism in the USA. He also notably starred in Fiddler on the Roof for The Australian Opera and as Daddy Warbucks in the 1978 Australian production of Annie. He was in the original Broadway productions of Oklahoma, Brigadoon and Showboat and his mentors included Oscar Hammerstein and acting gods Lee Strasberg and Sanford Meisner. I still feel Hayes in rehearsal rooms with me on days when I need him and the true value of these years only grows in importance as each year passes and my understanding grows deeper.
Jumping forward, having graduated from the Victorian College of Music (Melbourne University) with my Bachelor of Music in Classical Voice where I trained as a Counter Tenor I found myself in a very interesting predicament. I was performing and singing around the place and had just finished a performance of a piece at the Port Fairy Spring Music Festival called Shakespeare Sung. This was work for two singers and I got to share the stage with the wonderful singer Helen Noonan. I was having these kind of very vivid day dreams about shows and concepts and ideas for how you might stage different works, when I had a very clear vision of building and making shows and having a real sense of not wanting to actually be inside these productions anymore but to be directing them. Almost overnight, I pulled out of a few contracts and stopped negotiations with people as a singer and went steam head into looking for how to get a chance to direct something.
Over the next few years I managed build up a fair amount of directing credits. I knew it would be important to try and quickly develop as unique a directorial voice and style as I could. I was very lucky to able to draw upon the many years of formal training and from my experience and my obsessions with the world of fashion, painting, design, architecture and history and to be able to bring these into my work as a director. Of course all my study was never wasted as I found that a director who was musically literate and who had strong languages in his background was able to be used to great advantage. Having just returned from Germany on the Bayreuth Opera Award, I found this very much the case when I was engaged to work with Maestro Richard Bonynge AC, CBE at Opera Australia on a production of Bellini’s I Capuleti e i Montecchi. Richard was also such a wonderful colleague to me on this production and he would very generously spend time answering my probably very inane questions. I remember him spending a lot of time answering me when I asked him specifically about the difference in theatrical pacing and staging and how time operates when you are working compositions from Bel Canto, Verismo, in the operas which feature predominantly Da Capo arias and in real time with say the works of Wagner. I still remember this very clearly.
As a young director starting out and getting work with companies you usually have to find a mix of assistant directing on larger main stage productions and directing youth or education productions along with directing independent company main stage works. I enjoy working on youth and education programs and productions. I have been so fortunate to have maintained this area of my work. I have now directed many youth operas and a lot of these have been newly commissioned works such as The Grumpiest Boy in the World (2015) by Finegan Kruckemeyer and Joe Twist which I was nominated for a Helpmann Award for Best Direction of an Opera, The Magic Pudding (2013 & 2018) based on the Norman Lindsay book by Anna Goldsworthy and Calvin Bowman which won the Green Room Award for Best Ensemble and most recently The Selfish Giant (2019) by Emma Muir-Smith and Simon Bruckard based on the Oscar Wilde short story which won the 2019 Green Room Award for Best New Opera - all productions I created for Victorian Opera.
As part of my role as the Associate Artist for Diva Opera in London we also run an extremely rewarding program in conjunction with the Lord Laidlaw Trust that is facilitated in Newcastle Upon Tyne UK. It is so wonderful to run opera workshops with children across three schools in that area. We have our professional opera singers with us and over the course of a few days we work with the students to incorporate them into a show which we then perform for their school and their parents. Interestingly enough I often find that the students have taught me more sometimes than I think I have taught them. But the enjoyment I get from directing youth and education work is wonderful and working with children, contrary to the popular saying, can be magical and I find informs and improves my way of working immensely and is also a beautiful reminder to never lose our child-like outlook on seeing the world.
I have been working in London with Diva Opera now since 2014. I was lucky enough to meet the General Director of this highly accomplished company, Anne Marabini Young, while I was on my Berlin New Music Award in 2011. Since then I have had the opportunity to direct and become their Associate Artist. The company tours predominantly around the UK and France but has also toured to South Africa, The Chanel Islands, Switzerland, Italy and to Japan with the La Folle Journee Festival. The company has played in venues such as Royal Albert Hall and La Fenice Opera House but it also performs in some of the most beautiful houses in London and France. My productions have been seen in such venues as Holkham Hall, the residence of Lord and Lady Leicester, Syon Park the London residence of the Duke of Northumberland, through to the Villa Ephrussi de Rothschild in Saint-Jean-Cap- Ferrat in France. I have been so lucky to direct a lot of wonderful repertoire with this company such as Lucia di Lammermoor, Le Nozze di Figaro, Madama Butterfly, La Boheme, Die Fledermaus and Don Giovanni. Diva established itself over nearly 25 years of operating as Britain’s foremost chamber opera company and working with Anne and Music Director Bryan Evans MBE has included some of the most memorable times in my career.
Branching out and away from Opera every now and then or “running away to the circus” as I have heard it described, has taken me to some fascinating realms into the worlds of cabaret. A real highlight was directing the Weill/Brecht Die Sieben Todsünden performed by the Post Post Modern Diva, Meow Meow. Creating a production of this iconic work with what I consider to be one of the world greatest exponents of the Weill/Brecht canon as both Anna 1 and Anna 2 was quite a thrilling ride. The piece originally created for singer Lotte Lenya (Anna 1) and dancer Tilly Losch (Anna II) each portraying a version of the two sisters both called Anna. As a production we decided to combine these two Anna’s into one and Meow Meow played both roles. To distance Die Familie from the two Anna’s I had a huge wooden 1930’s wooden photo frame made which encased the male quartet and the mother who is sung by a Bass was all dressed up in a white chiffon flowing gown, with his full beard still on display. Our mother, Jeremy Kleeman, looked spectacular and seemed to really relish his bearded motherly appearance. My association with Meow Meow has very thankfully continued and it has also taken me all over the world from London working with the London Philharmonic Orchestra on South Bank, to the prestigious Shakespeare’s Globe in the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse and to Liverpool and the Sgt Peppers 50th Anniversary Festival.
Cabaret is also hopefully taking me back to Berlin in 2021 with all my fingers crossed. Fluid starring Courtney Act which I mentioned earlier on is hopefully going on tour in April next year. We are touring all through the north of the UK, Amsterdam, Paris, the London Palladium and also back to my beloved Berlin. I really find that Berlin is a place where you can go to recharge artistically and fill up again on such wonderful art and performance. We will be appearing at the Admiralpalast, a beautiful variety and operetta venue which housed the Berlin Staatsoper just after WWII as it suffered very little damage in the war.
I have been working as a director now for nearly 15 years and with all the travelling around the world which I have been so very lucky to have done, I have always wanted to be a working director in Australia. Making work for Australian audiences has been a major focus of mine. My work in Australia is very special to me both professionally and personally. Having worked with companies like Opera Australia, City of Stonnington, with my commercial work directing productions like HAIR The musical for the 50th Australian Anniversary production, my community based work with All the Queens Men and The Coming Back Out BALL and in particularly my long association with Victorian Opera all mean the world to me and it certainly keeps me on my toes. However, there is one company in Australia which always leaves a lasting impression and that is my work with Short Black Opera Company – The National Indigenous Opera Company led by Yorta Yorta Soprano, Composer, Librettist and Artistic Director, Deborah Cheetham AO and Company Manager Toni Lalich OAM. Deborah and I over the years have worked on a number of pieces - one being her composition called Redfern, which is a musical setting of Paul Keating’s 1992 speech in Redfern Park in Sydney. This was created as part of the Indigenous Festival at the Malthouse Theatre in Melbourne. Our biggest collaboration to date is the award winning opera Pecan Summer, composed by Deborah it tells of the historic 1939 walk off from Cummeragunja in which Deborah’s grandparents were involved, it also moves through different time periods from dreamtime to 2008 in Federation Square in Melbourne to hear Kevin Rudd’s apology. Coming on board first as an associate director and then after much learning, research and talking and being taken by Deborah on country to stand in the real locations where the opera was set. For example standing on the banks of the Dhungala (The Murray River) and seeing the original buildings and to walk through Cummeragunja and feel the earth there and hear the speed of the river water passing me was extraordinary. In 2016 I had the great honour to be asked by Deborah to take the lead of director on what was to be the premiere of Pecan Summer in Sydney at the Sydney Opera House. It was also to be my directorial debut at the House as well. It was an extremely emotional night and an absolute joy to be a part of this truly Indigenous led artistic experience. The production went on to be broadcast on SBS and win 9 Broadway Awards including one for Best Direction of an Opera.
While I am yet to direct a Wagner Opera, my time at the Deutsche Oper and in Berlin was certainly a catalyst for where my career has taken me since 2008. I have a real passion for his works and spending the time in Berlin purely to learn about Wagner and his operas has certainly had an ongoing impact on my work. My love of the German language and of German composition will continue and even though it sometimes looks like it all should be at odds with itself as my love of Wagner to Strauss to Weill maybe doesn’t make a lot of sense to some. I cant help but surrender to it all. I do know that a Wagner work will come my way when I am ready for it and when the time for me to direct it is right. When it happens I can’t wait to show you all what I can do with it.
I would like to thank the Wagner Society in NSW for allowing me to reflect on my time and remember some really defining moments in my professional life. I hope that you enjoyed a little insight into my professional career and what is possible when artists are afforded time to gather experience and knowledge through the support of philanthropic means. If this time in lockdown and isolation has shown me anything, it is that it has served to strengthen my resolve and my reasons I have pursued this crazy industry and while I will continue to pursue it beyond lockdown. I very much look forward to what will be possible and what comes my way in 2021. I believe it will be a vastly different landscape and maybe how we navigate the new order will be different. But I hope that I will be able to still work across the wide varieties of genre and that I continue to get the opportunity to create exciting performances for live audiences to attend very soon. I hope to see you in a foyer somewhere, sometime soon and if our paths cross please say hello as I feel like we will need as much connection as possible once we are able to move beyond this lockdown period.
[From the September and December 2020 Quarterlies]