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Comic Quartet Shows Pressures Of Touring

Comic Quartet Shows Pressures Of Touring

The world premiere of Quartet is a story that anyone who’s been on the road with others can relate to.

It puts the touring life of a string quartet under the microscope. On stage the group has a presence which is calm and serene, yet under its tranquil surface, it’s riddled with dysfunction and chaos arising from the endless touring, cheap motels, grotty venues and often, indifferent audiences.

“Quartet is about life off the stage affecting life on the stage,” says Stuart Hoar, Quartet’s librettist. “The players all have different agendas and the stress of touring serves to exacerbate this. The idea of a quartet blowing up and disintegrating on stage while on the road appealed to me. Maybe I was thinking of a chamber music equivalent of the Bad News Tour.”

Quartet is a pacey comic chamber opera written by New Zealand writer Hoar and composer Anthony Ritchie and was commissioned by the Festival for 2004, with funding support from Creative New Zealand. It follows the progress of the Ithaca String Quartet as it begins its New Zealand tour on the beautiful West Coast and ends its tour in a climatic finale at the Festival in Wellington.

Unbeknownst to her violinist husband, Julian, Penelope is having an affair with leather jacket wearing-image conscious viola player Buddy. Meanwhile, Julian is obsessed with the manic depressed and repressed Russian cellist, Nadezhda, who in turn can’t stand his pretentious minimalist compositions, so as far as she’s concerned it’s never going to happen.

“I imagine Quartet to be a tragic-comedy with music which swings dramatically from the humorous to the melancholic, with a dose of Russian moodiness pervading the music whenever Nadezhda is on stage,” says Ritchie. “By contrast, Penelope’s music tends to be more lyrical and laid-back. There’s plenty of rapid fire exchanges between the two women.”

Four singers and four musicians are on stage, and each singer is a character who corresponds to a musician. “Having the actual string quartet on stage plays an important part in creating the atmosphere I wanted. It is a beautifully balanced medium capable of many varied colours. For instance, the opening depicts the Greymouth rain, with delicate plucking of the strings and it provides a solid musical background for the singers. That the players are also on stage lends immediacy to the sound as well as adding visual and dramatic dimensions to the production,” says Ritchie.

Quartet will be Ritchie and Hoar’s third collaboration. The first was The Eagle Has Landed (1996) and the other was Star Fire (1995), a play written for children, which toured extensively through schools. Hoar says they hope to collaborate on a full length opera one day, but have no plans as yet.

Both Hoar and Ritchie have been involved in the Festival before. “My second symphony (The Widening Gyre) was commissioned by the Festival and premiered in 2000 which was definitely a highlight of my career,” says Ritchie.” I admired the Festival’s vision in regard to its commissions. They have been willing to cast their net far and wide. It really is a Festival for New Zealanders.” Hoar wrote the libretto for the Festival’s first commissioned opera, Bitter Calm in 1994 and also wrote the hugely successful Rutherford in 2000.

Quartet is directed by Colin McColl, one of New Zealand’s most respected and versatile directors. McColl, who has just been appointed Artistic Director of the Auckland Theatre Company, has directed work in almost every Festival since 1990.

Artistic Director Carla van Zon says ‘the Festival would not be the same without Colin. He is a visionary director and we are delighted that he has agreed to direct this new New Zealand opera for us.”

The musicians are the Nevine String Quartet which was formed in 1995 by four New Zealand Symphony Orchestra members. The Dominion described their playing as ‘finely blended and stylish.” Singers are Kate Lineham, Linden Loader, Brendon Mercer and Jason Barry-Smith.

Quartet is sponsored by the Friends of the Festival, who chose for this anniversary Festival to support New Zealand artists and performers. Quartet performs 16-21 March at the Soundings Theatre at Te Papa. The Festival runs from 27 February – 21 March.

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