Lette’s Go to the Opera
Ever since Puberty Blues, Kathy Lette has a long and celebrated career as a best-selling and much-loved novelist, with an unparalleled eye for a joke, an ear for a double entendre and a way with a pun. But how does her fare fare when she’s singing from a different song sheet?
To coincide with Victorian Opera’s adaptation of Kathy Lette’s comic romp How to Kill Your Husband (and Other Handy Household Hints), the Wheeler Centre takes a look at what goes into translating a work from page to stage. Richard Gill, Victorian Opera’s music director, faces off against Kathy Lette in true operatic style, to go behind the curtain and explore a work with musical references and inspiration ranging from cabaret to Mendelssohn.
Under the guidance of The Age’s Michael Shmith, Lette and Gill are open and jocular. To begin, Gill elaborates on why Lette’s book was chosen for adaptation, and how it’s placed alongside other recent new works premiered by Victorian Opera. He provides insight into the composition of the score by Alan John, and the cabaret-inspired colour it brings to the piece. He also shares some details of the production including the interaction between its key figures (including himself, composer John, librettist Timothy Daly and director Naomi Edwards), and promises that there will be no strobe lighting.
Acknowledging some raunch and potentially offensive scenes in the opera, Lette insists that it’s not shock for the sake of it - but that some might be surprised by the candidness with which females interact out of the company of men. She suggests that some less daring shows would benefit from a ‘Thou Shalt Not Bore’ commandment, and that her show aims to advance her feminist message in a lighthearted way: to ‘disarm with charm’, as she puts it.
Lette goes on: ‘I adore men. I just don’t like misogynists, and why should I?’ She explains that she finds ‘chick lit’ - often used to categorise her work - a ‘demeaning term’ and asserts her preference for ‘cliterature’.
Elsewhere, Gill comments on how he structured the casting and voicing of characters to reinforce certain attributes of their personalities in the production, particularly their strength or vulnerability. He talks about humour - ‘if the band laughs, it’s not funny’ - and compares the way the play upends the role of its female characters with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro.
Anticipating some minor discomfort upon seeing How to Kill Your Husband, Lette discusses her parents' reaction to Puberty Blues, and explains the deal she struck whereby they wouldn’t read any more of her work. She also shares her anticipation at seeing her work realised in front of an audience, with what Gill calls a ‘mixture of naturalism and highly stylised direction’ (courtesy of Edwards), and what Lette describes as ‘heightened realism’ to communicate a simple point: ‘just treat us fairly.’
Richard Gill is an internationally respected music educator and conductor. He has been artistic director of OzOpera, artistic director and chief conductor of the Canberra Symphony Orchestra and the adviser for the Musica Viva in Schools program. He is currently music director of Victorian Opera.
Kathy Lette divides her time between being a full-time writer, demented mother and trying to find a shopping trolley that doesn’t have a clubbed wheel.
Michael Shmith has worked in daily journalism for most of his professional life. He is a senior writer for The Age, Melbourne, and also the paper’s opera critic.