Harvey Milk opera embodies the subject it pays homage to

By Heath Chamerski
Harvey Milk the Opera in Concert

Harvey Milk: The Opera In Concert | St Kilda Town Hall

St Kilda’s Town Hall seems like a fitting place to stage an opera, part of this year’s Midsumma Festival, which pays tribute to one of the most important political figures of the 20th century – San Francisco councilman Harvey Milk, who in 1978, became the first openly gay politician to win office in the United States.

Already the subject of a 2008 Gus Van Sant biopic, in which Sean Penn won an Oscar for his portrayal of Milk, this musical adaptation of his life is composed by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie and was first performed in 1995. It is wonderfully directed by choral and orchestral conductor Kathleen McGuire and boasts an exceptionally gifted cast.

The Midsumma show is an abridged version of Wallace and Korie’s original opera, which runs for three-hours in full – the condensing of the important moments in Milk’s life in no way diminishing the impact the opera has on the audience.

As a prologue to the main performance, the director gave the audience a helpful primer on Milk and the other major figures about to be seen on stage, which proved exceedingly helpful in following the beats of this abridged telling. McGuire’s brief rundown of the characters and the role they came to play in the life of Harvey Milk gave us more than enough to become completely invested in this ultimately tragic story.

“One particularly memorable showpiece is fashioned as a political debate between Milk and White, replete with soapboxes as Milk preaches his message of peace and love to a rapturous crowd.”

The actors do an amazing job of drawing the audience in, with all of the major players exhibiting formidable stage presence. Tod Strike, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Penn, commands the stage with his booming vocals, which filled every inch of the grand Town Hall.

Jacob Caine as Dan White, a troubled fellow councilman who would ultimately become Milk’s assassin, boasts perhaps the most classically operatic voice of the cast, and delivers some truly haunting solos. Nigel Huckle, Dimity Shepherd and Jerzy Kozlowski round out the main cast and each make indelible impressions with the range and emotion they bring to the material.

Melbourne’s Gay and Lesbian Chorus provides wonderful backing for the principals, and the musical styles featured range from traditionally operatic to more jazzy, playful numbers.

One particularly memorable showpiece is fashioned as a political debate between Milk and White, replete with soapboxes as Milk preaches his message of peace and love to a rapturous crowd. Equally impressive is an upbeat segment early in the proceedings, which ends with Milk canvassing audience members for their vote.

A haunting finale, which employs some heartbreaking audio that the real Milk recorded not long before his death, ends the opera on a sombre note, as the cast and chorus encircle the audience in a silent candlelight vigil and a replica bust of the late politician takes centrestage. It is arguably the most powerful moment of the entire performance.

Taking its audience through a whirlwind of emotions, while maintaining a haunting tone for its entire 70 minute duration, Harvey Milk: The Opera In Concert is an impressive musical adaptation of an extraordinary life that possesses the fire and passion of the subject it pays loving tribute to.

Harvey Milk: The Opera In Concert showed as part of the Midsumma Festival on 7 – 8 February.

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