Long Lost Loves (and Grey Suede Gloves)

Michael Curtin and Anna Dowsley photo by Charlie HardieA prolific composer and concert pianist, the recipient of a Pulitzer Prize for music, a Grammy Award and many other accolades, it is for his cabaret songs, written to the lyrics of Arnold Weinstein, specifically for performance by his wife, Joan Morris and himself, that the now 85 year old  William Bolcom is perhaps best known.

Music Viva Artistic Director and Bolcom aficionado, Paul Kildea and Ian Dickson AM, hit upon the intriguing idea of co-opting Director, Constantine Costi to collaborate with playwright, Hilary Bell and lighting designer Matthew Marshall, to script and direct a collection of Bolcom’s cabaret songs into a theatrical presentation as a showcase for the artistry of mezzo-soprano, Anna Dowsley. Michael Curtin, with whom Dowsley had worked previously, would be the accompanist and Shannon Burns would provide movement direction.

An Opera Australia favourite, Anna Dowsley currently divides her time between opera companies and orchestras in Australia and Europe, most recently performing the role Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro with her home company, Opera Frankfurt. Michael Curtain is currently the Assistant Chorus Master and Children’s Chorus Master at Opera Australia, a post he has held for the last seven years.

Long Lost Loves (and Grey Suede Gloves) contains twenty Bolcom songs. The longest, Oh Close the Curtain,  runs about five minutes, while there are several, including Surprise!, Lady Luck and Satisfaction (sorry Mick, Bolcom got there first!) take only around one minute each to perform.

Of the twenty songs, perhaps the two most popular, Song of Black Max, and the exquisite Waitin are offered as encores, while the rest, including Toothbrush Time, At the Last Lousy Moments of Love, and Amor are shoe-horned into a concocted narrative around a group of friends attending the wake for a character named George, then expressing their recollections of George through Bolcom’s songs.

In his program notes, Paul Kildea quotes lyricist, Arnold Weinstein as saying “We wrote these songs as a cabaret in themselves, no production “values” to worry about. The scene is the piano, the cast the singer”.

However, on stage in addition to the piano, were a tripod with a wreath bearing the words “In Loving Memory” and an arrangement representing a bar, complete with a selection of beverages and drinking  glasses.

After welcoming the audience to the wake of her friend George, Dowsley proceeded to portray each of the guests as they arrived, as well as the attentive hostess. Changes in lighting states presumably were meant to indicate when she was being a guest or the hostess. Additional dialogue allowed her to comment on the guests and impart information about them which was not obvious from the songs.

Dowsley is a superb singer with a warm fluid mezzo perfectly suited to Bolcom’s songs. She is also an excellent actress. As Kildea noted in his program notes, Bolcom and Weinstein wrote each song as an individual and complete story.

Therefore, by imposing an additional storyline on them, then requiring Dowsley to constantly interrupt her interpretation with additional comment and characterisation, it soon became confusing and exhausting trying to maintain an interest in the conceit of the imaginary George through the songs while coping with so many superfluous characters, contradictions and mood changes.

Even allowing for the imaginary George’s many idiosyncrasies; it quickly became obvious that these songs were not written about the same person.

So, despite Dowsley’s best efforts, and they were considerable and admirable, for an audience attracted by the opportunity to hear Dowsley sing, and perhaps extend their knowledge of the Bolcom repertoire, the most successful and satisfying songs in the program were the two offered as encores, where she and Michael Curtin simply performed the songs as they were meant to be sung.

Long Lost Loves (and Grey Suede Gloves)
Playhouse – Canberra Theatre Centre, Civic Square, Canberra
Performance: Friday 1 March 2024

Long Lost Loves (and Grey Suede Gloves) will also be presented in Melbourne (5 March), Adelaide (7 March) and Perth (10 March). For more information, visit: www.musicaviva.com.au for details.

Image: Michael Curtin and Anna Dowsley – photo by Charlie Hardie

Review: Bill Stephens OAM