An Opera Australia collaboration with TV may be the future

Marina Prior has performed in a variety of different shows before, but nothing quite like The Divorce. Photo: ABC Jed (John O’May) and Iris (Marina Prior) are divorcing … and they’re throwing a party to celebrate. Photo: ABC

Caroline (Kate Miller-Heidke) and Iris (Marina Prior) star in the new social satire, The Divorce. Photo: ABC

Kerri Russell and Matthew Rhys are Soviet spies operating in the US in the 1980s in The Americans. Photo: Supplied

January Jones from Mad Men stars in One’s new comedy, Last Man on Earth. Photo: Jordin Althaus

Last Man on Earth, which plays on Channel Ten’s junior spinoff channel, One, is full of surprises. Photo: Supplied

Marina Prior, best known as the kidnapped beauty in Phantom of the Opera and more recently as the Baroness in The Sound of Music, has done a lot of singing onstage, and the occasional dramatic guest role on TV, but she’s never done anything quite like The Divorce. It’s an opera, it’s a comedy, it’s musical theatre, it’s a TV miniseries, it’s a social satire in the style of Stephen Sondheim (“not Andrew Lloyd Webber”, says Prior).

It might just be the future.

“It’s a hybrid, and that’s what makes it exciting for me,” Prior says. “It’s a fusion of television-style acting and dialogue in terms of the pitch that it’s at, so there’s a naturalism to it, and then we break into song.

“I honestly think there’s never been this sort of collaboration [between Opera Australia and ABC TV Arts]. Sadly opera is going to die as an art form if it doesn’t continue to evolve and reinvent itself to be made accessible to the young, the next generation of 21st-century people.

“We have an audience that has grown up watching TV, and I think perhaps this is going to be a format that makes opera and music theatre exciting and palatable for young people. I’m full of admiration for Lyndon Terracini, the head of Opera Australia, to think outside of the box and not be precious about opera, not be elitist about it.”

Prior and her co-stars (Lisa McCune, John O’May, Kate Miller-Heidke, Hugh Sheridan) found working on the project “bizarre”.

“The scary thing is that so much of it is out of our control,” she says. “In musical theatre, you know the perspective that the audience is seeing. You know the sequence of storytelling. In this, it’s up to the director and the editor.

“We filmed out of sequence. We had six weeks of rehearsing and workshopping, then we recorded the music, then we had to mime on set. It was very hard to time. Dramatically as an actress you had to make sense of the dialogue growing into the song. Where the dialogue stops and the singing starts, there has to be a progression, so it becomes natural but within the style of opera. In real life, people are not singing at each other at divorce parties.”

Despite the lack of naturalism, Prior became very invested in her character, a rich woman hosting a party to celebrate her divorce: “She’s going through a midlife crisis, she’s full of malaise, she’s trying to redefine herself within her marriage and hold onto her desirability, hence having a toyboy. Ultimately, though, she’s quite vulnerable, and is actually in love with her husband. She’s hedonistic and rather bohemian.

“She loves her lifestyle but money is not her motivating factor within that marriage, as we learn. Is she shallow? No. There’s a depth to her which is nice. I’m not telling you any more. She has a journey throughout the opera, if that’s what we call it.”

The Divorce airs from Monday to Thursday at 9.30pm on ABC.

Secret delights

What if two of the smartest series ever made for US TV were currently showing here, and nobody told you? That’s what’s happened with The Americans and Last Man on Earth, both nominated for multiple Emmys, and both quietly sneaked into the schedule of Channel Ten’s junior spinoff channel One (which formerly specialised in sports).

The Americans is a suspense thriller that stars Keri Russell and Matthew Rhys as Soviet spies operating in the US during the 1980s. Rhys and Russell are real-life boyfriend and girlfriend. The New York Times described it as “a subtle, complex portrait of a relationship etched into an engaging espionage thriller”. There are also clever jokes about the music, fashions and technology of the Reagan era.

Last Man on Earth stars Will Forte and January Jones (of Mad Men fame) who were real-life boyfriend and girlfriend until their breakup was reported last month by Us magazine. It’s hard to say much about Last Man on Earth without spoiling its constant surprises, but if you emphasise the word “man” in the title, you’ll get an idea of what’s coming. Soon to join the ensemble is our own Cleopatra Coleman, formerly of Neighbours, who plays another of Will Forte’s lust objects (with an Australian accent). The Hollywood Reporter described it as “wonderfully creative and ridiculously entertaining … a significant deviation from the safe comedic norm of television”. We may look back on it as the Seinfeld of this decade.

What are the Ten programmers playing at? Now that broadcast TV is under threat from the streaming services, you’d think they’d be shouting from the rooftops when they have hot new dramas to show. Are they embarrassed to admit they don’t have enough sport to fill the schedule of One?

The Americans is on Tuesdays at 10.30pm on One HD. Last Man on Earth is on Thursdays at 8.30pm on One HD.

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