Artistic Director of Opera Queensland, Patrick Nolan on set at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Artistic Director of Opera Queensland, Patrick Nolan on set at the Playhouse Theatre, QPAC. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

The secret tragedy driving Opera Qld boss

If you had a gift that caused you equal amounts of ecstasy and agony, would you keep it? How far would you go to attain what your heart truly desires? Whose face would you risk everything you own to see again?

These are a few of the questions at the heart of Opera Queensland's 2019 season, one sprinkled with liberal amounts of love, laughter, joy, despair, birth, death, ­betrayal, ambition, lust, spite, revenge, horror, hilarity, ­triumph and tragedy.

Or, as Opera Queensland's artistic director and chief executive Patrick Nolan puts it, the stuff of life.

Nolan, 52, came to Opera Queensland just over a year ago, packing his bags - and impressive credentials - in ­Sydney to move to Brisbane and take up the mantle from outgoing Opera Queensland AD, Lindy Hume.

Now living in the inner city (and embracing the wide, brown river that snakes along it, the jacaranda-dusted New Farm Park, and the Middle Eastern delights of Gerard's Bistro), Nolan and his team have recently launched their 2019 ­season, the first full program under Nolan's direction.

It is an eclectic collection of operas, recitals, classes, outdoor performances and workshops, bridging the gap between contemporary works and classics, and bristling with vitality.

"We really want to acknowledge that opera is a living art form, and that writers are still generating operas today," Nolan says in his office at Brisbane's South Bank. "So we are kicking things off with a very contemporary, fresh opera."

That's next April's A Flowering Tree by world-renowned composer John Adams, a retelling of a traditional Indian folk tale about a young woman with a rare gift of trans­formation, able to turn from human to tree.

But, in a nod to lovers of more traditional works, Nolan ­follows this modern-day tale in June with what's often ­described as the grandest opera of them all, the passionate and lusty Tosca. Giacomo Puccini's 18th century tale of love and deceit has, Nolan says, real relevance in the age of ­questions about female empowerment, equality, and #metoo.

"Tosca is a fantastic female role in that she is such a strong woman, a feminist who takes her destiny in her hands." Nolan pauses, no doubt considering the ­attempted rape of Puccini's heroine and her unfortunate end.

 

Soprano Eva Kong in her costume for The Flowering Tree pictured at Southbank. Picture: Nigel Hallett
Soprano Eva Kong in her costume for The Flowering Tree pictured at Southbank. Picture: Nigel Hallett

"What happens in Tosca might seem outrageous but everywhere we look in ­society, the power imbalance ­between the sexes remains. Our challenge is to tell Tosca's story in a way that speaks to us today. That is the real power of the medium - opera has much to say to us about who we are, and what stories we bring with us."

FINDING SANCTUARY

Who Nolan is, and the story he brings to Brisbane, ­begins in the eastern suburbs of Sydney where he grew up in a terrace house in a then very unglam­orous Bondi Junction.

With his father David, his mother Gabrielle and his three older sisters, Anna, Belinda and ­Victoria - now all in their late 50s - it was an Aussie childhood, strongly flavoured with the spices of Lebanon.

"My mum is Lebanese, and her family had a menswear business in Sydney called Reuben F Scarf," he says. "They had quite a few stores in [inner west] Annandale and Parramatta, places that catered very much to the Greek and ­Italian and Lebanese communities, and my father worked his way up to general manager eventually."

The name Reuben F Scarf sounds very urbane, but Nolan shakes his head. "It wasn't," he says, laughing. His mother's family were among the first Lebanese people to ­arrive in ­Australia, immigrating in 1896.

But the pull of the ancestral Middle East remained strong within the family - and around the dining table. "My mother would make these beautiful stuffed zucchinis called kousa," Nolan recalls. "They are stuffed with mince and rice, and you have them with homemade labna, which is like a yoghurt cheese and it was so good."

 

Patrick with his son Omar Nolan and partner Mathilde de Hauteclocque. Picture: (Image/Monique Harmer)
Patrick with his son Omar Nolan and partner Mathilde de Hauteclocque. Picture: (Image/Monique Harmer)

It was also a home filled with music; folk and classical records constantly played by his parents, and later his ­sisters would bring home their music to share - Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones and the Seekers - an eclectic soundtrack to the family's life.

Gabrielle taught her children to be proud of their Lebanese heritage and identity, traits Nolan would need when his family left Bondi Junction for Sydney's Roseville on the North Shore when Nolan was in his early teens.

A new home, a new school - the private boys' school Saint Ignatius' College Riverview - and a new nickname: "The Wog".

"I hated it so much, I found it really distressing, but I had an older cousin there who taught me how to handle it. He said I could not let them see that it got to me, and told me I had to take it on board, and so I did, and it became my nickname." He smiles. "I still didn't like it much."

Nolan describes himself as "very skinny, a late developer, a kid who liked sport but wasn't terribly good at it". He was also sensitive, creative and musical, and found his tribe in the mecca and sanctuary of such children, the performing arts.

SCHOOLED IN THE ARTS

Nolan's career began in high school - performing ­Gilbert and Sullivan's Ruddigore, and Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! with Riverview's sister Catholic girls' school, Loreto Kirribilli.

But while for most students appearing in their high school musical marks both the opening and closing credits of their performing arts career, for Nolan it signalled the ­beginning of a lifelong and enduring love affair.

He ­completed a Bachelor of Arts at Sydney University in 1988, spending much of his time in the drama society, putting on plays and, at first, seeing himself on the stage, not behind the scenes. "Initially I thought I'd be an actor, but should have realised where I was heading," he says, laughing. "Because every scene I would be saying 'why is that there?' 'Why aren't we doing it this way?' 'Perhaps we could try this …' "

He worked on various productions ­before enrolling at Sydney's National Institute of Dramatic Arts (NIDA) in 1991, earning his place as one of six students in the one-year directing course from the hundreds who had applied.

His role with Opera Queensland completes a neat, full circle as his first professional gig after NIDA was at Queensland's then Royal Queensland Theatre Company. Then based at Brisbane's Suncorp Theatre, Nolan worked as an assistant director on legendary writer and director Jim Sharman's production of S hadow and Splendour.

"It was a baptism of fire, and when it finished in Brisbane, Jim trusted me to take it to the Adelaide Festival as its ­director," Nolan says. "He was such a wonderful teacher, so giving and so good at saying, 'yes, you are ready to do this', even if you were not so sure yourself."

Nolan went on to create and direct many productions for major companies (the Sydney Chamber Opera, New Zealand Opera, Seattle Opera, the Sydney Theatre Company, the Melbourne Theatre Company among them) and in 2009 became artistic director of the acclaimed Australian physical theatre company Legs on the Wall.

 

An English production of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas.
An English production of Henry Purcell’s opera, Dido and Aeneas.

Based in ­Sydney, the contemporary dance and theatre group is ­renowned for its large-scale, outdoor performances. Under Nolan's direction, Legs on the Wall increased its revenue by 75 per cent and created eight new touring productions in Australia, Asia, the UK and Latin America.

In 2012, the company was chosen to open the adjunct cultural program of the London Olympic Games, known as the ­Cultural Olympiad, with an original work, The Voyage, which Nolan also co-wrote.

In 2015, Nolan was awarded a two-year, Australia ­Council Fellowship to research the creation of performance in public spaces, but it was at the time of then federal arts minister ­George Brandis's sweeping cuts to arts funding ($104.7 million from the Australia Council alone).

"I had these dreams of coming back to Australia from visiting ­places like France and Spain where there is a huge outdoor performance ­culture, and creating a new company, but after the cuts there was no way that would be happening."

Nolan shrugs his shoulders because in the theatre, as in life, things are not ­always fair. And some things make no sense at all.

NOLAN'S LAMENT

The name Bessima means "to smile". It is a beautiful name, and Bessima Nolan was a beautiful girl. She was born to Nolan and his partner Mathilde de Hauteclocque in 2003. They also have a son, Omar, 14.

But the little girl died during labour, the umbilical cord wrapped around her throat. "We went through the labour, and we didn't know until she presented and the cord was there," Nolan says, his eyes and voice steady, his hands clasped together, fingers linking and unlinking.

"In hindsight, they couldn't understand why she didn't make it; it seemed there was an infection that was not picked up and perhaps the combination of that and the cord around her neck meant she was just not strong enough to make it.

Dido and Aeneas performed at the Sydney Festival in 2014.
Dido and Aeneas performed at the Sydney Festival in 2014.

"There is this bizarre moment in grief where you actually generate an opioid. Your tears have an opiate in them; not the happy tears, not the ones where you are crying with laughter, they do not produce it, but the sad ones do.

"So you go into these very deep sleeps at times, and I would wake out of this deep sleep and there would be this tiny little ­window where you'd forgotten what had happened. Then you remember, and it settles over you, and you think that if there is a hell then you are in it - that this is hell."

For weeks after his daughter's death, Nolan says he was disconnected from everything, and everybody; he would go to the supermarket and not want to make eye contact with anyone, he would not talk to people he had known for years.

He had, effectively, withdrawn from life.

What drew him back in, like a tide, was music. "I went back to work eventually, on the Opera Dido and Aeneas by Henry Purcell … " Composed in 1688, Purcell's opera is based on the Greek legend of the intense love affair ­between the Queen, Dido, and Aeneas, who is entrusted by the Gods to found Rome. The Gods order Aeneas to leave Dido to begin his task, leaving Dido heartbroken when he sails away. She takes her own life, and sings her last aria, known as Dido's Lament.

The tragic elements of the opera had the potential to harm a very fragile Nolan - instead, it helped to heal him.

"I remember working on Dido, and thinking, this is ­helping me to understand the grief. It was all so senseless - where do I go from here? In what realm does this make sense? It was art that helped me to start to put the pieces back together.

"Music provided me with the difference of showing up to work and feeling lost, and showing up to work and feeling alive. It allowed me to begin to feel that maybe I could find a way back."

In 2015, Nolan was appointed to the NSW/Australian Capital Territory Health Leadership Group. The national, not-for-profit organisation recognises the strong links ­between the arts and wellbeing, delivering creative projects to healthcare services and facilities. The appointment was a well-considered one.

It is fair to say that Nolan is intimately acquainted with the healing powers of art.

Bessima remains very much a part of the family, they speak of her often, mark her birthday, and this Christmas, as they do every year, when they choose a new bauble to hang from their tree, they will choose one for Bessima also. And always, when Nolan hears music, Bessima is somewhere within its notes.

 

Opera Queensland artistic director Patrick Nolan. Picture: Mark Cranitch.
Opera Queensland artistic director Patrick Nolan. Picture: Mark Cranitch.

Music, Nolan says, allows all of us to understand things in a way we can't always rationalise.

That's the emotional impact of music - the experience of being surprised by the way a song suddenly brings tears to the eyes, or evokes a memory, or sometimes makes us seethe with anger.

"You are encountering the energy that a performer brings, and you really don't know why," Nolan says. "So if you come along to our operas, and you are open to things that might surprise you, you may get to the end and think, well, OK, I'm still not entirely sure, or you might get to the end and think, I am changed."

Mathilde and Omar have ­remained in Sydney while Nolan resides in Brisbane, commuting home as often as he can to see them.

It was a difficult decision, he says, but Omar was settled and happy in his high school, and the family is deeply ­rooted and connected to their neighbourhood community.

But Nolan feels a strong connection to Queensland also. It is, after all, the place of his first professional show, all those years ago at the now-closed Suncorp Theatre.

He says he is loving living here, its warmth and its light, running along its river, exploring its galleries, meeting its people, and finding new chapters of his own story to tell. ■