My Fair Lady / Howl

In the monumental Howl by Aphids’ Lz Dunn, Lara Thoms and Willoh S. Weiland, artwork after artwork is paraded through an arena of passionate artlovers – in a gesture that both affirms and rewrites the canon of Western culture. Both the work and its reception are performed, recasting the contemporary queer body as a radical act. Howl is timely, audacious and superbly produced.

Crucial to the success and the impact of the work are the choices exercised by the artists. They have chosen which works to include and which to exclude. They have chosen which works to champion and which to undermine. They have chosen which works to propel with a powerful feminism, and which to silence by omission.

In contemporary Australia, the choice of which works to present becomes more important by the day. The reduction in arts funding across local, state and federal jurisdictions; the strong diversity of our culture and its woeful under-representation on our mainstages; the increasing awareness of the impact that public endorsements of racism, sexism and misogyny have on all Australians and particularly on disadvantaged Australians; each of these critical factors combine to mandate a sophisticated approach to programming that recognises its role in leading the national cultural agenda during a time of very limited public funds.

Opera Australia’s choice to present and tour My Fair Lady poses many questions in 2017 Australia. This is a musical about a poor and uneducated woman whose bullying into well-spoken ladyhood is treated as a game and a financial gamble between two privileged male professors. Her father is lauded as an expert moralist for claiming that poor people cannot afford morals, while the woman herself was always a lady in the sense of living by clearly expressed values – values that acknowledge how gendered and how dangerous the implications of perceived immoral behaviour are for disadvantaged women, who cannot afford not to have morals. The woman’s attitude towards the bullying professor swings from hatred to a Stockholm Syndrome reverence (as Malcolm Sanders called it after the show), and at the very end, having just asserted a most dignified and lady-like farewell in response to cruel insult, she returns to his home and to his bullying demands.

Directed by Julie Andrews DBE, the work is faithful to Lerner and Loewe’s original Broadway production which starred Andrews herself. Memories of that smash-hit production, and its highly successful screen adaptation starring Audrey Hepburn and Rex Harrison, evoke a charmed nostalgia of the kind that overlooks ethics and fixates on music, set and costume. During last night’s performance, that sense of nostalgia helped temper the stunned hushes and awkward laughter that followed some of the more harshly misogynistic language.

Is it a work about misogyny, or a misogynistic work? The text does not offer us the sophistication of an Oscar Wilde or a Noël Coward, and while the professors are clearly depicted as figures for ridicule, they control and determine the woman’s behaviour, dress and movements, making her return inexplicable. The performances are straight; the cast is all white and all able-bodied; the production is technically flawless.

In reflecting on Howl, I looked at how the artwork of high production values proclaims itself as authoritative, powerful and canonical. It calls its means of production to attention. It speaks loudly of the process it must have gone through, the claims it must have staked, the grants it must have secured to afford us our ticket price. Last night, at that glittering moment when row after row of chandeliers sailed effortlessly down from the flytower and into view in elegant sequence, the audience gasped, delighted at the proficiency that led to that event. 

All arts organisations are required to be entrepreneurial when it comes to building resilient business models in difficult times, ensuring that ambitious production values and the audience experience are not compromised. When the national opera company chooses to present My Fair Lady in the shadow of the National Opera Review, the questions raised extend beyond company profitability and across to what the Review calls opera’s impact on “the national psyche.” The effectiveness of that Review – which calls the remount of Broadway musicals a “bold strategic initiative” – is undermined by cultural assumptions that give disproportionate prominence to opera as an artform, belying its disproportionate public subsidy.

When Aphids chose the works that Howl would reinterpret, they made a deliberate determination in relation to the national psyche, and in the parade they chose a platform that would shout that determination with passion. Opera is a powerful artform: emotive, passionate, with outstanding potential to tell Australian stories of monumental importance. In 2017 Australia, a rare opportunity exists to lead the national conscience with confidence and care, creating an Australia that inspires and empowers our psyche and our culture. 

Esther Anatolitis saw My Fair Lady at Melbourne’s Regent Theatre on 16 May 2017 as a guest of Opera Australia. HEADER IMAGE: Howl (2016) by Aphids. Performance photography by Bryony Jackson. IMAGE LEFT: Post-performance Gala Reception at the Regent Theatre’s Plaza Ballroom. Photo by Malcolm Sanders.