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Opera in the Swimming Pool: Lost and Found’s Actéon

Actaeon by Titian Image Credit: Wikipedia
Graham Strahle
| September 11, 2018

WA opera company Lost and Found has gained a reputation as one of the more daring arts enterprises in Australia in its few short years of existence. Since 2014 it has been unearthing seldom heard or forgotten works from the operatic canon and staging them in highly unusual venues – a hotel room, an art gallery, a former asylum – each time with the aim of presenting an intriguing slant on the story being told.

For Charpentier’s Actéon this month, it is a swimming pool. Six singers in the cast will, at various times, actually glide through the water at University of Western Australia’s Aquatic Centre; and gracing the work’s ballet scenes will be an elite squad of synchronised swimmers.

It is likely the first time any opera has been performed in this way, but as it turns out entirely apt for this French Baroque opera. In it Charpentier retells an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphosis in which the mythological hunter Acteaon stumbles on the goddess Diana bathing naked in a grotto with her nymph sisters. In retribution she magics him into a stag, who is then swiftly torn apart by his own pack of hunting dogs.

Lost and Found’s artistic director Chris van Tuinen talks about how he settled on a pool for staging Actéon.

“The gender politics are all quite relevant now, and there’s something of Harvey Weinstein in this opera, although the situation is a little more equivocal in this case, I think. The setting of Actéon presents the idea of men breaking into a place that women see as sacred and private.”

“So we thought about this and decided on a swimming pool. Diana has her privacy breached, but Acteaon has come across her by accident, saying he wasn’t meaning to spy on her. But she doesn’t listen to that, and he pays the ultimate price. She brands him and turns him into a deer to become the prey of his own people.”

“We have to ponder this predicament and what is fair and just.”

UWA Aquatic Centre happily agreed to hand over its 25-meter, five-lane pool for the production. The opera takes place in one corner, and van Tuinen says most of the action happens in or around the pool.

“Everyone except for the men’s chorus gets in the pool, and all are wearing swimsuits or flowing drapery.”

Countertenor Russell Harcourt, who sings the role of Acteaon, “actually gets carried across the pool at one point”, he says.

All of which he concedes places enormous additional demands on the singers.

“A key part of vocal training is being grounded so as a singer one can feel one’s weight planted on the ground. Here of course this is not possible. It is hugely challenging for the singers because of this space. However, we have been lucky with all the operas we’ve done; the cast and musicians have gotten the idea and been totally enthusiastic.”

In previous productions, Lost and Found have used a hotel room for Poulenc’s The Human Voice, a suburban art gallery for Jake Heggie’s At the Statue of Venus, and a synagogue for Viktor Ullmann’s The Emperor of Atlantis (which was first performed in a Nazi concentration camp), a padded cell in a former asylum for Milhaud’s Médée, and an Italian club for Bizet’s Don Procopio, where they sprang a pop-up wedding reception.

Acoustics in a poolside environment are always going to be difficult, but with the performance area they’ve chosen being rooved and enclosed on three sides, van Tuinen says the results are surprisingly good.

Things are helped, he says, by having a jazz ensemble rather than the usual string-based chamber music grouping.

“In this instance I didn’t feel the harpsichord and gut strings pathway was so appropriate. Charpentier’s score consists of basso continuo and two treble lines which at the time allowed the performers to decide what instruments to use. The modern equivalent is a jazz ensemble, so we chose keyboard, bass, percussion, flute, clarinet, saxophone and trumpet.”

“The band is very flexible and we have some really excellent improvisers. There are moments when the band can get quite loud. But there are other moments too when it is very quiet, as when I’m on chamber organ or piano while Actaeon transfers from man to stag.”

Presenting operas in interesting ways like this brings the promise of attracting a lot more newcomers to the artform, and van Tuinen says his experience with the company has indeed proven to be the case.

“We tend to get the adventurous side of the opera audience, and people associated with the particular venue. So in this case it is people associated with the synchronised swimming community and the Aquatic Centre. For those who know us, I have to confess that most have no idea of what they’re in for. But they say ‘Wow, that looks interesting’ and inevitably come along.”

Actéon runs until 15 September. Find details here.

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