‘Tis Pity: An Operatic Fantasia on Selling the Skin and the Teeth

by Jennifer Bryce

As expected, this was a refreshing beginning to the Vic Opera 2017 season. Vic Opera can be relied upon to come up with original, fresh offerings, leaving traditional grand opera to other companies. So one goes to a Vic Opera performance with open ears and an open mind.

The title comes from a play, written close to Shakespeare’s time: ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore, by John Ford, written in 1633. As with the two other productions of hers I’ve seen (Die Sieben Todsunden, Brecht/ Weill and Music of Berlin – with Barry Humphries), Meow Meow was the centre-piece. The production probably couldn’t have come off without her. According to the program notes, director/ writer Cameron Menzies was inspired by working with Meow Meow on the Brech/Weill production and this led to the idea of a show about the history of prostitution. He worked on this concept with Richard Mills (composer, librettist and conductor) and Meow Meow and the piece – a ‘romp’ through the history of prostitution – was written in a month. What fun it must have been! I could sense the thrill and the terror (mentioned by Menzies) that this high-powered, speedy collaboration produced. It took only a month to write and takes a little over an hour to perform.


Meow Meow

The opera is constructed around ten vignettes and indeed one gets the idea that the story of the courtesan is roughly the same in every age. Of course, this is partly because this ‘profession’ has been controlled by men. Little has been written about male prostitutes through the ages. We are reminded that ‘women were classified, regulated and . . . enthusiastically . . . taxed . . . by men, in their patriarchal enthusiasm for regulation of pleasure.’

Days after attending the performance, my main recollection is of brilliant dancing by Meow Meow herself, Kanen Breen and three excellent support dancers. The music was vaudevillian, as one would expect, (no attempt that I could discern to have ancient Greek or Roman music) with some appropriate bursts of Charleston and, as later years were depicted, the sliding sounds of an Ondes Martenot.  The piece I mainly remember (and this because of the lyrics) was The Syphilis Song: ‘the Italians called it the Spanish disease, the Russians called it the Polish disease. . .’, etc.

Reviewers have been critical of the venue, the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall. Certainly, the stage was small for dancing and an almost full sized orchestra – simple props of fish-netted legs. The opera would be better suited to a cabaret venue, but the Vic Opera needs the support of a large audience – more people can be accommodated in a hall, without tables and chairs. I think it was a brilliant collaboration and . . . if only . . . one day maybe the Vic Opera will be wealthy enough to perform in a more intimate space. But given the state of arts funding, I fear we’ll be waiting a long time for the necessary pennies from heaven.