Opera Queensland’s forthcoming production of St Matthew Passion, J.S. Bach’s Oratorio, tells a tragic story about betrayal and forbearance, says Tobias Cole.

“You know I have a personal fascination with the mob. St Matthew Passion looks at mob mentality. You have a group of followers and a group of dissenters. It’s about how individuals belonging to either group deal with peer pressures. It’s how young men behave like dorks on a Saturday night then wake up wondering what on earth they did the night before and suffer the consequences on Facebook.

“It’s just that, the protagonist in this show, happens to be called Jesus”, says Cole.

Cole sings five arias and a duet with the much-feted soprano Sara Macliver in OQ’s staged version of St Matthew Passion later in the month.

“Jesus doesn’t play the group game but sticks to his guns. Some deny knowing him because of peer pressure and Bach writes amazing stuff for this denial, taking the music to a very spiritual level. There’s dance and flight in the score.”

The countertenor is an enthusiast with a soaring reputation. Friendly, informative, pragmatic and passionate about classical music, there’s not a shred of stuffy thinking, no airs or graces despite his international success as a soloist. He has performed all over Australia, in America and the UK. Queenslanders may have heard him sing the role of Nireno in OQ’s production of Julius Caesar.

And, his ideas about the interpretation of J.S. Bach’s St Matthew Passion are refreshing. It’s a work Cole knows inside and out because he has been a soloist in this Oratorio on numerous occasions when based in the UK.

“There are choral societies all over England. At Easter Time, there’s a proliferation of St Matthew Passions. This will be the first time I’ve ever sung it in Australia”, he says. It’s also the first time OQ has collaborated with Camerata of St John’s who will be on stage. According to Cole, the leader Brendan Joyce adores the music.

Brendan plays from his heart. The violin sits under his chin so he plays a beautiful legato (smooth) line yet he can really bite into the strings when necessary as in the duet Sara and I share when the chorus interject with jumpy exclamations. Leave him. Find Him Not”.

Lindy Hume’s staged production of St Matthew Passion has a contemporary look and vibe. First presented at Perth International Arts Festival to favourable reviews in 2005, I ask him, over the phone in a rehearsal break at OQ headquarters, whether he thinks purists can enjoy Hume’s production?

“I’m not really interested in people who merely hold onto an idea. An idea they’ve been told about and cling to without ever thinking about it. The performers are the ones with the experience and knowledge about how to present a work. Bach isn’t around anymore. In his day, St Matthew Passion had a purely religious context. What is authentic anyway? I’m so bored with it.”

“We should be taking people on a journey, lifting them out of their prejudice and make the experience uplifting, something transformative. Such reverence for the rules of the Gods of Classical Music makes people doubt that they should even go to a concert. It makes them question their behaviour, whether they can make a noise or clap in between movements. It stops them from coming”.

Apparently, Cole’s favourite is the mournful, challenging aria “Erbame Dich, Mein Gott.

“Harmonically, Bach takes you on a journey away from the home key. You have to be clear about the direction and the underlying harmonies in outlining the tune. Whatever he does is for a reason and will have something to do with the text. But, it mustn’t sound as if its programmed into the computer, it’s about timing. Sometimes, Bach hangs around in the same key. There’ll be a reason for that too.

“Bach’s music is emotional. He deploys a descending phrase for the lament, creates dissonance to express pain and there are sudden harmonic surprises like a fantastic jazz chord. Baroque used to write melismas, singing more than one note on key words, which sum up the piece. Bach gives melismas to “my tears” and “weep”. Melismas are heard a great deal in pop music nowadays. Guy Sebastian and others use melismas frequently in their singing to stress key words.

“One of the conductor Graeme Abbott’s specialisms is Baroque repertoire. Graeme and Lindy have worked together a lot and make a great team. It’s a strong cast. Leif Aruhn-Solen sings the role of the Evangelist who is the narrator and Paul Whelan is Jesus. Andrew Collis sings bass.”

“I think it was Neil Armfield who said that when people come to a show they come in as individuals and leave as an audience because they’ve experienced something fantastic together. And that’s the goal driving this show”.


St Matthew Passion
21, 22 & 23 March 2013
Queensland Performing Arts Centre
Qtix: 136 246

Photo credit: Bridget Elliot