Saturday 20 January 2024

Forest Collective on getting tangled up with new immersive opera Labyrinth (Midsumma Festival)

It's impressive how Forest Collective constantly deliver chamber music performances that are so vastly different from each other. This trend continues with their upcoming immersive production Labyrinth. This opera will fittingly take place in the corridors beneath Abbotsford Convent as we follow the story of Theseus, Ariadne and her half-brother, the Minotaur. Opera singer Daniel Szesiong Todd will not only be taking on the role of Theseus he is also Labyrinth's librettist, with the tenor's interest in this mythological story stemming from the contemporary issues that can still be applied to it.

"The popular myth of the bloodthirsty half-bull, half-man called the Minotaur comes from ancient Greece, where the hero, Theseus, kills the beast with the help of a plucky young princess, Ariadne, who guides him through the labyrinth with her thread. But should we ever take a monster at face value?" Todd asks. "The myth’s strange backstory reveals that the Minotaur is actually Ariadne’s half-brother. Ariadne’s father, King Minos, had refused to sacrifice a bull to the god Poseidon, who became angry and cursed his wife, Queen PasiphaĆ«, to fall in love with the bull. The Queen then commissioned Daedalus to build a hollow cow puppet that she could crawl inside, so she could have sex with the animal. Eventually, she gave birth to a bull-human-hybrid child, who she named Asterion. Filled with shame and humiliation, King Minos shunned Asterion, hiding him away in the labyrinth and feeding him only human sacrifices from conquered Athens. In this way, innocent Asterion was made into a monster – the Minotaur – literally the bull of Minos."

"This begs the question, how could Ariadne volunteer to help a stranger kill her brother? Did she see him as a monster, or her misfit sibling, brutalised since birth? Perhaps both? In any case, it’s clear that the Minotaur was punished and mistreated for the shame and sin of others and eventually becoming a brutal, powerful monster, stalking the darkness of the labyrinth."
"These ideas have many powerful echoes for our modern world, where we must regularly grapple with the prejudice and judgment of others. We are constantly negotiating the shames and “shoulds” imposed by society, religion or family as well as outdated gender norms. And like King Minos, we often bury that shame deep within our own internal labyrinths. We brutalise and fear it as a monster, instead of caring for it, like a unique and innocent child," Todd explains.

Todd is a core artist with Forest Collective, and once he and artistic director, Evan J. Lawson discovered the space hidden away at Abbotsford Convent, he became more and more excited and intrigued by this story's potential. "Evan and I hatched the idea for Labyrinth when we saw this evocative, winding basement beneath Abbotsford Convent. It was exactly the kind of unusual and haunting location that would suit an immersive opera experience. I knew immediately that I wanted to delve below the surface of this well-known monster story."

"The immersive element will allow people to experience the show as Athenians being offered up as human sacrifices to feed the Minotaur," Todd tells me. "They will enter the labyrinth with Theseus, facing the unknown terror in the dark. As Theseus explores the labyrinth, audiences will follow him, experiencing all that he experiences, and meeting all the people he meets. As such, the audience will be in close proximity to the singers, dancers and musicians while they make their way through the labyrinth."

It's not just the story that excites Todd but also the opportunity to play Theseus and dissecting how a hero should behave and feel. "I’m very interested in subverting the hero stereotype and going beyond 2D toxic masculinity, and exploring the vulnerabilities that motivate Theseus’ actions. Like the Minotaur, Theseus was rejected at birth by his father, King Aegeus of Athens, and now feels the need to continuously prove himself with heroic deeds. He is full of determination, but this stems from a very sad and lonely place, where love has been replaced with the adulation of others," he says.

With 13 years of studying and performing, Todd's talent has seen him performing all over the world, where he has worked hard at breaking people's stereotypical opinions of what opera is and challenging them to see it for what it can be. "I do think opera has a bit of an image problem though,' he admits. "It is often perceived as an old-fashioned, aristocratic form of entertainment, but this is like saying all novels are like War and Peace, or Sense and Sensibility. Opera is a vibrant and living art form of infinite variety, which is fundamentally about storytelling, enhanced by powerful music. This music can be incredibly beautiful, but can also be unsettling, jarring and deliciously ugly. Opera can express our innermost darkness as deftly as it reveals our shining, triumphant light."


1) My favourite meal is … Har Mee (Penang-style prawn noodle soup). Wherever I am in the world, part of my soul is always in my birthplace – Penang, Malaysia.

2) A TV show I would like to be cast in is ... anything Star Wars-related. I’ve been a huge fan since I was a kid.
3) A little known skill I have is ... Hand-modelling.
4) My proudest professional moment is… successfully overcoming post-viral fatigue over 3 years, while singing at the Hamburg State Opera in Germany.
5) Happiness is ... feeling deeply connected; whether to culture, a place, a partner, friends, family – anything!

Show Details

Venue: Abbotsford Convent, 1 St. Helliers St, Abbotsford
Season: 6 - 10 February | 7:30pm and 2:30pm (Sat)
Duration: 40 mins
$40 Full | $35 Conc
| $20 Preview
Bookings: Midsumma Festival
*Please be aware that you will be standing for the duration of the work. Seating will be made possible for those with particular needs. The performance is wheelchair accessible.*
Main image credit: Jasmin Bardel
Secondary image credit: Simone Ruggeiro

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