Alan Burke Talks About Early ABC Opera

This is an edited version of "Intermezzo" Prog. No. 258 - Pat Alexander speaks with Alan Burke, on 2NSB-FM (Chatswood NSW Community Radio Station) on 23 November 1997. This material was provided courtesy of Doug Grant.


My good friend Neil Hutchison was on Board of the Australian Theatre Trust - he was also Director of Drama at the ABC. (He later became ABC Controller of Programs) He approached me in London to come back to Australia to work with the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. When I came back to Sydney, I found that provision was there for me to work with ABC Television, and I did a stint for 3 months in 1957. In 1958, Neil offered me a fulltime job at the ABC.

The very earliest operas in the ABC were done in a studio with the sets and singers at one end of the studio, and the orchestra and conductor at the other end of the studio. And at 8.30pm you faded it up and you sang and you played and you acted and you took pictures and at the end of the opera you stopped. It was clearly live, like a news bulletin. Of course this created many hassles, but it survived for several years, until Joseph Post, Head of Music, decided we should pre record the sound of the opera and mime it in the studio, thus giving us much more space in the studio. We did this first with The Marriage of Figaro - we did the dialogue live. This made an immense difference to the singers who didn't have to be on their toes musically the whole night. The singers actually sang, and this was good because the breathing was visible.

The Music department always decided what opera to put on, and to allocate a director. In my case it was The Prima Donna. They liked what I done, so it was a case of "you will do another opera in 3 months or 6 months, etc" I seldom had a choice of what opera to direct. The only exception to this was The Medium, which I thought would have enormous potential for television.

What I do first is learn the whole opera. I would get the records of the opera and learn every note and all the dialogue. I would play it, and play it etc. After a while images come into the mind - the way an aria sticks out in an opera and so do certain key moments. Then I work out the crucial scenes. What makes it different to any other opera. Why is this opera the opera it is. The ABC Music Department cast all the operas so I played no part in that. Next was the design. I was allocated a designer. We would work out the costumes and sets and flavour and tone and period. Next is the big job of plotting the opera ie pictures and all the detail. I would leave the office and go home and play the opera for weeks, with the script in front of me. I would work on it plotting bar by bar. Then I passed all that information to the cast. I found most singers very grateful for direction.

Going back to my first opera, The Prima Donna by Arthur Benjamin - a 1 hour opera. This was a live opera, with the orchestra conducted by Joe Post. The rehearsal schedule was made out for me. It allowed 3 calls of 3 hours each. I went to see Joe Post to check this relatively short time allocation and he said "Isn't it enough time to tell them where to stand?" "Tell them where to stand" seemed to equal opera production. I said it's long enough to tell them where to stand but it's not long enough to tell them how to perform it! Anyway, eventually I did get much more rehearsal time. After that I usually got weeks of rehearsal time - it turned out into a common sense thing.

I liked The Medium because it seemed to have visual opportunities and I thought it would work very well in television. I knew it from records because it was done immediately after WW2. It's compact in that it is done in one set. I think Menotti is a poor man's Puccini. He is not a top flight composer - which is why the ABC was not all that keen to do it. But he is enormously effective theatrically. The Medium would make a wonderful movie score - so what better than to make a little television score with it? So we did that and pulled a few tricks - it led itself to very low key lighting. We did some camera tricks which I had not seen before.

The ABC Music Department quite early on decided to keep archives, so from Figaro onwards, that is from early 1960 - everything was kept that was done in the studios.

I consider myself enormously lucky to have been around when television happened. Television provided the answer to a lot of people who were show biz orientated but did not know where to fit. Television let us all in because it devoured the material and devoured personnel. Those that were there at the beginning were immensely lucky.


Alan Burke worked in Melbourne in the theatre after the war from 1946 to 1951. He then moved to Canberra for 2 years to work with the Repertory Theatre. He then went to London to study theatre. In 1954 he got a chance to get television training with the BBC. The Head of this training course was Royston Morely, who later came to the ABC to run Production Training. Alan Burke died in 2007. He is remembered as an actor, stage producer, and pioneer television opera producer with the ABC.


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