This year Opera Australia has mounted two productions of the 1957 musical West Side Story. One was on Sydney Harbour and the the other is a touring theatrical production - they were dubbed "Outside Story" and "Inside Story".
The latter production - with GWB Entertainment, presenting the BB Group production - will come to Canberra as part of a tour that has included Melbourne, New Zealand and Germany.
West Side Story is, of course, a musical, not an opera.
Purists may grumble but executive producer, touring and commercial Alex Budd says the sprinkling of musical theatre into seasons has been happening for a long time.
One of the present company's predecessors, Opera Australia (that merged with Victorian State Opera in 1996) presented a season of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas in 1969, for example, and later musical productions have included Fiddler on the Roof, The King and I and South Pacific.
The musical theatre productions have often proved popular and attracted new audiences to Opera Australia.
The original opera company's first production was Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro in 1956 but in 1969 there was a season of Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.
In 1984 there was an all-out Broadway musical, Fiddler on the Roof.
In 2020 Opera Australia will present Fiddler on the Roof (in Yiddish, with surtitles), Bran Nue Dae, The Secret Garden and The Light in the Piazza alongside traditional operatic fare including Carmen, Don Giovanni, and the Australian premiere of Verdi's Atilla.
Budd says Opera Australia stopped bringing its full-scale productions to Canberra in 1983 because the size and cost made it too difficult and expensive to continue.
Smaller-scale English-language Opera Australia productions began touring in 1996, formerly under the Oz Opera banner, including Madame Butterfly last year.
It's very much the international production - Joey was recruited... He learned the choreography from the man himself.- Alex Budd on Joey McKneely, who worked with Jerome Robbins
The company is looking "with interest" at the proposed new, larger theatre for Canberra, he says, but it's so early that no plans have been made about resuming large-scale opera tours to the ACT.
This West Side Story's director, Joey McKneely, danced in the compilation show Jerome Robbins' Broadway under the director-choreographer Robbins in 1989. He is reproducing Robbins' choreography and direction with his own tweaks.
McKneely's production of West Side Story was first mounted in La Scala, Italy in 2001.
Opera Australia's artistic director, Lyndon Terracomo, saw the McKneely production in Europe, Budd says, and arranged to have it performed in Australia.
"It's very much the international production - Joey was recruited."
Budd says of McKneely's work with Robbins, "He learned the choreography from the man himself".
McKneely has worked on international productions of the show for nearly 20 years.
While not all the casting is ethnically correct, Budd said this was partly because of the available talent pool and partly because of the triple-threat requirements of many of the roles - the best performer for each part was always sought.
West Side Story is a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, set in New York City in the 1950s. Two street gangs, the native-born Sharks and the immigrant Puerto Rican Jets, fight for control over the neighbourhood.
At a dance, a boy and girl - one from each side - fall in love.
Tony (played by Todd Jacobsson), the kind-hearted former Jets leader who now has a job and is looking towards the future, and the naive newcomer Maria (Sophie Salvesani), see each other and are instantly smitten. Anita (Chloe Zuel), the girlfriend of Maria's brother Bernardo (Lyndon Watts), who leads the Sharks, finds out and is troubled by the romance.
Will it help foster cross-cultural understanding, or will it only make a volatile situation worse?
The idea for the show came from Robbins. He contacted composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein with the street-gang concept in 1949. The two had worked successfully together on the ballet Fancy Free and the musical it inspired, On the Town.
They talked to writer Arthur Laurents, whose 1946 play Home of the Brave dealt with soldiers' reactions to jungle combat in World War II.
Laurents first wrote a draft called East Side Story with Catholic and Jewish gangs but this was deemed too similar to other works and the project stalled for several years.
In 1955, Latino street gangs in Los Angeles were making news and Laurents suggested they use this, shifting the action to Manhattan's Lower West Side with battling white and Puerto Rican gangs.
Laurents brought in young composer-lyricist Stephen Sondheim, a protege of Oscar Hammerstein II, who focused on the lyrics while Bernstein wrote the music.
The show was completed by 1957 but was turned down by several producers who found it too downbeat but finally backing was found.
West Side Story's original Broadway production was a critical and commercial success, running for 734 performances and winning Tony Awards for choreography and set design. It became a much-produced classic. The 1961 film version won 10 Oscars and a remake is being directed by Steven Spielberg.
Much of the story is told through the songs - ranging from soaring ballads such as Tonight to sardonic comic numbers like Gee, Officer Krupke. Robbins' dramatic choreography set to Bernstein's energetic score also propels the action.
One of the things McKneely did in this mounting, Budd says, was to cast genuinely young people, ranging from 16 to their mid-20s who could sing, act and dance, giving the drama a more realistic edge. For some it was their professional stage debut.
Among the first-timers is Nathan Pavey, who plays one of the Jets, Snowboy and - unusually for a gang member - wears needed spectacles.
"Joey liked them - he felt they worked with the character," Budd says.
It also gives Pavey a distinctive look that makes him stand out for the audience.
Tony and Maria, the leads, have less strenuous dancing to do than most of the cast but carry the love story and perform the romantic songs.
Queenslander Salvesani, 25, is making her professional theatre debut in this production.
She says, "West Side Story was the first show I ever did."
While in high school, she played Puerto Rican girl Consuelo and understudied Maria.
"That was the beginning of all this," she says.
Salvesani studied teaching but continued to perform in community theatre productions and ultimately abandoned the classroom for the stage.
"I saw this production advertised on Facebook and thought I would give it a go."
She says she would like to work in operas as well as musicals, as that suit her more classical sound.
"I don't have a belt voice. I can't do a lot of modern musicals, just the classics."
Now she's moved up to the "emotional roller coaster" of the lead role, playing a recent immigrant to the US who is "young and naive" and looks up to Anita, wanting to experience everything the older girl does.
"It's been a lot of fun," Salvesani says of playing Maria.
"I had to get the accent down pat - there's a lot of work and practice that goes into it."
Salvesani believes West Side Story is "more relevant in 2019 than in 1957 given the state of the world at the moment" and that it relates to any sort of cross-cultural antagonism and adversity.
"It relates to any sort of adversity between anyone."
Budd saw Jacobsson in The Book of Mormon and says of the actor's portrayal of Tony, "I think he's fantastic ... He makes the love story so believable in his innocence."
Jacobsson, 24, says he "grew up singing and dancing" as a child in Ballarat. When he was 13 his mother took him to see The Phantom of the Opera and he was inspired to perform in school musicals.
After finishing school he worked for The Production Company in Melbourne in The Pirates of Penzance and Guys and Dolls before being cast as Elder White in The Book of Mormon, a role he played for two-and-a-half years.
Both leads can see something of themselves in their characters.
She says, "A part of me really is Maria", singling out in particular the character's innocence, while Jacobsson says, "I think 90 per cent of myself really is Tony - I didn't have to try that hard."
He relates to Tony's character's optimism and kind-heartedness.
"The most fulfilling thing for me is getting to sing Maria every night." Jacobsson agrees with Salvesani that West Side Story is still all too relevant in its depiction of warring groups of people.
It's not hard, he says, to find to find people who move in different circles and don't get along.
"Back then it was race," he says.
"Now, it's political values."
West Side Story is set in a particular milieu at a particular time, but, like its Shakespearean source, its themes and ideas - young love, death, racism, the destructive effects of hatred and conflict - are timeless.
- Ron Cerabona was a guest of Opera Australia.
- West Side Story. Book by Arthur Laurents. Music by Leonard Bernstein. Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim. Choreography: Jerome Robbins, reproduced by Joel McKneely. Directed by McKneely, Opera Australia and GWB Entertainment present the BB Group production. Canberra Theatre from October 10 to 27. Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.