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Docklander - November 2018

01 Nov 2018

Docklander - November 2018 Image

The grand opera of life

By Niccola Anthony

At seven years of age, Hugh Halliday decided to he wanted to become an actor.

Performing the titular role of Ali Baba in his primary school’s production of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, Mr Halliday had never experienced such a euphoric feeling.

“It was like a zap of lightning. I knew exactly what I wanted to do from that moment forward,” he said.

Indeed, Mr Halliday’s career path never strayed far from this youthful revelation, celebrating a six-decades-long career in the arts that includes work as a mainstream pop musician, a ballet dancer and director of numerous opera productions in Australia, Singapore, the UK and continental Europe.

Today, Mr Halliday is a revival director for Opera Australia, a role he has held since 2013. It follows previous directorial roles with both the Melbourne Opera and the English National Opera (ENO)(formerly Sadler’s Wells Opera).

Aside from Mr Halliday’s pre-eminence in the international operatic community, he has another unique claim to fame – that of holding a number one hit on the UK singles chart.

Older locals will remember Mental as Anything’s Martin Plaza for his 1986 hit on the local singles chart, Concrete and Clay, which reached the number two spot.

The song was actually a cover of the original 1965 hit by Mr Halliday’s former band, Unit 4+2.

Despite the band’s early success, Mr Halliday wanted to return to theatre in a more hands-on capacity. It was the theatre, after all, where his great love affair with the arts truly began.

“When I was a performer, I started to feel frustrated about coming into a process just for the last four weeks,” Mr Halliday said.

“I was much more interested in creating it and building [the production] up to a level where the performers then came in.”

After seven years at the ENO as a staff director, Mr Halliday was asked to stage a production of Canterbury Tales for the Victorian State Opera here in Melbourne, a production which he had recently choreographed on London’s West End.

“I got a call from the company to say ‘Hugh, can you go over to Australia?’ Because the Victorian State Opera are going to do a production of ours that we’d done over in London that I knew very well,” Mr Halliday said.

“I looked around and I thought, ‘I like this place’.”

It wasn’t long before Mr Halliday fell in love with our city and by 1982 he had formally migrated to Australia.

In the intervening years since then, Mr Halliday has worked on close to 100 productions. One standout was a Singaporean production of the much-loved Aida, involving 1000 performers, 60 animals and an international cast that hailed from countries as disparate as the US and Italy.

“The thing I love about opera is the culmination of all the art forms. You’ve got a huge, live orchestra; sensational trained singers; amazing costumes; a huge chorus; big sets and design,” Mr Halliday said.

“Everything just comes together. I think that’s what I’ve found most exciting about it.”

It has been particularly rewarding for Halliday to see his love of the arts live on through his children.

“They were nearly all born in wardrobe skips on the side of the stage. Most of them took their first steps in the theatre,” Mr Halliday said.

Mr Halliday is married to Annie Reid, a senior stage manager at Opera Australia. The couple’s youngest daughter Joanna is currently undertaking tertiary studies in performing arts with the Victorian College of the Arts (VCA).

Mr Halliday himself is no stranger to the VCA – he maintains a 21-year association with the institute as a sessional lecturer in stagecraft, movement and drama for VCA Opera.

But Mr Halliday is preparing himself for a turn on the red carpet next year, to accompany Joanna at the premiere of her first major feature film.

Joanna will star in the Rachel Griffiths’-directed Ride Like a Girl, a biographical take on the life of Melbourne Cup winner Michelle Payne, as one of Payne’s sisters.

Before his red carpet treatment, however, Mr Halliday will remain busy with directorial work at Opera Australia. His upcoming revival of La Boheme will be playing at the Arts Centre State Theatre from November 7 to 24.

To find out more about the production and book tickets head to

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