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30 July 2015

Insight: The truth of the flowers

Chris Williams Image: Chris Williams  

Chris Williams writes about his work-in-progress, an idea realised through his Friends of the National Library of Australia Creative Arts Fellowship. Williams teamed up with librettist Pierce Wilcox to write a musical response to Nigel Butterley's incomplete opera, and this dramatic scene The truth of the flowers will be performed in a workshop presentation on Sunday 9 August 2015 at the MLC School Burwood. Featured artists include Jane Sheldon, Ellen Winhall, Jack Symonds and James Wannan together with singers from Sydney Antiphony.

> More 'Insight' articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.

If you want to get a reaction from people, tell them you're working on an opera. If you're in a particularly antagonistic mood, you could follow this provocation by asking them what they think of opera. If you're really intent on destroying an otherwise amicable social situation, you could then ask them what constitutes opera. Interestingly, an inability to answer the latter question by no means precludes a fervent and committed response to the former.

People, with little invitation, will tell you they hate the opera, that they love it, that they've always wanted to go, that they would never want to go, that it's expensive, that it's sublime, that it's ridiculous. Librettist Pierce Wilcox, my collaborator for this project, flippantly referred to opera as a 'fundamentally ludicrous art form' in discussing his own work on the magnificent Fly Away Peter (with music by Elliott Gyger), which Sydney Chamber Opera premiered earlier this year. I don't know if the allusion to Samuel Johnson was deliberate or not, but it reminds me of his description of opera as 'irrational entertainment'. Johnson also went on to note that opera 'has always been combated and always has prevailed'. Since the 18th century it has continued to be 'combated' and so far thankfully 'prevailed', in equal measure.

What is informative about all of this, though, is that, for an art form more than 400 years old, it still has the capacity - even before, or without experiencing it - to make people react; not just react, but react with a kind of high drama that seems perfectly fitting for opera. It also seems to be an art form perennially on the edge of destruction, caught between its inherent difficulties and people's passions.

Another reaction I've come across is a dismissive opinion that opera is an old-fashioned, somehow 'backward' art form. Though this is usually offered as a criticism, it's really nothing of the sort. Opera, in its beginning, was an art form about, self-consciously, looking backwards. Ironically, the innovation of the form was cloaked in a rhetoric of recapturing the 'golden age' of Greek drama. Giovanni Bardi's Camerata commissioned and produced what are now considered the first operas at the turn of the 17th century. According to Jamie James, there are three different works that lay claim to 'firsts' in the genre: first performed, first published and oldest surviving. Of these, the last two, both called Euridice (and to the same libretto), tell the story of Orpheus. Another significant early effort was Monteverdi's Mantuan triumph L'Orfeo. Indeed a large number of what are now considered the first operas told, and re-told, this same story, this same myth. So if the origins of opera were about looking back (in more than one sense), a fascination with the story of Orpheus meant they were also about being covered in dirt, about - quite literally - entering the earth.

Both looking back and an intimacy with earth have accidentally become crucial parts of my first explorations of operatic ideas as a composer, too.

In the early 1970s my teacher and mentor Nigel Butterley began work on an opera based on the Hans Christian Andersen story 'The Snow Queen', to a libretto by John Frow. This is information which appears obliquely in a few documents from the time, and about which I had puzzled over the years. Why was it started? What happened to it? Why The Snow Queen?

When the National Library of Australia acquired Nigel Butterley's papers in 2009, the composer rediscovered 26 pages of orchestral score for this work, with surprise and delight. He simply didn't remember he'd written so much music for it. In telling me about the discovery at the time he said, perhaps half-jokingly (though that must then mean at least half-seriously too), I was welcome to finish the opera if I ever felt inclined. Easily said…

The opportunity to tentatively explore this alluring, and slightly outlandish, idea came with the announcement of the Friends of the National Library of Australia's Creative Arts Fellowship, which allows an artist to engage directly with a chosen aspect of the Library's vast and fascinating collections. Because of this extraordinary opportunity, I was able to spend time in Canberra, earlier in 2015, exploring my idea.

With the generous permission of the original authors, I proposed to creatively examine the manuscript, and compose a response, or perhaps rather a conversation with what existed of the original work. At the time I was unsure what form this conversation might take, and in some senses I think I still am, but will have a clearer sense of this after our workshop presentation of the work on 8 August.

One of the 'difficulties' and also, it must be said, one of the joys, of opera is that it is above all a collaborative form. In some ways this makes it the antithesis of a Romantic (and Modernist) vision of the Artist, who just toils away in complete isolation. Perhaps this is also one of the reasons why the history of opera tends to sit outside dominant narratives of composition in the last 200 years, instead carving its own path.

This project offered a remarkable number of collaborations across space and time (though I'm aware this is a grandiose, slightly sci-fi description). It begins with the history, and idea of opera as an art form - the telling of myth through music - picks up Hans Christian Andersen a few hundred years later, and is then filtered through the minds of two young Australian artists in the 1970s, at a time when opera became an explicitly national concern, amidst the protracted and prophesied opening of the Sydney Opera House. Finally, though perhaps most importantly now, it is a collaboration between a good friend, Pierce Wilcox, and I, which would be unrealisable without the generous talents of both Sydney Chamber Opera, and Sydney Antiphony.

It was apparent very early on that, partly because of how contextually, textually and materially rich all this was, it was also a complex puzzle of competing ideas, and fitting them together coherently has been the real challenge. At the end of the story of The Snow Queen, Kay is given a puzzle, to spell the word 'Eternity' by sliding pieces of ice around in order to secure his freedom. There is an inference that this is an insoluble problem. However, when his childhood friend Gerda arrives, the two are able to solve the problem and leave. Pierce rose to the not-insubstantial puzzle we faced, to create a text which connected to the original libretto for the opera, but on a spectrum between a continuation of the extant material and a stand-alone piece, respectful of the original but distinct in its own right.

The original libretto by John Frow has beautifully evocative images and potent ideas. Though told in seven scenes like the Andersen, unlike the Andersen it deliberately resists clear narrative form. It is more a meditation on themes - a series of images and ideas - than a re-telling of the story through dramatic action per se. The symbolic and the allusive predominate. Amongst the sketches for the work, there is a sentence in Nigel's hand writing - a note to himself - which simply states 'whole production can be thought of as a sort of ceremony or ritual'. The prominent role of the chorus, both a Greek theatrical and operatic device, also seems to heighten the idea of ritual and of ancient origins. Considering this opera based on The Snow Queen (John and Nigel called it The Desolate Kingdom, wisely trying to manage the expectations of those perhaps hoping for children's literature) was part of a group of commissions which ended up including Sculthorpe's Rites of Passage, itself a work of ritual, and so it seems very much of its time in this regard.

My own inclination is also towards the symbolic, and often towards static musical material, but I am increasingly looking for ways of introducing more 'movement' into my work. This project was perfect for knocking me off-kilter in this regard and forcing me to meet demands other than my own inclinations. Rather than being solely in control of musical development, I found myself working to, sometimes grinding against, something much more solid than even other types of text setting would be. Character, and dramatic structure, needed explicit consideration, and matching these to musical material forced my compositional hand in ways I would not have allowed in other forms. I found this confronting at times and while I asked for some adjustment to the text Pierce created, I tried to resist doing so, knowing that if I directly addressed the scene as it was, it would offer me musical solutions and opportunities I couldn't reach on my own, and it did.

One of the big lessons I've learnt from Nigel Butterley over the years is about attention to and care for text. This is an even greater concern for an operatic work. Not only is it important to choose a collaborator you trust and admire in order to create the words, but then you also need to trust the words themselves. One of the things which impressed me most about Fly Away Peter, was Gyger's clarity of expression. It possesses a clarity in the expression of the words, but also clarity in the expression of the dramatic development through the story.

In working on our piece we initially returned to Hans Christian Andersen for inspiration. There are many things that strike me as being perpetually powerful and interesting in the stories, but one unexpected point became very clear and this was the mutual enforcement of the fantastical and the mundane. For example, in one story, the 'The Ice Maiden,' in many ways a later companion piece to the 'The Snow Queen', Andersen evokes a mysterious colony of people to The North. They 'are called Swedes'. It's a small point, but crucial, I think. While the 'idea of the North' is mythical, even mystical, it is also a very real, literal geography which Andersen evokes. Snow may be a symbol for dying, itself an allegory for the ritual death of childhood as well as actual death, but snow is also simply what falls from the sky, and paints the earth, in Northern Europe. The sheer banality of his magic is delightful.

Finally we decided we needed to find a space in the original score for where our own piece might 'figuratively' reside. Though not for the reason that might seem apparent, the second scene of the original opera (which roughly coincides with the third chapter in the original story) was where we decided to begin. It is the point in the manuscript where the original music stops, which is why I say it may seem the obvious choice, but much more importantly than this it is really an entirely new beginning and a largely self-contained episode. The first scene in the original opera is an interaction between Kay and the Snow Queen, in The North. The second scene is the start of Gerda's journey, beginning in the enchanted garden in The South. In entirely changing characters and location it follows that the scene could inhabit a new world of text and music, which was our own. Gerda and her journey are also, for me, the heart and drive of the story. She is our Orpheus, and we have to first care for her in order to care for Kay.

Pierce Wilcox has described our scene, 'The truth of the flowers', in these terms:

There is a story of a lost girl, and an enchanted garden, and the flowers that sing to her a perfect truth. There is another, secret story, of a girl who has lost more than she knows, of a haven that every child needs to leave, and of advisors who babble in the throes of madness.

Hans Christian Andersen's fairytale The Snow Queen is refracted through a uniquely Australian sensibility to create this tense and fantastical new work.

And so we return to the earth, to Orpheus, looking back at artists from Australia, from Europe and across shifting poetic geographies. From its origins in Italy, opera's capacity to travel is why it always prevailed; it finds new geographies. It can travel, because it can adapt. Peri's La favola di Dafne, arguably the first opera on record to be performed, was done so 'in a small room and sung privately'; quite a different image to our popular idea of what constitutes opera, but a beautiful possibility for what it can be and has been. (Timothy McKenry has written convincingly about some of the recent Australian operas in his article 'Eclectic, Ephemeral and Ethical'.)

The original opera of The Snow Queen remains incomplete for now, and might always remain so, though in so doing it joins a rich and admirable tradition of incomplete operas (think of Schoenberg's Moses und Aron, to name but one). Nigel went on to tell his own Orphic myth many years later in his Orphei Mysteria, with the assurance of style and craft of a mature artist at his peak, just as he completed an opera of power and invention in Lawrence Hargrave flying alone.

As much as I think Nigel would have been flattered if I were to have attempted an imitation of his his style in the early 1970s, I know the way to honour his influence as a teacher was to take seriously his own sense of what music should be - an honest, personal vision on its own terms, as indeed he suggested to me in an early discussion about this project. 'Do your own thing.' This is what I've tried to do, and certainly what Pierce has done with the text. Our story is complete, for now. It's something new, but it is also born of and borne by something incomplete, and by things old and very old.

Further links

Chris Williams - AMC profile
'Chris Williams the inaugural NLA Creative Arts Fellow' - a news article on Resonate (25 February 2015)
'Nigel Butterley at 80 - A reading and 7 listenings' - an article on Resonate by Chris Williams (27 April 2015)
Nigel Butterley - AMC profile


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