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31 March 2009

Never confuse a genius with a saint

Gary Rowley as Rembrandt Image: Gary Rowley as Rembrandt  
© Victorian Opera

Victorian Opera will premiere Sue Smith and Andrew Ford's chamber opera Rembrandt's Wife on April 18th at the CUB Malthouse in Melbourne. Sue Smith's writing for TV includes the controversial mini-series Bastard Boys. Rembrandt's Wife is her first opera libretto

The idea of Rembrandt’s Wife first came to me some years ago in an exhibition of Rembrandt’s etchings. Accompanying one of his later works was a biographical note: because of shifting bourgeois tastes in the staunchly Calvinist Holland of his time, Rembrandt’s work had fallen from fashion. In further penury from repaying a breach of marriage contract to his son’s nurse whom, in need of physical release, he had taken to his bed, Rembrandt was declared bankrupt. At his lowest ebb, he was forced to sell the marble headstone and gravesite of his late much loved wife, Saskia. This struck me as a powerful metaphor for the way in which art is so often compromised by the vicissitudes of fashion. When my friend Andy Ford mentioned to me that he was looking for a subject for an opera, I – after one or two sauv blancs – expounded at length on the marvelloush story I had that I thought would make an opera. The next thing I knew, it was commissioned.

I am a screenwriter. The notion of attempting to write a piece that not only could rise to an operatic scale, but which would be actually sung – by real life opera singers – was, frankly, terrifying. Then liberating. And then it was exhilarating. Andy and I read a lot about Rembrandt, looked at his paintings, discussed characters and themes. The larger themes began to emerge: principal among them was Rembrandt’s savage purity in maintaining artistic integrity at the personal cost of bankruptcy and humiliation, and at the even more devastating carnage wreaked on the lives of those who loved him, especially the three women: Saskia; the spurned nurse, Geertje Dircx; and his late, great muse, Hendrickje Stoffels. Does greatness justify bad behaviour? In the words of Simon Schama: never confuse a genius with a saint.

Finding myself in a rehearsal room with four dazzlingly talented singers, a gifted and visionary director, my dear dear giant of a composer friend, Andy, and the inimitable Richard Gill is … thrilling. To hear my words sculpted into melodies and arias and duets and quartets of passion and tenderness and humour and heartbreak and floating in the air around me in godgiven voices has to be one of the genuine high points of my career. The precision and the rigour that is brought to this rehearsal process; the surefootedness with which singers, conductor and musicians negotiate the musical landscape; the shared intuitive language of rhythm and pitch and timbre and musical colour; the way in which the music is absorbed quite literally into the muscles of the bodies of the singers … Compared to all this words themselves seem like blunt instruments. Except that, of course, words are story. And all of this breathtaking array of talent is being put at the service of just that: telling a story that we all hope will mean something to people other than ourselves.

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Sue Smith is an Australian TV-writer, whose credits include Bastard Boys, The Leaving of Liverpool, Brides of Christ and the feature film Peaches. Rembrandt's Wife is her first opera libretto. She is the author of two plays, Thrall and Strange Attractor, which has its first run at Sydney's Griffin Theatre in October 2009.


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Certainly I would agree that using screenwriters as librettists is a great way to go.  They understand (inherently) how to compress the most possible information into the least possible amount of time/words.

It would be great to hear and see this piece in Melbourne.  Congrats to all involved.