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The Portrait : a musical tribute to Stella Bowen

by Becky Llewellyn (2006)



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Work Overview

The Portrait is a musical and visual exploration of the morality of a group of artists and writers living in the 20s who felt they were the centre of the arts world. Their stories are framed and shaped by World Wars I and II. I was pleasantly surprised that there were so many source materials about Stella Bowen's life: a wonderful retrospective of the Australian War Memorial, family photos and memories from Suzie Brookman, Stella's niece, writings by Ford Madox Ford, Stella Bowen, Ford's lovers Violet Hunt and Jean Rhys and Drusilla Modjeska's wonderful Stravinsky's Lunch. These trails led to further journeys - trips to Paris to see Stella's homes and to England, sharing time with her best friend's daughter, who has written an unpublished memoir of Stella.

The chamber opera imagines monologues and dialogues of the main characters in Bowen's life drama. Bowen is known primarily as the painter of 'Bomber Crew' and much of her life was a war, starting with Ford's post-traumatic stress after WWI, which she patiently nursed with seeds and hopes of garden building.

The Portrait is based musically in the tonalities of the '20s and '30s, using sound association to bring the times to life.

Work Details

Year: 2006

Instrumentation: 7 instrumentalists: acoustic guitar/banjo, Bb clarinet/recorder, piano + turkish drum/maracas, violin, cello , double bass, percussion (drum kit, vibraphone, triangle, guiro, tambourine, cowbell, gong, zany wind-up, blowing horn, temple blocks, bongos), and 7 singers: 2 sopranos, 2 mezzo-sopranos, tenor, bass baritone, bass.

Duration: 90 min.

Difficulty: Advanced

Commission note: Commissioned by Co-Opera's General Manager, Brian Chatterton

First performance: 3 Feb 06. The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre

I was commissioned in January 2003 and spent a large part of that year in research for the libretto. My husband became ill and died in May 2004 and it wasn't until February of the next year that I returned to the project and began writing. The music for the piano score was written over a three month period. It had its first workshop with dramaturg/director Tessa Bremner, musical director Anthony Hunt and seven Co-Opera singers in July 2005. After further refinement it premiered at the Space Theatre in February 2006. I then orchestrated this version for a travelling opera production, which was the terms of the commission. The Portrait with seven instrumentalists, singers and conductor toured New South Wales, Victoria and the ACT in August/September 2006. A DVD of the final performance in Ballarat is available.

Performances of this work

3 Feb 06: The Space, Adelaide Festival Centre

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