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28 June 2019

A season for Australian opera

Visuals for <em>Boojum!</em>  by Simone Romaniuk Image: Visuals for Boojum! by Simone Romaniuk  
© State Opera of South Australia

Two brand-new Australian operas, and four existing ones, will receive performances in Sydney and Adelaide over the next few months.

The scarcity of contemporary Australian operas in season programs may be a perennial cause for concern, but in 2019 there is an unusual flurry of activity, with several premieres as well as existing works getting an outing over the next few months. The brand-new works include Opera Australia's production of Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming's opera Whiteley (Sydney on 15 July) and Sydney Chamber Opera's production of Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox's Oscar and Lucinda (27 July). Meta Overman's (1907-1993) opera Psyche will be performed in a newly orchestrated edition at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on 16-17 August. And before any of these, the State Opera of South Australia will launch their new initiative 'The Lost Operas of Oz' airing the first of three Australian works. Martin Wesley-Smith's Boojum! (Adelaide 5-6 July) will be followed by Ross Edwards and Dorothy Hewett's Christina's World (2-3 August) and John Haddock and Michael Campbell's Madeline Lee (4-5 October).

Elena Kats-Chernin and Justin Fleming's new work is based on the life story of the iconic Australian artist Brett Whiteley. Opera Australia's production will be directed by David Freeman, conducted by Tahu Matheson and designed by Dan Potra. Orchestra rehearsals of Whiteley are about to start, and the composer and the librettist have both been busy at work making last-minute adjustments.

Some of Kats-Chernin's sound world for Whiteley -
'Immersion in blue' recorded by Opera Australia
Orchestra and conducted by Tahu Matheson.

Changing directions has been a bit of an ongoing theme for this project, and the first, big challenge for the composer had to do with finding the right sound to go with Whiteley's art. Whole sections and themes were drafted, only to be abandoned or rewritten.

'Brett Whiteley was this extraordinary, unpredictable artist with unpredictable thoughts. That's how the music should be. Every so often, just completely taking you by surprise', Kats-Chernin said early on.

Whiteley's premiere on 15 July will be followed by further performances on 18, 20, 24, 27 and 30 July. We're looking forward to catching up with the composer and finding out more about her final score once the crucial first orchestral rehearsals are over - more about this on Resonate soon.

Oscar and Lucinda
- vivid and intense

Elliott Gyger's and Pierce Wilcox's Oscar and Lucinda, based on Peter Carey's Booker Prize-winning novel, is a co-production and co-commission of Sydney Chamber Opera, Opera Queensland and Victorian Opera. The premiere season in Sydney this July and August will be directed by Patrick Nolan, conducted by Jack Symonds and designed by Anna Tregloan.

Oscar and Lucinda is a two-act chamber opera, scored for six singers and an orchestra of sixteen. Those familiar with Gyger and Wilcox's previous opera, Fly Away Peter (2015), can expect to hear something quite different.

'Where the prevailing mood of Fly Away Peter was sparse and elegiac, Oscar and Lucinda operates at a much higher level of intensity, evoking the mad profusion, emotional extremes and vivid images of the novel', Gyger exlains. The title characters are, according to him, ideally suited to opera by 'the intensity of their inner vision, and by their sad misalignment with the world around them, and ultimately with each other'.

Oscar is cast as a high tenor (Brenton Spiteri), and Lucinda as a mezzo-soprano (sung by Jessica Aszodi). The remaining four singers (Jane Sheldon, Mitchell Riley, Simon Lobelson and Jeremy Kleeman), in addition to taking on several minor characters, also function together as a chorus.

'The chorus plays a crucial function within Pierce Wilcox's libretto of effecting rapid shifts of scene, especially at the start where Oscar and Lucinda's individual stories unfold in parallel, converging only towards the end of the first act. The orchestra contains many instruments in pairs: oboes (doubling cors anglais), clarinets (doubling bass clarinets), horns, violins, violas, cellos. A crucial part is also played by a mismatched pairing of piano and harp, and the line-up is completed by double bass and percussion (featuring bell sounds, reflecting the story's central elements of glass and religion). This scoring allows for a distinctive mix of mellow and edgy colours, with the reed instruments chosen as much for their unwillingness to blend easily as for their individual sonic and expressive potential', Gyger explains.

A series of 'Lost' operas
in South Australia

You could argue that Martin Wesley-Smith's Boojum! (Adelaide 5-6 July) is not exactly an opera, and not altogether lost, either, with 23 performances in Chicago as recently as in 2010. But it's a very fitting way for the State Opera of SA to start their series revisiting Australian works with this wonderful music theatre piece by an originally South Australian composer. Boojum! is based on Lewis Carroll's nonsense poem 'The Hunting of the Snark', with lyrics by Martin's twin Peter Wesley-Smith. It was premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 1986, and this new SA production will be directed by Joseph Mitchell, with Simone Romaniuk as designer and Warwick StengÄrds as conductor. (Read also: an earlier article about Boojum! by the composer).

South Australian Opera's series will continue with performances of Ross Edwards and Dorothy Hewett's opera Christina's World, directed by Nicholas Cannon, conducted by Warwick StengÄrds and with Christina Logan as designer. This work was proposed to Edwards by Stuart Challender, and got a slightly mixed reception at the time, says Edwards.

'Stuart had conducted something of mine in Melbourne and, while there, happened to see Dorothy's musical play The Man from Mukkinupin. Perceiving a connection between Dorothy's and my feeling for what he described as "the elemental world", he commissioned from us a one-act chamber opera which was produced on an absolute shoestring budget in Sydney the following year. I chose to set Dorothy's magical but grotesque libretto in a folk-like idiom which, at the time, created a minor furore. The music, which was described as "ravishingly beautiful" - not necessarily taken as a compliment in 1983 - seemed to some people at odds with the narrative, which indeed it was. Dorothy predicted that the work would be misunderstood. Did we care? No we didn't. Today, a more lavish production and a sophisticated audience is likely to shed a very different light on our intentions', Edwards reflects.

Overman's Psyche
rescued from the archives

Meta Overman's opera Psyche would still be hiding in the archival boxes of the University of Western Australia's Music Library, had it not been for the determined work, over several years, by the Australian pianist Jeanell Carrigan to research, revive and promote Overman's music.

Psyche was written shortly after the composer moved to Western Australia in the early 1950s, and performed at the Perth Festival in March 1955 to piano accompaniment. The extensive piano part will be heard also as part of the new edition, played by Jeanell Carrigan.

Based on a story by Dutch novelist and poet Louis Couperus, Overman's Psyche is by no means a conventional opera, says Jeanell Carrigan.

'It was highly innovative in that it did not follow the usual opera format with major singing roles and a large chorus. The characters in the opera were not all singers. Some were dancers, two were singers, two actors who only have speaking roles, and some were instrumentalists (flute and harp) who had no text but used an instrumental type and 'leitmotifs' to create the personality of the character', she explains.

Orchestrated by Carrigan, a new edition of the work will be conducted by Roger Benedict and directed by Narelle Yeo who will also be singing one of the opera's major roles.

Further links

Elena Kats-Chernin & Justin Fleming: Whiteley: Opera Australia 15-30 July - info & tickets (Opera Australia website)

Elliott Gyger & Pierce Wilcox: Oscar and Lucinda: Sydney Chamber Opera 27 July - 3 August - info & tickets (Carriageworks)

State Opera of South Australia: Boojum! 5-6 July - info & tickets; Christina's World 2-3 August - info & tickets; Madeline Lee 4-5 October - info & tickets

Meta Overman: Psyche: Sydney Conservatorium of Music 16-17 August - info & registrations (free tickets)


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