26 April 2012
'There, you might say, but for the grace of God go any of us.'
Gordon Kerry and Louis Nowra's opera Midnight Son will get its world premiere this May in Melbourne, performed by the Victorian Opera. What kind of challenges does a real-life love tragedy pose for the composer as well as the librettist? Gordon Kerry writes.
Some years ago, ChamberMade's then artistic director Douglas Horton put Louis Nowra in touch with me. Louis had had an idea for an opera based on a notorious case that had occurred in Melbourne some years before that, where a love triangle had gone badly wrong, resulting in murder, betrayal and suicide. A man had, apparently, incited his mistress to murder his wife; the mistress had been progressively made more dependent and love-struck, her confidence and moral volition gradually weakened to the point where she would do anything for her lover.
Certainly the stuff of many an opera, but as we discussed the project we agreed that the work we might produce must not trivialise or caricature the events and characters. Rather, we saw it as a genuine tragedy: none of the actual people involved were monsters or psychopaths and we wanted to explore how normal people, living in the suburbs of an Australian city could find themselves drawn into such an inescapable series of events with such devastating consequences. There, you might say, but for the grace of God go any of us.
So, we have invented the names of all the characters, and those apart from the three principals - police, doctors, friends, reporters - are completely fictional. The point is that the story has universal implications. Furthermore, as Melbourne audiences, in particular, know of the events in question, we tell the story as a series of flashbacks, each illuminating the event we have just seen. The piece ends, then, not in horror, but with a young couple falling in love, though the scene is poignant, given that we know what the harvest will be.
W H Auden once observed that 'drama is based on the mistake'. He also noted that all the great characters in opera 'are in a passionate and wilful state of being… in real life they would all be bores'. What we know of the people in the actual events has been filtered through the media, which inevitably has focused on the sensational and salacious at the expense of human complexity; we believe that through the medium of opera we can depict more nuanced characters who are embodied in emotionally direct music that is gratifying to sing.
Thus, the central male role, Ray Clark, is a brash, self-absorbed, amoral character, but one with whom two intelligent woman could plausibly fall in love. I have given him music that reflects various aspects of his personality, especially the hypnotic charisma that attracted his wife, Marisa, and Clara his mistress. Marisa, with whom Ray has become bored, is seen as a shy, underconfident young woman who blooms in the early years of her relationship, but is ultimately, through no fault of her own, the victim. A blues song depicts her erotic awakening, and her death scene is dignified by serene and weightless music. Clara, Ray's mistress, is in a sense the most tragic figure of the piece: a bright, self-assured woman who is undermined by Ray's emotional manipulation of her so that she goes against her own values and instincts. When Ray fakes his own death she has a Mahlerian outpouring, interrupted by his return, where he takes advantage of her emotional prostration. And I have used ensembles to depict characters' simultaneous reactions in, I hope, transparent polyphony.
Louis Nowra's libretto is an object lesson in writing for opera. Information is delivered in crisp, short lines, with lots of long vowels, few unstressed syllables at the end of sentences, and a judicious use of rhyme. Auden, again, said that a libretto is a 'private letter to the composer' whose purpose it to suggest music. The Midnight Son libretto certainly suggested music, but is so clear that I have worked hard to make sure that the words (among them some 'strong language') will be well understood.
ChamberMade was briefly overtaken by events, but sowed the seed for this work, which was supported by the Australia Council's Music Board and the Ian Potter Cultural Trust, and which receives its premiere with Victorian Opera.
Gordon Kerry - AMC profile
Gordon Kerry & Louis Nowra: Midnight Son
Victorian Opera (Ollivier-Philippe Cuneo, conductor; Nicky Wendt, director; Andrew Bellchambers, set designer; Esther Marie Hayes, costume designer; Nigel Levings, lighting designer; cast: Antoinette Halloran, Dimity Shepherd, Byron Watson, Jonathan Bode, Roxane Hislop; Orchestra Victoria)
Performances (AMC Calendar): 16-17 May, 19 May, 20 May and 22-23 May, at the Merlyn Theatre, Malthouse, Melbourne, Victoria
For more details, see: Victorian Opera
Victorian Opera: Midnight Son (16-23 May 2012)
© Australian Music Centre (2012) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
As Musica Viva Australia's featured composer for 2012, Gordon Kerry's works will be performed by the St Lawrence and Takács Quartets, Trio Dali, Anthony Marwood and Alexander Madzar, and the Kuss Quartet and Naoko Shimizu who will premiere a newly composed string quintet. In addition, Halcyon and the Acacia Ensemble will give the Australian premiere of his Goodison Quartet no.1: Country Music, for mezzo and quartet, in August. Other recent works include a Symphony (for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra), a flute concerto - Captain Flinders' Musick - for Alison Mitchell and the Scottish Chamber Orchestra, and a song cycle to poems of John Kinsella for Merlyn Quaife and Andrea Katz.
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