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9 November 2023

Phoebe Briggs interviews Christopher Sainsbury: The Visitors

Cast members Lillian Fromyhr, Jess Hitchcock, Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman Image: Cast members Lillian Fromyhr, Jess Hitchcock, Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman  
© Courtesy of Victorian Opera

"The Visitors upends expectations of what is still, overwhelmingly, a culturally European art form." (Limelight 18 Oct 2023)

Christopher Sainsbury's opera, The Visitors tells the story of six First Nations Elders and one young initiate who gather on the shores of Sydney on a fateful day in 1788 as 11 ships of the First Fleet sail in. How will the Elders respond? Are these visitors a threat or do they mean no harm? The Elders take several votes on whether to stand up and send them away or let them land and have safe passage? The numbers shift and allegiances change until an ultimate consensus is reached.

The story is full of First Nations customs, laws, protocols, and blackfella humour as a cultural expression. It highlights cultural pride and generosity of spirit in the face of the unknown, and as such has contemporary meaning broader than its context alone.

In the conversation that follows, Victorian Opera conductor Phoebe Briggs interviews Christopher Sainsbury about the creation of the opera, and the significance of the timing of its premiere season.

Phoebe Briggs: Tell us about the origins of the commission of The Visitors for Victorian Opera. How did it come about, and why did you set this story and not another? Did you know of the play or any of Jane Harrison's other works?

Christopher Sainsbury: The Artistic Director of the company Richard Mills and I go back 40 years to when I was a student of his in composition and orchestration. I was lucky to learn from somebody with real skills. He had been watching a few things I was engaged in from afar and one day rang and said, "Have you got time to write an opera for us?" To work together professionally rather than as teacher-student I think had a kind of full circle meaning for both of us.

He asked me to pitch a story to him, and I asked him whether he wanted something specifically Indigenous, to which he said, "Maybe, but you choose, it's just got to be a good story". I had seen The Visitors as a play in Sydney in 2020 and met the playwright Jane Harrison then. I don't know other of her works. As a person descending from the Aboriginal people of Sydney (the Dharug/Eora), and as the story was about the day the tall ships arrived there in 1788, it had relevance to me. I asked Jane about setting it as an opera, and she was very pleased with the idea. She sent the play to Richard, and he agreed that it was a good and important story. That's how it started. After that the company negotiated Isaac Drandic to be director and so we had an all First Nations creative team in librettist, composer and director.

PB: Did you work with Jane Harrison to create the libretto?

CS: Not really. Richard worked closely with her on the libretto because a libretto is much shorter in nature than a play and needs to have that singable element too. He knows that stuff and she appreciated his input. My main suggestion was to change the fact that the play was for seven male characters, because I wanted a greater tonal variety than male only, and a wider pitch spectrum. Jane facilitated the change to four male and three female. Apart from that, at some points where I needed further lines in the creation of a song - where say one or two lines of the libretto gave rise to a song but were not enough to sustain a song, I added a few poetic or prosaic lines, yet I always kept in mind to keep the integrity of the character and the story. Such extra lines from me were very few.

PB: Is this your first opera? What is your method of preparation before you write an opera? What happens in the lead up to composing and what kind of preparations did you take? Could you perhaps elaborate on what you did on day 1 of composing the piece?

CS: Not the first. I wrote a children's operetta Dream Journey in 1989 which was commissioned and staged by the Lismore Conservatorium Centre. And I've written a few other theatrical works for solo voice and ensemble.

In terms of preparation, I find that preparing to write a large work is a reflective time. I think about the fact that I'm going to engage a whole company of people in a piece for a certain duration, and that it better be something with which they might have some affinity.

I also listened to many of my favourite short operas from the twentieth century and quite a few theatrical works for small forces. Pieces like Ravel's L'Heure Espagnole (1911), Dallapiccola's Volo di note (1938), Birtwistle's Punch and Judy (1967) and Henze's El Cimarron (1970). The Ravel is mostly syllabic sung dialogue, and he doesn't give us a chorus number until the last. The Dallapiccola is similar yet more complex and has two choruses (from memory). I like the directness of expression one gets from those kind of pared back approaches to the vocal writing, yet in my case I wrote a few more choruses and a little more counterpoint. ClassikON reviewed me as "Sainsbury is master of the chorus", which I think is funny given how much pared back writing there is, but maybe they were talking about the song 'Sorry Business' which is a salient 6-part chorus number, and perhaps a few other choruses like that one.

Form and texture were big considerations in my mind when reading through Jane's libretto. I think form and texture are the three-dimensional aspects of music that allow one to almost wrap your arms around a work, feel its fabric, or hold it like a piece of sculpture. It's got to have that physical sense for me in a theatrical work.

I decided on a numbers approach to form (Mozart, Bellini, Ravel, Birtwistle have all taken that approach at one time or another), which is where the story is delivered through a series of songs or items - numbers, yet notwithstanding necessary segments of intervening recitative which I also kept very song-like in nature.

I read through Jane's libretto on day one. I knew the play and noted again in the libretto that there were introductions of the characters one to another, three votes that they take throughout the libretto - on whether to welcome or shun 'the visitors', and a final welcome. Almost immediately, I found that these were going to be pillar moments of form. These I made more in the vein of my traditional Aboriginal music, thinking of the only two pieces I know from pre-colonial Sydney, my heritage. Yes, kind of in that style by employing elemental chant-like contours, a focus on rhythm, pared-back harmony, and often more stark orchestration. And in contrast I decided that the songs and the recitative would be the place for more elaborate lines, harmonies and orchestrations. I also wrote 'Shiny Ones' on the first day and sketched rough ideas for two other songs.

PB: There are a number of characters in the opera. Could you give us a brief description of each one and how you approached your musical ideas to capture the essence of each character? Did you have particular voice types in mind for each character? Did you compose with this particular cast in mind?

CS: There are seven characters comprised of six elders and one young person. The whole cast are First Nations people. These ranged from soprano through to bass, four men and three women. I had really hoped that Marcus Corowa would take the part of Jacob and was hearing his vocal style for that character while writing, same for Elias Wilson and the character of Gary - I knew his voice, and same for Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman and the character of Winsome. I knew them and their voices and had put them forward to the company. It was great that it worked out that they were offered and took the roles.

Of course, the libretto already is full of character traits and development, and so in the music I took the course to amplify that. Yet in addition, as all of these characters stem from the various clans of Sydney, indeed from the same place and from the same larger language group, and as they were facing the same situation with the coming of the visitors, to some extent I shared the same melodic material between them. It is almost like they are one character. This approach is less so for the songs but certainly in the structural points of the introductions and the votes, and in much of the recitative they are melodically linked in a very considered way. And this melodic material largely stems from local birdsongs of Sydney.

PB: Could you explain how you chose the instrumentation for The Visitors? Were there particular instruments or sounds that you imagined would represent each character?

CS: I didn't conceive of individual characters being represented by certain instruments. But in the drum kit/percussion part I used woodblocks to often preface or accompany the male characters, and cymbals for the female characters. I really integrated the drums/percussion with the characters on stage perhaps more than any of the other instrumental parts, just like the singing-percussion link in traditional music. Niko Schauble the drummer/percussionist for the show loved the approach for his featured role. The whole ensemble was constituted of string quintet, guitar - the only harmonic instrument, drum kit with ancillary percussion, flute, clarinet, horn, trumpet and trombone. At times the guitar uses an unusual harmonic system to make chords and lines which I employ when I want to suggest that things may not work out well for the locals. It is heard as a kind of bi-tonal drift, and cuts across the presiding harmonic material.

PB: You mention that impressionism, modernism, bird song of Sydney, jazz and traditional Aboriginal music of your area are all in the mix in terms of influences. You also talk of making the piece geo-specific to Sydney. Could you please expand on any of this and give us an example of these styles?

CS: I think it is easy enough for an experienced composer to synthesize their influences and loves in any work. I used various Sydney butcherbird songs to suggest the geo-specific place of Sydney. Also, I use a recurrent echo theme throughout the work to suggest the natural echoes we hear around the sandstone escarpments of Sydney and nearby areas. And the use of local language to a small degree - my own historical Dharug/Eora language makes up the third way that I create a locally specific sonic signature. The influence of Aboriginal music is in the structural points of the introductions, the three votes that they take, and the welcome song, and only in small ways at a few other points. I moderate it so that it doesn't sound cheap.

The work uses jazz influences which are tuneful and readily heard, but also modernism. I reserve any heightened modernism for certain sections where there is real drama in the work like the hanging scene and the final bewilderment of the cast after the welcome. There is a depth of modernist theory in practice behind these sections - the stuff of a paper at another time. As a composer, I think to share my sometimes-complex approach to music-making with a cast of First Nations singers, an approach that included tunes based on birdsong and angular modernist lines, was a win. They totally stepped up! It was an inevitable next step for the singers, for after all, our First Nations artists went there decades ago and are modernist leaders, albeit their modernism was developed from within their own remote and/or urban situations, not in academies.

The work also uses many impressionist traits inclusive of non-functional harmony, chords coloured by extensions, morphing of tone colours effected by the echo between instruments, often quite fast changing of colours and of instrumental techniques which creates a play of surface light, constant use of the birdsongs like fast short brushstrokes in many of the instrumental melodies and even to inform the vocal lines, and texture is very much to the fore.

It all seems to hang together, with the Canberra CityNews review noting the various stylistic influences and highlighting "a seamless musical feel".

PB: In the final song - 'The Welcome', the main melody is a limited range of only a third. That is really unusual for the climactic moment of any opera, perhaps unique. Why was that decision taken, and how did you make it effective?

CS: Yes, there are a few climax points - musically and emotionally, yet the 'Welcome' song lays claim to being the main one. Keeping to a limited range and contour was to bring it all back to the characters asserting themselves as First Nations people, as being from this place, as having traditions including musical traditions, and chanting together a welcome from their point of authority. To make it work with each reiteration of the chant I layered the voices and thickened the orchestration. I think it works a treat.

PB: There is a strong sense of irony in the timing of the premiere of this opera in October 2023, just five days after the referendum of the Voice to Parliament. In the opera, the cast take three votes on whether to welcome the visitors or to send them on their way. How did the referendum and its result impact upon final rehearsals and the premiere?

CS: We were in a Saturday evening rehearsal on the night the referendum was called. We were getting some feedback from the director Isaac Drandic when Jess Hitchcock (Joycie - soprano) checked her phone and said, "It's been called and it's no". I think we all felt a bit numb for a few minutes - black and white amongst the creators, the cast, the musicians and the production team, and we discussed it briefly in muted tones. And as a few people had brought in some Saturday night drinks and nibblies we broke there for the evening and started a bit of a social. Zoy Frangos (Gordon - tenor) put on some Greek music and the mood lifted, and many danced backstage at the Playhouse. It was much like a release. We actually had a good night despite the result. You know, it was like keep going, keep doing what you do best. The show opened just five days after the referendum, and the irony of Aboriginal people voting on the 26th of January in 1788 about whether to let the visitors in or send them away was not at all lost on both audience and reviewers.

"[Victorian Opera] are to be highly commended for this extraordinary commission." (Australian Arts Review 20 Oct 2023).

The Visitors
Christopher Sainsbury

Based on the play by Jane Harrison

Marcus Corowa, Zoy Frangos, Lillian Fromyhr, Jess Hitchcock, Eddie Muliaumaseali'i, Elias Wilson, Shauntai Sherree Abdul-Rahman.

For more information about the performance, visit Victorian Opera.

Subjects discussed by this article:

Phoebe Briggs: BMus (University of Melbourne). Opera Australia music staff 2002 – 2012, Head of Music at Victorian Opera since October 2012. For Victorian Opera, Phoebe has conducted Sunday in the Park with George, Play of Herod, Sweeney Todd, Cendrillon, Four Saints in Three Acts (Green Room nomination), The Sleeping Beauty (Green Room nomination), Lorelei, Black Rider (Helpmann nomination, VO/Malthouse), A Little Night Music (Green Room nomination), Happy End, A Christmas Carol, The Visitors. Other companies: Opera Australia, OzOpera, Stonnington Opera in the Park, Opera Northwest, IFAC, Ambassador Group, Chamber Made Opera, Melbourne Theatre Company.

Phoebe has appeared in concert in Australia, the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Japan.


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