Photo essays by Bridget Elliot
In March 2010, the lights go up on a new Australian opera, based on Peter Carey's novel Bliss, composed by Brett Dean to libretto by Amanda Holden. In the hectic months leading up to the premiere on 12 March, photographer Bridget Elliot has been behind the scenes, documenting the process.
- Photo Essay #1 — Workshopping Bliss
- Perspective #1 — Brett Dean, composer
- Photo Essay #2 — Set Construction
- Perspective #2 — Amanda Holden, librettist
- Photo Essay #3 — Rehearsing Bliss with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
- Perspective #3 — Bliss from novel to libretto to opera (Michael Halliwell)
- NEW! Photo Essay #4 — Taking to the Stage
Perspective #1 — Brett Dean, composer
A dear former colleague of mine in the Berlin Philharmonic used to remark about our job, 'Well, it sure beats working for a living.' I've thought of his words frequently in these last few days. As I write, I'm a couple of weeks into rehearsals for my first opera, Bliss, and it's quite simply one of the most exciting and rewarding projects that I've had the privilege to be involved in. With my treasured librettist, Amanda Holden, by my side, we are witnessing the cast, chorus and music staff of OA, directed by Neil Armfield and conducted by Elgar Howarth, bringing our work to vivid life, bit by bit, day by day.
After a long gestation period (I was first approached by OA to write a main-stage opera over 10 years ago), to have now started work in earnest on the piece with a cast already so well prepared is nothing short of a joy. The level of commitment Opera Australia has shown in realising Bliss was already evident nearly 18 months ago when we started a substantial series of workshops. It's been a process tinged with sadness too: the first workshops in October 2008 were conducted by the late Richard Hickox, who was to conduct the opera in its premiere season and is tragically no longer with us. These photos are taken from the subsequent workshops, firstly with the full cast in Melbourne in May of last year, and later from the orchestral workshops held in Sydney last October.
There's been many hours of effort from many people to get us to this stage of the process, and with just over a month till opening night there's still quite a way to go, but it sure beats working for a living!
Peter Carey's Bliss is a dazzling whirlwind of a novel and an inspired choice as the source for an opera. When I joined the project as librettist early in 2007, Brett Dean had already been nurturing his idea for some years – in 2004, his orchestral suite Moments of Bliss, based around key events in the novel, had been premiered – and was ready to get started on the opera.
My task was to rework Peter Carey's ideas to suit the opera's needs and produce a text that was faithful to the spirit of the novel, but also one for singers to sing and audiences to hear and, crucially, one that might inspire and support Brett's brilliant and highly individual music.
No opera librettos I know (apart from Pelléas, Elektra, Wozzeck, all based on plays) quote directly from their literary sources, and this libretto is about 9,000 words, perhaps less than a tenth of the length of the novel. I took the story to pieces, distilled it and rebuilt it for the stage, like a massive multi-dimensional jigsaw. Not surprisingly, a lot is left out, but some new ideas also arrived – for instance the quirky 'Ballad of Little Titch', the act III chorus, inspired by Paradise Lost, and the final 'Sonnet', after Milton. The opera uses short scenes, sharply contrasted - a feature of the book - which offered us a panoply of colourful characters and situations to contrast and interact with the central protagonist, Harry Joy. It has been fun to write solos, ensembles, choruses and dialogue in a style that is hopefully both Careyesque and colloquially Australian. Now we are two weeks from opening night and everyone's contributions are being drawn together; it is an understatement to say how very much I am looking forward to seeing and hearing the finished work.
24 February 2010
Amanda Holden trained as a musician in the UK. She has written several librettos and translated about fifty for stage performance; she is also the founder-editor of the Viking/Penguin Opera Guides.
Famous works of literature have provided the librettos for many of the greatest operas and it is the task of the librettist to create a verbal framework which the composer expands and transforms through the music – the librettist is the first interpreter of the novel and decides which aspects of the narrative, characters and situation to include and which to jettison, obviously in collaboration with the composer. Most opera librettos are surprisingly short, but this apparent simplification is essential in creating a viable opera. In the correspondence of the great composer/librettist collaborations such as Verdi and Boito or Strauss and von Hoffmannsthal, there is the continual demand from the composer for fewer rather than more words, and particularly for words and phrases that go to the core of the situation and emotion. Verdi spoke of the parola scenica ('scenic word'): words or short phrases which should capture the essence of the emotion and drama of a particular scene and make it immediately comprehensible.
Librettist Amanda Holden has expertly distilled Carey’s novel in terms of its characters, situations and narrative trajectory, creating a palindromic structure with the two outer acts having five scenes each, and the central act being one extended, but segmented, scene. Bliss frequently illustrates opera’s unique capacity to have scenes occurring simultaneously, in ensembles, thus achieving a sense of an elastic timeframe where 'real', or chronological time is suspended, and 'operatic' or 'psychological' time operates.
A striking aspect of Bliss is the sustained referencing of Dante, expanding and deepening Carey’s often bleak vision of contemporary society while retaining and celebrating the many comic aspects of the novel. This includes the naming of the scenes such as 'Death and Transfiguration', 'The Decent into Hell', 'Limbo', and 'In Elysium', as well as more explicit references such as the opening of Act Three, 'Bedlam', where the chorus sing: 'Abandon hope, you who enter here....You might compare this to Dante's Hell....We are the garbage of the modern age, detritus of the survival trade; we are depression, drugs and drink, the losers who failed to make the grade.' The ‘Cancer Map’ of Act Two might be a contemporary version of Dante’s map of Hell.
A new opera comes with a 400-year history behind it. Bliss has humorous moments of direct quotation such as Honey B's entrance which briefly echoes Mimi and Rodolfo’s meeting in La Bohème. Dean’s circus band echoes the military band of Wozzeck, but his music also has much of the highly charged emotional content of its acclaimed predecessor. There is an ironic view of incestuous brother/sister relationships with comic elements paralleling the decidedly less comic relationship between Siegmund and Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre. But it is in the accumulative emotional texture of music and text where opera’s history is most apparent. Bliss has music of striking originality coupled with an outstanding libretto reflecting our contemporary world, but is still firmly rooted in the grand tradition of this most glorious of art forms.
Dr Michael Halliwell, associate professor of vocal Studies and opera at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music University of Sydney, has a passion for both opera and literature. Formerly principal baritone with the Netherlands Opera, Hamburg State Opera and Nurnberg Opera, he was awarded his PhD in 1995 for his study of the adaptation of fiction into contemporary opera, He is currently writing a book on the adaptation of drama into contemporary opera.
Brett Dean & Amanda Holden: Bliss
World premiere: Sydney Opera House 12 March 2010
Opera Australia - directed by Neil Armfield, conducted by Elgar Howarth
Sydney season (Sydney Opera House) 12-30 March - details
Melbourne season (The Arts Centre) 20 April - 1 May - details
Brett Dean - AMC profile
Opera Australia - Bliss
'Bliss' - a review by Peter McCallum in The Sydney Morning Herald
'Compelling mutation of a Peter Carey masterwork' - a review by Murray Black in The Australian
'Making sense of music and text with Neil Armfield' - article (Opera Australia website)
Finding the lightness in Harry Joy - interview with Peter Coleman-Wright (Opera Australia website)
David on David in Bliss - interview with David Corcoran (Opera Australia website)
More Bliss work details - Boosey & Hawkes website