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New Australian Opera: Eclectic, Ephemeral and Ethical

Timothy McKenry
| March 13, 2014

Like many of the Western world’s equivalent cultural institutions, the primary business of Australia’s larger opera companies is the production of works from the classical operatic canon.

However, many Australian companies display a commitment to the production of new Australian opera. Since 1990, nearly fifty new Australian operas have been registered with the Australian Music Centre, most being the result of commissions from opera companies. For example, since its inception, the Victorian Opera has consistently produced at least one new opera a year; Chamber Made Opera regularly produces new work ranging from chamber opera to innovative ‘Living Room’ operas that seek to build new audiences for contemporary opera, and other companies, including Opera Australia, have all commissioned and performed new works over the last twenty years. Considering the size of our population, it is clear that Australia is in possession of a vibrant tradition of new opera.

This tradition is ephemeral, however: most new Australian operas only ever enjoy a single season and, while recordings help build awareness of the Australian operatic repertoire and give some works a life beyond live performance, Australian opera companies and composers are well aware that, in the main, they are producing work designed for a single use. The fact that new operas are likely to be produced only once perhaps encourages practitioners to actively engage in the contemporary discourse surrounding issues of Australian culture and identity: the notion of writing for posterity appears to be a less relevant motivating force. While these two motivating factors are not mutually exclusive, an analysis of Australian operatic repertoire since 1990 reveals that a significant proportion of new opera has sought to depict aspects of Australian culture and history. Between 1990 and 2002 at least ten Australian operas were based either on events drawn from Australian history or on works of literature that sought to portray Australian life and culture.

These Australian-themed operas range from an intimate portrayal of a fictional Australian family’s Christmas celebration in Colin Brumby and Thomas Shapcott’s 1990 opera, Summer Carol to an operatic re-telling of actual events in Moya Henderson and Judith Rodriguez’ 1997 opera, Lindy (performed in 2002). Lindy depicts the trial, imprisonment and subsequent exoneration of Lindy Chamberlain following the death of her nine-week-old baby during a camping trip near Uluru. Some of these operas embody an idealised Australian settler history, such as Betty Beath and David Cox’ Abigail and the Bushranger (1974, revised 1992), while others present a postcolonial reading of historical events such as Richard Mills and Peter Goldsworthy’s Batavia. Still other operas have sought to depict actual events that occurred in countries close to Australia – events that have resonated greatly in the Australian psyche. These include Martin and Peter Wesley-Smith’s Quito (1994) which, via a pseudo-documentary style of narrative, speaks of contemporary events in East Timor, and Colin Bright and Amanda Stewart’s Sinking of the Rainbow Warrior (1997) which tells of the sinking of the Greenpeace ship in New Zealand by members of the French foreign intelligence services in 1985.

From 2002 to 2009, this trend altered, with few new operas referencing actual events in Australian history: Gordon Kerry’s collaboration with the Indigenous rock group Nokturnl, Ingkata, a bi-cultural opera examining the relationship between anthropologist Ted Strehlow and the Aranda people being a rare exception. For most of the first decade of the twenty-first century, Australian composers and librettists have instead shown an increased interest in basing opera on folk myths, non-Australian works of literature and plays from antiquity. Since 2000, two Australian composers have based operas on Shakespeare’s Tempest and there have been two adaptations of works by Lewis Carroll. Myth from a range of cultures has also provided the inspiration for new Australian opera, notably Julian Yu’s Possessed (2003), which is based on a Chinese myth, and Richard Mills and Timberlake Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale which is based on a Greek legend. It is only recently that this tendency to eschew overt interactions with the materials of Australian culture has begun to wane. Operas such as Andrew Shultz and Glenn Perry’s The Children’s Bach (2008) after the novel by Helen Garner, and Brett Dean and Amanda Holden’s Bliss (2010), based on the book by Peter Carey, both feature fictionalised Australian settings, and Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer (2010) and Gordon Kerry and Louis Nowra’s Midnight Son (2012), seek to depict actual events in recent Australian history.

It can be posited that the change in behaviour on the part of composers, librettists and opera companies in the first decade of the twenty-first century is not coincidental, but is the result of a confluence of cultural and political factors that extend beyond the sphere of opera. Numerous Australian academics have identified a phenomenon known variously as the history or culture ‘wars’. With the election of the conservative Howard Government in 1996, there was a backlash against what the Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey described in 1993 as the ‘black armband’ view of history. Numerous historians and cultural commentators have described how the Howard Government went about actively pursuing a ‘culture war’ by using the political power of incumbency to end what it saw as the stifling ‘political correctness’ promulgated by the left side of politics. Considering the reliance that organisations such as Opera Australia have on government funding, it is possible that the change in behaviour with regard to the creation of new Australian opera was the result of a changed political environment: an environment where postcolonial or iconoclastic versions of Australian history were not welcome. While it is impossible to gauge the extent to which an entire nation’s operatic community could be cowed into changing their behaviour as a result of a change in government, when one considers the three- to four-year lead time that exists between the commissioning and performance of an opera, it is apparent that this change began to occur within two years of the election of the Howard Government.

One opera that is intimately concerned with issues of cultural identity is Moya Henderson and Judith Rodriguez’s Lindy. While it was commissioned in 1991 and completed in 1997, the work was not performed until 2002. The performance of this opera is significant in that it is the last opera of its kind. For the better part of a decade since, no major Australian opera company sought to stage an opera that depicts Australian historical events. Considering the fact that prior to 2002 Australia had developed a robust tradition of opera that openly contributed to contemporary social discourse through the use of Australian settings and actual events, it is legitimate to ask why Australia’s opera companies have, seemingly en masse, changed their behaviour in this regard.

A more nuanced explanation for the change in focus of Australia’s recent operatic repertoire speaks not of political interference into cultural activity but instead of a broader, positive re-assessment of cultural practice. Lindy represents an extraordinary attempt to hold a mirror up to Australian society with regard to issues such as sexism, sectarianism, racism and the abuse of power. For example, the opera seeks to show how the evidence of Indigenous trackers, who always maintained that a dingo had dragged Lindy Chamberlain’s daughter away from her tent and killed her, was ignored in favour of a white ‘expert’ who claimed it was impossible for a dingo to attack a human or drag a baby any distance. The favouring of Western knowledge over Indigenous wisdom, in part, resulted in the eponymous Lindy’s imprisonment for murder.

In the 1997 score of the opera, the creators employed a conventional Western-style narrative to depict the experience of the Indigenous characters: they were overtly shown presenting the testimony they gave, and aspects of Indigenous spirituality were invoked using Indigenous language and melodic material designed to imitate various modes of Indigenous music. However, the recording of the 2002 production reveals that numerous changes were made to the way the opera dealt with these Indigenous characters: rather than an overt depiction, the characters’ testimony was quoted by a defence lawyer, and all of the Indigenous language and pseudo-Indigenous melodic material was removed. The changes were likely brought about as a result of an emerging cultural awareness of the sensitivities and sensibilities of Australian Indigenous peoples. The initial decision to give the Indigenous trackers a role in the opera may have seemed like an empowering act. However, the prospect of having a non-Indigenous Australian take on the role of an Indigenous tracker would have been increasingly unpalatable to both the practitioners of opera and the Australian audience. Furthermore, Australian Indigenous cultures often refrain from making reference to individuals who have died: expecting Indigenous singers to take on the role would have been equally insulting. The practice of Western composers writing pseudo-Indigenous music has also become a taboo. Whereas once, such a practice was seen as a means to create a distinctly Australian idiom of art music, it is now seen as paternalistic, insensitive and emblematic of Western appropriation and exploitation of Indigenous culture.

The extended time from the completion of the score in 1997 to its performance in 2002 perhaps gave the creators of the opera time to reflect on the ethical framework that informed their interaction with the materials of Australian culture and come to terms with the notion that not only the content, but also the means of conveying that content, needs to be tempered by a cultural awareness that takes into account the range of sensitivities that exist in contemporary, multicultural Australian society. After all, an opera that seeks to comment on past social abuse has little authority if it is guilty of a similar abuse.

Opera Australia’s experience with Lindy perhaps resulted in Australian producers of opera pausing in their efforts to contribute to the Australian social discourse. It can be posited that this, in combination with the changed political environment, accounts for the eschewing of overt references to Australian history. This is not to say that Australian opera has retreated entirely from interacting with controversial social issues. One recent opera makes covert, but significant statements about contemporary issues. The Love of the Nightingale uses the story of Tereus and Philomele to comment on the victimisation of women. Variations on the phrase “we have no words” infuse Wertenbaker’s libretto and function as a metaphor for the power of violence: it not only harms, but silences the vulnerable. The opera generally employs a complex tonal structure characterised by a highly embellished triadic vocabulary. Throughout the length of the opera, unadorned triads are seldom used. However, prior to the mythic transformation of the characters into birds, the narrative of the drama is interrupted and, quite separate to the plot of the piece, questions such as “why are women attacked in car parks?” are posed to the audience. These questions are accompanied by a rare use of unadorned major and minor triads. This device functions as a powerful reminder to the audience that the violence depicted in the opera (including the rape and mutilation of Philomele) ought not to be viewed as something designed to entertain, but rather something that should be mourned and condemned.

More recently producers of Australian opera have found the confidence to again overtly interact with aspects of Australia’s past. For example, Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer celebrates a previously little-known aspect of Indigenous history – namely the abandonment of the Cummeragunji Mission by its Indigenous residents in 1939 – which, as an act of cultural self-determination, was a watershed moment for the Indigenous communities involved. In being composed by an Indigenous person and with Indigenous roles in the opera being performed by Indigenous opera singers, the work can be seen as a result of the broad cultural reassessment that has taken place in the Australian art music community with regard to the handling of Indigenous issues. The challenges associated with the excision of the Indigenous elements in Lindy discussed previously, bear fruit in Pecan Summer, as it is ultimately Indigenous people who, as custodians of their own stories, must take the lead in using an art form like opera to share these stories with the broader Australian community.

The future of opera as a voice in the contemporary Australian cultural discourse will depend on the capacity of the creators of new works to navigate the challenges of dealing with the realities of the political clime and developing an ethical framework to deal with the telling of our own stories. If this interregnum between the telling of distinctly Australian stories were evidence of collective self-censorship to protect government funding – or worse, overt political interference in the operation of Australian cultural institutions – then new Australian opera, as a mechanism for cultural discourse, would be revealed as inconstant. Such a conclusion is belied by the active, but veiled cultural engagement identified in works like Love of the Nightingale. This interregnum is better understood as evidence of artists collectively re-examining how Australian stories are told. If this is indeed the case, then such a pause will result in stronger, more powerful social statements being made through opera.

Abstract

Australian opera in the 1990s was characterised by an overt interest in telling and re-telling the stories of Australia’s immediate past. From the building of the Sydney Opera House to the trial of Lindy Chamberlain, numerous operas from this period explicitly engaged in social discourse designed to challenge prevailing notions of Australian cultural identity. Conversely, in the first decade of the twenty-first century, Australian opera has increasingly employed Classical myth and European literature as the impetus for libretto and plot, eschewing an overt focus on Australian cultural material. This article examines the Australian operatic repertoire of the period and, through case studies focussing on various operas, explores the changing modes of social commentary embodied within the repertoire. Through an examination of actual operas and the commentary surrounding Australian opera this paper posits that while the repertoire is marked by diverse approaches to music style and idiom, it is nevertheless united by either overt or covert interactions with contemporary Australian social discourse.

Title Photo Credit: Peter Coleman-Wright (Harry Joy) & Lorina Gore (Honey B) in Opera Australia’s ‘Bliss’ MA10 Photo By Jeff Busby

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