A composer’s lifelong path to
Oscar and Lucinda
By Annarosa Berman

To music lovers it might seem that composer Elliott Gyger arrived on the opera scene fully formed in 2015, when Sydney Chamber Opera premiered his Fly Away Peter. But speaking to Gyger on the first day of rehearsals for his second opera, Oscar and Lucinda, one realises that this composer’s journey began on the day he was born   

The son of opera critic David Gyger and music academic Alison Gyger, listening to and attending opera was like eating breakfast to Elliott. He was four and a half when he wrote his first piece of music, a song of which his parents wrote down the words, and not much older when he attended his first opera performance, an open dress rehearsal of the first two acts of Aida, at the Sydney Opera House. Gyger remembers being entranced by the spectacle, but frightened by the noise. “During the triumphal scene I hid under a chair!” he laughs.   

At six he attended his first full-length opera, The Magic Flute. “I was delighted,” he remembers. Nothing about it seemed strange; moreover, when studying languages later at school, he found that Italian, French and German came very naturally to him. “I’d heard them sung around the house for years.”

Gyger wrote his first formal piece of music at nine. He blames his flute teacher, Belinda Webster, now director of the Tall Poppies classical music recording label, for the event. “In class one week she told us that for homework we had to write a solo piece for flute. Next week we came back and I was the only one who’d actually done it. So I can credit Belinda Webster with the start of my composition career.”

His first hands-on opera experience came when he was in the children’s chorus for three Australian Opera productions: Boris GodunovLa Bohème and Tosca. He remembers it as an introduction to the making of opera: the rehearsal process, the difference between a piano score and a full score, the vocal ranges, the mechanics of getting around a stage.

He also remembers the Act I church scene in Tosca, and the coronation scene in Boris Godunov, as pivotal in triggering his decision to become a composer. “Both scenes have amazing orchestral representations of bells, with the harmony powerfully invoking both sonority and emotion. It was almost overwhelming to be on stage with that music playing around you. I wondered if I could write music that would make people feel the same way.”

The path to true love is seldom without obstacles though, and in his late teens Gyger experienced “a bit of a reaction” against the high melodrama of the operatic canon. He loved the Australian Opera’s Britten and Janáček productions though. Two key pieces from this time were Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, a kind of operatic theme and variations, and Berg’s Wozzeck, built from tiny pieces constructed with precision and power. These works taught Gyger that an orderly musical structure enables a composer to take risks with extremes of emotion and contrast, a lesson that would stand him in good stead when years later he wrote his own operas.

While still in his teens he did begin to write an opera, only to realise, half a scene in, that he didn’t know what he was doing. “I was trying to run before I could walk.” He would not try again for many years. Having graduated from Sydney University, where he studied composition with Ross Edwards and Peter Sculthorpe, he headed for Harvard, where he completed his PhD in Composition under the guidance of Bernard Rands, who’d taught Anne Boyd, and Argentinian composer Mario Davidovsky.

He spent four more years teaching at Harvard before returning to Australia. “The US is so vast, it’s very easy for composers to forget that there’s a world outside it,” he says. “The advantage of being smaller and further away from the big cultural magnets of Europe, is that we can be more open to cultural influences from elsewhere. Asia for example.”

Having focused on choral and instrumental writing in his early career, a turning point for Gyger was From the Hungry Waiting Country, premiered by Halcyon in 2006, in which he combined vocal and instrumental music for the first time. When SCO was established in 2010, founding member Louis Garrick approached him with a view to doing a project with the company. Fly Away Peter grew from that.

Fly Away Peter, performed at Carriagework, 2015

Chatting for this article on the first day of rehearsals for Oscar and Lucinda, Gyger says it does not surprise him that Brett Dean had found another Peter Carey novel, Bliss, suitable for his 2011 opera debut. “Both Oscar and Lucinda and Bliss turn the realistic into the surreal and the transcendent. That’s opera. You walk into a room and people are singing – realism is not an option.” Opera also excels at depicting characters with rich internal states of mind. “Oscar and Lucinda has dramatic confrontations, arguments, a love story, but those things are only interesting when the composer puts us inside the minds of the protagonists.”

In Fly Away Peter the principal image was that of birds in flight, and consequently the music was horizontal. “It was all about long lines and arches through space.” Oscar and Lucinda the novel, by contrast, consists of many tiny chapters. “Peter Carey’s aim seems to have been to tell a story in shards.” Thus, Gyger has created a vertical musical landscape, with the kaleidoscope as its guiding image. “The two central ideas of the novel are glass and chance. The kaleidoscope captures both: if you turn it, the pieces of glass inside fall randomly into an arrangement. You think you’re seeing a pattern, but in fact it’s just randomness multiplied to create the illusion of a pattern. If you turn the kaleidoscope again, the same elements re-assemble themselves into a completely new pattern.” Similarly, the music in Oscar and Lucinda is like the constant resetting of a kaleidoscope. “It’s as if the listener is being told to have a look at the view through the kaleidoscope, then told that the kaleidoscope has been turned and the image has fallen in a new place.”

Although by the time he wrote Fly Away Peter he was very confident of his musical skills, Gyger learned many lessons from his first opera. The most important one was to trust his collaborators. “I wasn’t sure that my music and Pierce Wilcox’s words had created believable characters. But the singers took our material and turned it into characters in front of our very eyes.” He also learned to have faith in the production team. “Whatever I imagined Fly Away Peter to look like on stage, it was far less interesting than what my collaborators had created.” He remembers spending an afternoon with the lighting designer. “Magic was happening right there on stage.”​

The two central ideas of the novel [Oscar and Lucinda] are glass and chance. The kaleidoscope captures both: if you turn it, the pieces of glass inside fall randomly into an arrangement.

These days he doesn’t often go to mainstream opera. “But I probably should, because every time I do go I learn something. Marriage of Figaro, for exampleis in some ways an unsurpassable peak of the most amazing perceptiveness in terms of human character. And Rosenkavalier is in many ways an early 20th century version of that. I learn something every time I see these works.” And not only these works. At a recent performance of Pinchgut’s production of Ulysses, a piece he’d never heard, he was struck by how, within decades of opera being invented, Monteverdi was already doing “absolutely extraordinary things with characters on stage.”

Gyger has ideas for several more operas. Turning them into reality would depend on opportunities. “One thing I value at SCO is the creative freedom they’ve given me. They’ve never been alarmed by anything I’ve proposed. I’ll always be looking for that kind of freedom and mutual respect.”

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