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IN SONG BIOS

IN SONG
BIOGRAPHIES

Jane Sheldon is an Australian-American soprano and composer. Praised by the New York Times for singing “sublimely”, the Sydney Morning Herald for “a brilliant tour de force”, and The Washington Post for “a stunning performance”, Jane has established an international reputation for performing highly specialized contemporary chamber opera and art music for voice.

She has appeared with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, Pinchgut Opera, Ekmeles (USA), Talea Ensemble (USA), Sound Icon (USA), Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon, the Australian String Quartet, and Sydney Chamber Opera, where she is an Artistic Associate. She has appeared at numerous international arts festivals including Lincoln Centre Festival, Jerusalem Sacred Music Festival, Prototype Festival, Huddersfield Contemporary Music Festival, and Sydney Festival. Described as “riveting” (New York Times) and “gripping” (Limelight Magazine), Jane’s compositions focus on the body in altered or transformative states.

She is a 2021 Artist in Residence at the Sydney Observatory with Imara Savage and Elizabeth Gadsby. 

Anna Fraser has gained a reputation as a versatile soprano specialising predominantly in the interpretation of early and contemporary repertoire. Anna has had the pleasure of performing in a myriad of traditional and exploratory programming expertly demonstrating the versatility and virtuosity of a cappella singing. Anna is a graduate of the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and New England Conservatory (Boston) and furthered her studies in the Britten-Pears Young Artist Program featuring as a soloist at the Aldeburgh Festival (UK) under the direction of Richard Egarr and Antony Rolfe-Johnson. Equally at home as a dramatist on the stage presenting opera and historically informed chamber music, Anna is a strong exponent in music education, particularly with Moorambilla Voices, Gondwana Choirs, and NIDA as a guest lecturer.

Anna performs extensively with a number of Australia’s professional ensembles including Pinchgut Opera (since 2004 with notable roles in L’Orfeo, Dardanus, L’Ormindo, Castor et Pollux) and Cantillation, Sydney Chamber Opera (Dusapin’s Passion, Finsterer’s Biographica), Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Ironwood, The Acacia Quartet, Ensemble Offspring, Halcyon, Taikoz; Bach Akadamie Australia, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Salut! Baroque, Sydney Consort and Thoroughbass.

Anna performed as a core ensemble member of the Song Company for over a decade and has collaborated with international ensembles such as period specialists The Wallfisch Band (Bach Unwrapped cantata programmes at Kings Place, London) and the New Zealand String Quartet (Adam Chamber Music Festival, NZ; Canberra International Music Festival).

With a career that has spanned 4 continents, 85 operatic roles from the baroque to the newly composed, high respect as a pedagogue, a Helpmann Award nomination and superlative press reviews, Simon Lobelson has established himself as one of the most versatile baritones of his generation. Born in Sydney of Egyptian parents and brought up in Brussels, Simon graduated with distinction from Royal College of Music on scholarship, then studied with Sir Donald McIntyre and has since worked extensively as a soloist in Australia, the Middle East, Asia, the UK and Europe.

Oratorio appearances have included almost all the mainstream oratorio repertoire at venues such as the Sydney Opera House, Queen Elizabeth Hall, St. Johns Smith Square, St. Martin-in-the-Fields, Birmingham Symphony Hall, Sydney Town Hall and with the London Mozart Players, Sydney Symphony Orchestra, Australian Haydn Ensemble, Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, English Chamber Orchestra, Israel Camerata and the Lucerne Festival, under such conductors as Pierre Boulez, Charles Dutoit, Daniel Reuss, Reinbert de Leeuw, Richard Bonynge, Simon Halsey and Paul McCreesh. 

Simon has performed with many opera companies including Royal Opera House Covent Garden, English National Opera, Opera Australia, Young Vic, Pinchgut Opera, Sydney Chamber Opera and Canberra International Music Festival, in roles such as Amfortas, Escamillo, Rigoletto, Alberich, Marcello, Ford, Germont, Figaro, Michele and Don Alfonso, under such directors as Jean-Claude Auvray, Patrick Nolan, Ian Judge, John Copley, Bruno Ravella, Melly Still, Cheryl Barker and Jude Kelly. A champion of contemporary music, and creator of copious world premiere operatic roles, his recent performances as the main role in Metamorphosis for Opera Australia attracted outstanding press reviews and a Helpmann Award nomination.

He has recorded for Chandos and ABC Classics and is a vocal professor, lecturer and coach at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, a judge for the Sydney Eisteddfod and has given masterclasses in Australia and China. He is also completing his doctorate on Vocalism in Contemporary Opera through Sydney University, on a RTP Commonwealth Government Scholarship Award.

Australian mezzo-soprano Emily Edmonds was a Jette Parker Young Artist at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 2015-2017. 

Most recently, Emily recorded the role of L’Enfant for an acclaimed virtual production of Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges, produced by Vopera and the London Philharmonic Orchestra. In 2020, she performed the UK premiere of Venables’ acclaimed Denis & Katya, and toured the piece throughout the UK with Music Theatre Wales. 

In November 2019, Emily performed the role of Dorabella in Classical Opera Company’s Così fan tutte, in London. In September 2019, Emily made her US debut, performing Philip Venables’ Denis & Katya for Opera Philadelphia. Earlier in 2019, she sang the title role of L’enfant in Ravel’s L’enfant et les sortilèges at the Komische Oper Berlin. Emily also performed the role of Varvara in Richard Jones’ Olivier award-winning new production of Katya Kabanova, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. In December 2018, Emily appeared as Semira in Pinchgut Opera’s award-winning Australian Premiere of Hasse’s Artaserse. Pinchgut Live label has now released their CD recording of this performance. 

In the 2016/17 season, Emily performed the roles of Madrigal Singer (Manon Lescaut), Kate Pinkerton (Madama Butterfly), and Tebaldo (Don Carlo) for the Royal Opera. She also performed the role of Agathe/Dargelos in Glass’ Les Enfants Terribles for the Royal Ballet, at the Barbican. In 2016/17 she covered the roles of Dorabella (Così fan tutte), Magdalene (Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), and Emilia (Otello) for the Royal Opera. 

Her roles in the 2015/16 season included Aglaea/Atropos/Bacchus (Orpheus) at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse, Shakespeare’s Globe, and Alms Sister (Suor Angelica), Käthchen (Werther), for the Royal Opera. Emily was also one of the six cast members in the world premiere of Philip Venables’ critically acclaimed new opera 4.48 Psychosis at the Lyric Hammersmith.

Emily holds a First Class Honours degree in Vocal Performance from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. She was the Dame Nellie Melba Scholar and Patrick & Vivian Gordon awardee for the Melba Opera Trust. In 2015, Emily was awarded an Australia Council for the Arts ArtStart grant, in support of her vocal and language development abroad. She is an awardee of the Australian Music Foundation and the Tait Memorial Trust. Emily is also a recipient of the Dame Heather Begg Memorial Award. 

Emily’s theatrical training background is extensive and has involved productions, national touring, and comprehensive acting study with the Australian Theatre for Young People, and the Fresh Ink project. Pursuing her passion for theatre-making, she was Staff Director on the revival of Richard Jones’ Der Rosenkavalier in the 2018 Glyndebourne Festival season. 

In July 2015 Emily performed the role of Asteria in Pinchgut Opera’s production of Vivaldi’s Bajazet. In 2014 she sang Elgar’s Sea Pictures with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, as part of the Discovery Series. She also sang the role of Dritte Magd for the SSO’s concert performance of Strauss’s Elektra. In the 2014 Sydney Festival she performed in the Australian premiere of George Benjamin’s Into the Little Hill for Sydney Chamber Opera. She also performed the role of Kate Julian in Britten’s Owen Wingrave, for Sydney Chamber Opera.

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Florescence, Decay and the Body

Florescence, Decay
& The Body

By Jane Sheldon

One of the primary images woven into this month-long song installation is that of the garden, the setting for both Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten (The Book of the Hanging Gardens), sung by Anna Fraser, and Fauré’s La Chanson d’Ève (The Song of Eve), sung by me. These cycles are old by SCO standards; both were premiered in 1910 (although fragments of the Fauré had been presented earlier.) Both are performed too rarely. Some of the works in our series address us very much from the perspective of the intellect, but in the Fauré and the Schoenberg the body is where everything registers.

In both cycles the garden is intoxicating, all-consuming, but the dispositions of each protagonist couldn’t be more different: Eve awakens in Eden, embarking on a day of sublime discovery, while Schoenberg’s protagonist stumbles through a garden in decay, lovesick and reeling. Both works are sung in the present in a sense; we’re witness to something unfolding in real time for a single psychology. In the Schoenberg we’re in a kind of Babylon, perhaps, and in the Fauré we’re in Eden, but where we really are is in the sensorium of each protagonist. La Chanson d’Ève sets poems by Charles van Lerberghe and it is worth noting how unusual they are. If you hadn’t heard of Adam and wanted a fully-furnished picture of Judeo-Christian cosmology, this cycle is not going to help you; refreshingly, Adam never shows. We only ever hear from Eve, apparently waking in the garden alone, discovering it alone. But it’s not only the care taken over the singularity of Eve’s experience that is special here. It’s also that the experience is one of the garden making itself known to Eve’s body. As in song five, L’aube blanche:

A ray of light touches

The pale flower of my blue eyes;

A flame awakens my mouth,

A breeze awakens my hair.

The music itself is revealed like a garden coming into being, unfolding from incredibly simple elements, single pitches emerging one by one, until we are suddenly aware that we are deep in rich harmony, the garden in full bloom. Eve’s body is foregrounded all the while. We know as early as the third song, Roses ardentes, that Eve has arrived at an ecstatic, sublime conflation of her self with the garden. By song seven, the eroticism of this merging is clear:

Are you awake, my fragrant sun,

Scent of blonde bees,

Do you float across the world,

My sweet scent of honey?

At night, when my steps

Prowl in the silence,

Do you, who perfume my lilacs,

And my vivid roses, proclaim me?

Am I like a bunch of fruit

Hidden in the foliage,

That nothing reveals

But whose fragrance is felt at night?

Does he know, at this hour,

That I am loosening my tresses

And that they are breathing?

Does he sense it on earth?

Does he sense that I reach out my arms,

And that my voice – which he cannot hear –

Is fragrant

With lilies from my valleys?

The ultimate disintegration of self into garden comes at song ten, O mort, poussières d’étoiles, an expression of desire for ecstatic self-annihilation:

…It is into you I want to be absorbed,

To be extinguished and dissolved,

Death, to which my soul aspires!

Come, break me like a flower of foam,

A flower of sun in the crest

Of the waves,

And as if from a golden amphora,

A wine of heavenly fragrance,

Pour my soul

Into your abyss, that it might perfume

The dark earth and the breath of the dead.

In contrast to the sublime ecstasy of the Fauré, Schoenberg’s Das Buch der hängenden Gärten is a dark and beautiful bruise, charting the torments of love in decay, and written at a time of great turmoil in Schoenberg’s marriage. The work was Schoenberg’s first entirely atonal work and it is heady and lush, quite gorgeously sickening at moments; for the protagonist it is a thoroughly arousing sort of pain. I’m going to quote repeatedly from Allen Shawn’s biography, Arnold Schoenberg’s Journey, because it’s a truly wonderful book, terrible title notwithstanding. To borrow a map from Shawn, the songs travel through “vague anticipation (1, 2) and longing (3,4,5) to obsession (6,7,8), frustration (9), reverie (10), brief consummation (11), and finally doomed resignation (12, 13, 14, 15).”

From the final song:

The pond’s glass fades and breaks

And I stumble lost in the rotting grass.

Palms prickle with their spiky fingers.

Crumbling leaves in a sibilant mass

Are driven by invisible hands

Around this Eden’s sallow walls…

What is foregrounded for the most part is not the personage of the beloved, not their features or their actions; rather, what is rendered in extremely fine detail is the slowly rotting garden and its contents, observed by the singer staggering lovesick through meadows of flowers. Through the metaphor of the garden, what is most salient to us is the way that heartbreak tastes, smells, and feels, the oppressive dis-ease of it.

Schoenberg took these fifteen poems from a much larger work by Stefan George, which charts a more explicit storyline, but the composer’s selections leave us only the emotional dimension. Structurally speaking, Stefan George’s poetry is full of classical order, but Schoenberg’s music pays no heed to whatever structural constraints might be found in the poems, somehow concealing the rigidity of meter to reveal the emotional dimension of the poem with greater clarity. On this, Shawn quotes H. H. Stuckenschmidt, another Schoenberg biographer: “George’s strict meters are as it were unmasked by Schoenberg… Schoenberg’s sounds and rhythms shine behind this order and disclose the spiritual organism which lies behind it.”

George’s poems, with their themes of exquisite disorientation, served to support some of Schoenberg’s most radical musical gestures. It is George who lends text to Schoenberg’s second string quartet, in which he announces that he is, before our very ears, going to gently and decisively snip the tether from the spacecraft to send us floating off into free atonality, seeding a musical language for Das Buch der hängenden Gärten and beyond.

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The Art of Song

The Art of Song

By Jack Symonds

In curating the four hours of voice-and-piano music that make up IN SONG, Jane Sheldon and I hope to shed a bit of light on a body of work we’re fanatically passionate about: modern art song. This pretentious genre title is unfortunate: it smacks of fusty music lectures about, say, German word painting in Schubert (wonderful as it is!), and a certain privileged, intellectual arrogance that seems to bedevil this repertoire. This music is seen as the preserve of the few and inaccessible to the many. “Art” song, indeed. I suppose the title is only useful to mark an arbitrary division with ‘popular’ song – and thereby consign this music to UNpopularity!

However, tarnishing the staggering creative, musical and linguistic achievement of song composers firing on all cylinders with the stain of elitism surely misses the point. Just revel in the outrageous, transcendent level of invention; a riot of musical and poetic colour joined together in ever-surprising ways. Subjects and ideas you never thought you needed to experience through the music-poetry filter pop up where you least expect them. Who knew that Goethe had a thing for types of cloud, and that Pascal Dusapin would, almost 200 years later, find a staggeringly apposite musical language for this strange sidebar in German romantic poetry? This is modern artsong, and it needs no apology.

..."How could this genteel, moustachioed hanger-on from the French Romantic create something so deeply unstable, couched in a world of gently perfumed purity?"

Attempting to navigate a path through this bewildering and diverse musical landscape required some hard choices and inevitable omissions. I am devastated no place could be found for one of the grandest cycles of them all: Hindemith’s Das Marienleben, or one of the sparest and most withering expressions of anything, Shostakovich’s Michelangelo Suite. Henze’s Arabian Songs was likewise left, tragically, on the shelf, though it’s always good to leave oneself somewhere to go in the future…

Now, a little bit of an introduction to the choices we DID end up making.

PART ONE | Programs One & Two

Fauré and Schoenberg: this early 20th century pair both created visionary ‘gardens’ in their largest and most ambitious song cycles for voice and piano. And how different could they possibly be – on the surface, at least. Playing Fauré’s La chanson d’Ève (1910), I am struck by the hugely challenging paradox of having to maintain a perfectly unbroken surface of self-similar patterns while simultaneously illuminating the truly monumental and startling harmonic universe that whips by at an unpredictable orbit beneath. How could this genteel, moustachioed hanger-on from the French Romantic (whose middle name was indeed ‘Urbain’!) create something so deeply unstable, couched in a world of gently perfumed purity? He has created the rarest thing of all in music: a total and genuine reinvention of all our notions of tonality and consonance without ever puncturing its delicate skin. The performance style is utterly different from Schoenberg’s The Book of the Hanging Gardens (1909), which teeters on the brink between Romanticism and Expressionism, all its suppurating wounds exposed, demanding a constant, passionate representation of its depiction of a world and a language in a state of decadent decay. How could we not put these two great, polar opposite works on the same day and surround them with orbiting satellites from the more than hundred years since their composition?

The path from Schoenberg to the exquisite dodecaphonic miniatures of Luigi Dallapiccola is clear: Dallapiccola was the first Italian composer to embrace Schoenberg’s reinvention of pitch in twelve-tone serialism yet how utterly different from Schoenberg and his students this music sounds! The gossamer threads of these newly minted chords light up Machado’s gnomic reflections on the turning of the seasons, just as Pascal Dusapin’s Wolken on those Goethe poems about clouds seems the most natural aerial extension from Fauré’s rarefied garden.

SCO audiences may remember that we spent a summer with Dusapin in 2016’s Sydney Festival, presenting his large opera Passion and the song-cycle/stage work O Mensch! in the space of a week.

Both these programs have small, impactful cycles by the living master György Kurtág. These abutting opus numbers are spectacular examples of Kurtág’s art of seeming to compress the history of European music into hyper-dense miniatures of only a few minutes. To hear them sung by different singers will hopefully give a rounded view of this frighteningly intense music. These two cycles from the 1980s are like synecdoches for the whole 19th and 20th century art of voice and piano, and it is a joy to reconnect with his music after SCO staged the monumental song cycle …pas à pas – nulle part…. in 2014.

Of course, this being SCO, we couldn’t resist continuing the journey with new works by Australian composers. Along with Fauré, Dusapin and Kurtág, Jane Sheldon will premiere Mary Finsterer’s Nearing Circumpolar, a song cycle based on Mary’s upcoming opera Antarctica. SCO premiered Mary’s first opera Biographica in 2017 (which you can watch here) and has crafted another ‘nature’ work to complement Dusapin and Fauré: a world of ice, white silence and the billions of tiny creatures under the surface of the frozen sea. 

Anna Fraser, along with Schoenberg, Dallapiccola, Kurtág and Boulanger will sing David Evans’s In my brain, an extreme and disturbing setting of Emily Dickinson’s classic “I felt a funeral in my brain”. This long single song feels like a cycle, vacillating as it does between mechanistic, brutal and harsh streams of text and warm cushions of velvety tonality that could have brought a smile to a French Romantic’s face. This Dickinson setting is also the ‘apology’ for not including in the series Aaron Copland’s wide-eyed and perfect Dickinson cycle. 

PART TWO | Programs THREE & FOUR

Here we find a broader, more philosophical view of subject matter, and wilder swings of style. Simon Lobelson carries a heavy burden delivering both Benjamin Britten’s Songs and Proverbs of William Blake and Wolfgang Rihm’s Vermischter Traum. No survey of modern song cycles could omit Britten and this is perhaps my favourite: dark, late Britten shot through with the agony of existence. Written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, this stern yet remarkably well-contrasted piece attempts to embrace William Blake’s eccentric world vision with chiselled precision, economy and that classic Britten style of text setting where you simply can’t imagine the words being sung any other way. SCO has quite a history with Britten – Owen Wingrave in 2013, The Rape of Lucretia in 2017.

Will there be more this year? Watch this space…

The Rihm is a recent (2017) work by the hugely prolific living German composer and provides a vital link back to the Schoenberg from the previous program as well as casting an expressive net much further back to Schubert, Schumann and Brahms. This piece is about as serious, heavy and German as you can get. When your first line (setting the grumpy Baroque poet Andreas Gryphius) is “What is this life? What are we?” there’s only one way to go, and Rihm takes us straight into the heart of the big questions of life and death, meaning and purpose. This is German art painfully aware of its own history and deeply moving in the music’s acknowledgement that these threads remain unresolved, even in the second decade of the 21st century.

In between these two big works is a treat: Ravel’s Histoires naturelles – pure delight from start to finish – where the traits of four birds and a little cricket are lightly satirised and anthropomorphised to form a surprisingly profound portrait of inter-species folly.

Emily Edmonds will deliver a program rooted in the pleasures and ecstasies of life and religion. If the Rihm and the Britten are existential, doubting works pleading for meaning in a Godless universe, Samuel Barber’s Hermit Songs are the perfect riposte. Ten reflections from anonymous monks in pre-modern monasteries, they contain a cosmic pleasure in the simple acts of praise, worship and solitude from which we could all learn. Barber really rose to the occasion with this glorious cycle, capturing the text with alternately devotional wonder and sparkling joy. 

Barber adored the music of Francis Poulenc, who also could not be omitted from a survey of modern song. And Barber wasn’t the only one – it is hard music to resist. The ten minute song cycle Banalités is much, much more than its tongue-in-cheek title suggests. It is, in fact, a kaleidoscopic survey of Poulenc’s art, with each song reflecting a different side of his complex and winning personality. From breezy Parisian interwar insouciance to operatic drama, smoky eroticism and profound introspection, it seems to have it all.

If Poulenc’s sexy setting of the word ‘cigarette’ in “Hôtel” gets you going, then Kaija Saariaho’s Quatre instants (2002) is love-music on another level entirely. This is a 21st century song cycle saturated in the kind of ‘complex pleasure’ at which Saariaho is a true master. Written in the wake of her massively successful opera L’amour de loin and just before La Passion de Simone (which SCO performed in 2019) these four songs are vast in expression and imagination – an ocean of sound for just two performers. They are among the most complex things I’ve ever played – I can sense Saariaho’s imagination working overtime to make the piano into a huge resonating chamber seemingly capable of producing every pitch and rhythm simultaneously! These texts move from pure pleasure through pain and eventually reminiscence, culminating, at the end of more than 20 minutes of pulverising eroticism, in one of the most sheerly gorgeous codas written this century. By rights, here of course should be made mention of Messiaen’s ecstatically loopy Harawi (recently heard locally by The Song Company) which was too long for this program anyway, and the lovesick world of Janáček’s Diary of One Who Disappeared – presented just this January by SCO, staged in Sydney Festival.

Lastly – and one never likes to write too much about one’s own work – I had to pay tribute to both Emily Edmonds’s remarkable voice and the other music I have been thinking about all this time in my own small song cycle Nothing other than silence. A setting of an ecstatic, apocalyptic vision of the Flood myth from an oracle in The Epic of Gilgamesh (re-interpreted by SCO co-founder Louis Garrick) I have simply tried to capture some of the things I love about working with voice and piano: electric intimacy, and the seeming infinity of expression and colour that one can find in just two people on stage.

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We acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation as the traditional custodians of the land on which we work and perform. We honour their elders both past and present, and extend that respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

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Opera wasn’t dying – it was being murdered

OPERA WASN’T DYING –
IT WAS BEING MURDERED

Singer Jessica O’Donoghue on her journey
to SCO and the future of opera.

I was always going to be a singer ­­– I’ve known this from as long as I can remember. I had a colourful childhood growing up in a family full of eclectic musicians and artists: my great grandparents were painters, my grandparents were principal artists in the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, and my father (the late Rory O’Donoghue) was a composer, musician, actor, comedian and Cleo centrefold. Dad wrote jingles for loads of TV and radio ads back in the day and he often used his four children to sing any jingles that required young voices, so from the age of three I was in the recording studio and loving it. I had found my calling early, feeling at home and in my element.

By the time it came to leave high school I was lucky to have already gained extensive performance experience in a wide range of genres. There was no doubt in my mind that I would continue to pursue music and singing as my career and I wanted to develop my craft to the extreme. Opera ­– and the demanding vocal technique required – sparked my interest. I was always up for a challenge, and operatic technique for me was the ultimate. Impressive voices ringing out over full orchestras, filling huge theatres and concert halls with no amplification ­– what could be more extreme than that? But for me it was never just about singing. I always felt a duty and responsibility as an artist and performer to move my audience in some way: challenging them, inspiring them, bringing them joy and happiness, or moving them to tears. I loved being on stage and I loved telling stories, taking my audience on some kind of journey. I felt opera had all the right ingredients: music, drama, text and design. Not only that – it was on a grand scale. Surely through opera I could achieve my artistic goals in the most exciting way.

I embarked on the stock-standard operatic training of Bachelor of Music, Diploma of Opera, followed by Young Artist Programs and into the beginnings of my operatic career. But as I went through these motions I became more and more at odds with the artform. Things weren’t as grand as they first seemed and my initial dreams and expectations were shattered. Instead of being part of a thriving scene that was wowing audiences around the globe with this thrilling artform, I found myself stuck in an industry that was hell-bent on clinging to the past. It was like the industry was in a coma, barely breathing, with opera companies by its side refusing to flick the switch, clinging to snippets of past glory; to memories and experiences that were long gone. It wasn’t dead yet, but there was barely a pulse.

Feeling flat, underwhelmed, and a little sad, I turned my back on opera and went back to my musical roots where my artistic passions had first begun. I started to reconnect with my old networks in theatre, cabaret, pop, contemporary (new music), Renaissance and early music, art music and the festivals scene. An eclectic bunch, I know, but I was always a lover of multi-genre creativity and enjoyed collaborating with artists who were inspiring and doing new and exciting projects regardless of the style. It was during this time that my career took an unexpected u-turn of sorts. I was approached by a young Jack Symonds who had founded a little company called Sydney Chamber Opera with Louis Garrick back in 2010 and which was now run by Jack and the company’s Principal Artistic Associate Huw Belling.

Fumeblind Oracle, Carriageworks. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti

"Opera should be a living, breathing artform, not a museum that reveres a small handful of ancient works from a distance."

After one show with this company I knew I had found my people. People who championed creativity, who saw each work – be it a new commission or an existing opera – as a blank sheet to on which to make a fresh and unique mark. Never bogged down by expectations or traditions. Always questioning and reinventing, they made artistic decisions in a hugely collaborative process that involved the entire creative team. Working with composers who were still alive was thrilling. No more did I hear phrases like “you can’t make that sound in opera”, or “that ornament is stylistically incorrect” or “that’s not what the composer would have wanted”. I felt creatively and artistically liberated, challenged, inspired and fulfilled and it made me realise something: opera wasn’t dying, it was being murdered.

Opera should be a living, breathing artform, not a museum that reveres a small handful of ancient works from a distance. The argument that new works don’t attract an audience is only valid to a point. Companies like Sydney Chamber Opera are an excellent example of what this future opera can and should look like as they continue to pave the way to a new version of this thrilling art form. It’s edge-of-your-seat opera where audiences flock to see what will be presented next, knowing it is always a new, exciting and engaging experience. Of course it’s infinitely easier for a young, small and nimble opera company like Sydney Chamber Opera to push boundaries, to take risks and explore unchartered territories. However the opera industry at large could do more to break the widely held belief that opera basically peaked in the 19th century and that there is no point trying to improve on past masterpieces. Other artforms have managed a balance between honouring and celebrating the past while progressing into a more relevant future, and they have brought audiences along for the ride.

In 2018 Michelle Hartney staged a Performance/Call to Action at The Metropolitan Museum of Art which zoned in on the abusive behaviour of several male artists that lined the galleries walls. She produced her own wall texts to accompany paintings by the likes of Balthus, Gauguin and Picasso to highlight misogyny. Hartney stressed that she was not advocating censorship, but she argued that museums had to do more to educate the public about the darker side of the artists that they venerate. So too, in opera.

As a major sector in our arts scene, it is important that opera as an industry not only rethink and reframe these old stories, but look beyond them to newer, more relevant works. This is not, of course, to suggest that we do away with historic repertoire altogether, just as the NGA is hardly advocating the destruction of paintings by Picasso or Caravaggio. But it is concerning when the opera world leans so heavily on old classics that they begin to define the very genre itself. Surely dramatising contemporary ideas has far more potential to inspire contemporary audiences.

It was performing in Sydney Chamber Opera’s 2017 production of The Rape of Lucretia where I had another pivotal realisation. I was performing (via lip-synch) the role of Tarquinius, Prince of Rome. In this production by Kip Williams, male and female roles had been reversed to question the gender stereotypes inherent in the piece and to shine a light on the damaging nature of the storyline. It was so thrilling to embody that character: complex, deep, troubled, potent. I was also seven and a half months pregnant, so I was feeling particularly powerful with a strong belly, full of life. But this moment of exhilaration was combined with a broader sense of unease. Here I was, a heavily pregnant woman playing a role written for a man, yet this was the first time I could really relate to one of my characters in an opera. As an artist I always thought opera wasn’t for me simply because it failed to feed my yearning for new and innovative sources of creativity. But I realised in that moment that opera has never been a welcoming or fulfilling place for me as a female.

O’Donoghue as Tarquinius in The Rape of Lucretia, photo by Zan Wimberley

I am far from the first artist to feel pained by how badly women have been represented in opera. In Opera: Or the Undoing of Women, Catherine Clément explores the idea that the violated woman is such a cliché that it has almost become an essential element. Australian critic Alison Croggon writes that “the glamourised murder, suicide, rape or mutilation of women, and the ‘beautiful suffering’ that follows, is widely considered to be synonymous with opera itself”. Charlotte Higgins says it was “as if the genre itself seems to devour women.”

This debate reached a tipping point of sorts in 2019 when the New Opera Workshop conference in Queensland triggered a call to action by leading and emerging female composers for ‘cultural leadership and systemic change in opera’. This resulted in the Australia Council’s Opera and Gender Equity Summit in partnership with the Australian Music Centre and APRA/AMCOS. A similar momentum is occurring across other genres and artforms too: the National Gallery of Australia describes its Know My Name initiative as “a new chapter that addresses historical gender bias to reconsider the stories of art and elevate the voices of all women.”

In today’s climate there are growing numbers of not only artists, but audiences who no longer wish to validate or reinforce outdated attitudes towards women. While I’ve found Sydney Chamber Opera’s general approach to opera refreshing right from the outset, it was in their recent production of Breaking Glass where I found a whole new level of artistic satisfaction. A collaboration with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s ‘Composing Women’ program led by Liza Lim, Breaking Glass was a quadruple bill of short one act operas written by female composers Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott, Josephine Macken and Peggy Polias. The joy of enacting characters that were created by women, presenting experiences and journeys from a woman’s perspective, and being guided by two incredible female directors, Danielle Maas and Clemence Williams was a profoundly fulfilling experience. I felt excited and relieved that these critical and urgently important stories were being told, that finally there was an opportunity for women to make a meaningful contribution to the art form and at last I could relate to the works we were presenting and feel proud of the issues we were raising.

Similarly, I am extremely thrilled that in Sydney Chamber Opera’s upcoming Fumeblind Oracle I have been given the chance to not only play a character that I can relate to as a modern woman, but one that comments directly on the decades of misrepresentation of women in opera, and indeed in art generally. This work gives a voice and a face to the voiceless and faceless women across hundreds of years of Western canon. It’s also a rare opportunity to dismantle the tired concept of the silent muse. In this work, she rages.

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Inside the Body of a water nymph

INSIDE THE BODY
OF A WATER NYMPH

Jane Sheldon on composing poem for a dried up river

very small and damaged and quite dry
a Roman water nymph made of bone
tries to summon a river out of limestone

British poet Alice Oswald wrote Dunt: a poem for a dried up river after visiting a Gloucestershire museum and seeing a small carved figurine of a water nymph from Roman Britain, wrought in a time of drought as a supernatural aid to conjure water from a dry river bed. It is one of several poems by Oswald about water, about rivers. She says of the water nymph figurine, “I admire these extreme ways of invoking rain, just as I admire anyone who dares, by means of metaphor (and all language is rooted in metaphor), to communicate with something that isn’t human. If you’ve paid money for seeds or animals and you want to increase their worth by growing them on, then a water nymph is not some kind of a literary personification of water, nor is it a liquefaction of women, but it’s an effort, driven by absolute need, to make contact with something inscrutable.” I came across the poem about three years ago and was immediately struck by its internal music. It is full of pauses and stuttering repetition and it comes off the page as an exquisitely sonic work. Oswald’s masterful manipulation of pace seemed to force the poem into my body in a way that I had rarely experienced reading a poem. What do I mean by that? It’s perhaps best elucidated with an anecdote reported in the Guardian newspaper: Oswald gives regular recitations of her work and she’s quite a theatrical reader; at one event someone in the audience had an asthma attack because Oswald’s recitation was such that they forgot to breathe. (Fear not, I feel fairly sure my composition poses no threat to asthmatics.)

If you’ve paid money for seeds or animals and you want to increase their worth by growing them on, then a water nymph is not some kind of a literary personification of water, nor is it a liquefaction of women, but it’s an effort, driven by absolute need, to make contact with something inscrutable.”

In her poem, Oswald takes the human effort to invoke rain and transposes it into the body of the water nymph. She tries and tries to draw water from the limestone riverbed but the dry ground will not respond; water seems to be present only in memory. She is a fertility goddess found to be infertile. In my music, I carry this transposition further, constructing the timbral language of the work out of physical labour, out of effort. Specifically, the task I set for myself was to create for the instruments a sonic palette derived from the way effort imprints itself on our breathing. poem for a dried up river features two soprano roles (sung in this Australian premiere by myself and the wonderful Anna Fraser). There is a clear division of materials: Anna sings the poem’s text, while my own part consists of almost entirely wordless vocalisations, many of which derive from sounds that are the natural consequences of physical effort. The piece opens with an activation of the breath, the first place that effort reveals itself in the body; these breath sounds are then mimicked in the instruments of the ensemble as the nymph’s voice extends into sung pitch, her breathing becoming increasingly recognisable as a musical object. The piece unfolds in a large-scale pump structure, with some sections very dry, and some flooded with sound. Its complete palette of timbres is intended to suggest an alternation and occasional confusion between contrasting states: dry and wet, weak and strong, barren and fecund. Throughout the piece, now and then, the veil between the work’s two planes—the human and the supernatural—is penetrated with a vocal unison, whispered or sung.

An image of the clay post-performance in the work’s premiere. Photo: Gretchen Robinette

In these performances at Sydney Festival, as in its US premiere, the work will be presented in an installation made of clay, designed by Elizabeth Gadsby, with staging co-devised by Elizabeth, myself, and choreographer Danielle Micich. It was important to us to stage a physical task for me to perform as the musical work unfolds and for this task to take place in interaction with organic materials. It was also important to us that the physical performance is genuinely difficult, requiring real effort, so throughout the piece the water nymph must unfurl a mass of clay into a long, dry riverbed. We chose to work with a heavy clay path for several reasons: for one thing, it provides a task of the right magnitude (I can report that a small volume of clay is absurdly heavy) but it is also a material whose plasticity records in fine detail any application of weight or gesture to its surface.

I have tried to situate the breath as much as possible in a region between a completely organic response to effort and its treatment as a musical object. The score has been designed to assimilate incidental laboured breathing resulting from a physically difficult task undertaken in the staging. On the one hand, there are many very precisely notated breaths in the score, but there’s also the real effortful breath resulting from trying to work at a heavy object on a slippery substrate. A key challenge of the composition has been to create a musical context in which the natural breath of the working body and breath as a musical object are materials almost indistinguishable.

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Breaking New Ground

Breaking
new grounds

Adapting literature to music in
Sydney Chamber Opera’s four new works.
By Annarosa Berman

Literature to opera as you haven’t seen it before

Opera has a long tradition of adapting literary works for the stage, but in their works, The Tent, inspired by a Margaret Atwood short story, and Her Dark Marauder, based on a Sylvia Plath poem, composers Josephine Macken and Georgia Scott find ways of adapting literature to music that no great composer of the past had thought of.

Macken, who wrote her own text, never thought of what she was doing as an adaptation in the traditional sense of the word. “I just found a lot of the ideas in Margaret Atwood’s story really poignant, and rich in dramatic potential. So I used it as basis for the ideas I wanted to develop in composition.” Based on the idea of a sentient machine created by a team of researchers, at the core of The Tent is the researchers’ interaction with the machine.

In workshop, Macken says, a dialogue grew “between my experience in developing the work, and the performers developing the work for stage”. Her biggest headache was deciding on the level of separation between the sound made by the machine and the sound created by the singers. “I tried to find a language that carried a sense of ambiguity without leaving the audience with nothing to hold on to.”

The Tent, Composed by Josephine Mackens. Photo by Daniel Boud

Like Macken, Scott found “the germination of an idea” in a literary text, Sylvia Plath’s poem, The Applicant. In the developmental stage she applied for permission to set the work to music, but when it was denied, librettist Pierce Wilcox wrote her a libretto based on the poem. Director Danielle Maas came up with the title, Her Dark Marauder, a line from another of Plath’s poems.

Scott’s work explores ideas found in The Applicant, particularly gender roles of the late 1960s, and the way those who are physically different and neurologically atypical are treated by society. “Pierce took the Plath and worked it from the inside out,” she says. “There is so much nuance and power in his writing and I am so happy with the result.”

She describes her compositional style as “shifting and changing”. But the Breaking Glass project has given her an opportunity to think about what she wanted to express through her work. She discovered that “the music grows out of what you’re trying to express”.

Macken’s compositional style is different. She describes it as “disrupting a sound or engaging another element that causes the sound to malfunction”, and also, “opera with a different mediating quality depending on what is fed to it or with what it interfaces”.

She never dreamed she’d have the opportunity to compose opera at this stage of her development, but having come this far, she finds the operatic world rich in possibility for a young female composer. In my personal experience, opera-making practices that prioritise unimaginative realisations of canon works are bound by the exclusionary history of the art form, tending to repel the people with whom these stories fail to resonate; the price of admission certainly functions, however unintentionally, as an additional exclusionary force. You see a lot of extraordinary projects coming out of questioning the predominant narratives proposed by the art form, but for reasons of age and experience, I didn’t expect that I would be a part of it.”

Her Dark Marauder, Composed by Georgia Scott. Photo by Daniel Boud

Scott too, never imagined that composing opera would be a possibility for her. “I went to see operas, and enjoyed watching them, but composing one wasn’t something I thought I’d ever be able to do. The canon is full of the glorification of violence against women and minority groups. And you wonder: where is the space for my voice in this? SCO is bucking the trend in so many ways, and giving us that voice is one of them.”

The company is welcoming of the stories of people of different backgrounds, she says, and hopefully Breaking Glass will be an opportunity for audiences too, to explore the stories of people who traditionally would not have had their stories told through opera.

The SCO collaboration opened new worlds for both composers. “Working with professional musicians transforms the score, as does lighting and costuming, timing and space, and dramaturgy,” Macken says. “All these elements have had a surprising impact on the musical work as it developed.”

Having a workshop two years before opening night proved especially helpful. Scott explains that what she thought her first work was, on paper, was very different from the pacing on stage, and “the way things worked in space”. Moreover, to be in a room with the singers enabled her to go back and compose with those voices in mind. And there was meeting with the director, the librettist, the conductor, while developing the work. “Collaborating with other artists changed my perspective. My work has developed into something very different from what it first was, and it’s made me so happy.”

The SCO collaboration opened new worlds for both composers. “Working with professional musicians transforms the score, as does lighting and costuming, timing and space, and dramaturgy,” Macken says. “All these elements have had a surprising impact on the musical work as it developed.”

Both composers started writing music early. Macken wrote her first compositions in late high school, when she gained access to music software, and school assignments opened up “this music world I hadn’t known before”. A flautist by training, access into a different way of music making was exciting, “and it spiralled from there”.

Scott was fortunate enough to have had a piano teacher who encouraged her to compose pieces from a very young age. “So from about seven I said I wanted to be a composer.” Later at high school she played the trombone “badly”, but playing in an ensemble, and singing in a choir, enabled her to learn how harmony worked. From about eleven she was “really serious about being a composer”.

As for the future: Macken would love to develop theatre works with colleagues. “It’s a really extraordinary way of making a work; there’s nothing like it.” In the immediate future though, “I need a break!”

Scott, who describes the SCO collaboration as a watershed experience, would just love to be able to continue composing music. “If it’s for the stage, wow, that would be amazing.”

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Casting Off the Burden of the Canon

CASTING OFF
THE BURDEN OF
THE CANON

A discussion of women composers in the operatic canon.
By Annarosa Berman

Every opera lover has a favourite soprano. If very few have a favourite woman composer, the reason is obvious. In Breaking Glass, a quadruple bill of four one-act operas composed by four women composers, Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO) in partnership with the Sydney Conservatorium of Music’s Composing Women program, addresses the absence of women composers in the operatic canon.

Fittingly, composers Peggy Polias and Bree van Reyk have chosen feminist themes for their works. Neither musician had been thinking of writing an opera until the opportunity of an SCO collaboration came up. Polias imagined that it would come later in her career, if at all, and van Reyk didn’t think she’d ever write an opera.“The expense of grand opera is intimidating to begin with,” she says.“And opera is so problematic for women. It almost always involves a woman dying or being raped. Do we really want to glorify this?”

Moreover, Polias says, opera composers of the past all being male, “the burden is the canon and companies wanting to stage and restage it because that’s what their audience wants to hear.” She doesn’t see this as an insurmountable problem though. “It’s about finding the audience who wants to hear what you have to offer. You wouldn’t force punk on someone who likes rap, would you?”

The idea for van Reyk’s opera, The Invisible Bird, came from thoughts about women’s invisible contribution to society. “We are not lauded as the great heroes or masters or saviours of the world,” she says. She saw a parallel between women’s contribution to society and birds, whose beautiful sound enrich our lives even though we often don’t see them.

Invisible Birds, directed by Clemence Williams and composed by Bree van Reyk. Photo by Daniel Boud

The night parrot, the subject of her opera, was long thought to be extinct, yet found again in the early 2000s. “Someone found a dead night parrot by the roadside, then ornithologists found a nest with three eggs nearby. But the next day the eggs had gone – eaten by snakes.” A ground-dwelling bird, the night parrot’s survival was always unlikely, but the arrival of settlers, who brought introduced predators with them, and who hunted the bird as a prized trophy, made matters infinitely worse.

“The fact that everyone thought it had disappeared and yet it was still there, plays into the idea of invisibility – if you’re not looking in the right places, you won’t see anything.” That goes for women too. “It’s not that they haven’t been there; they just haven’t been included.”

The Invisible Bird has no narrative arc, and van Reyk wrote the libretto – the names of birds currently extinct or endangered – herself.

Polias, who chose a feminist angle for her opera, Commute, because the commission came at the height of the #MeToo public discourse of 2017/18, likewise wrote her own libretto.

“I was hearing my friends’ #MeToo accounts, and I’d had my own experiences in that regard.” As a composer, it was logical to explore the theme through music rather than through social media. As for the focus on a commute: “Most women have had scary experiences walking home from work. Commute asks the question: where does this walk home lead?” The work is about navigating public spaces safely.

Yet Polias found the idea of a narrative along the lines of “woman walks home and all these things happen to her and you’re going to see it on stage” uninspiring. “Many Hollywood films do that; I was not interested in perpetuating the same tropes.” Thus, Commute is an interior journey.

As for the libretto: Polias, who has Greek heritage and reads a little ancient Greek, found inspiration in the Odyssey’s episodic structure, where Odysseus vanquishes or outsmarts some creature in each episode. The text is mostly in English, with some Modern Greek, and a short quote from the Odyssey in Ancient Greek.

Both composers found the SCO collaboration inspiring. Polias says: “Writing an opera for the first time, the temptation was to throw everything but the kitchen sink at it. But you learn that you don’t have to express everything in the music; that some meaning will happen in the lighting, the costumes, the acting. Getting input from different perspectives has been amazing. ”

“The expense of grand opera is intimidating to begin with,” she [ composer Peggy Polias] says. “And opera is so problematic for women. It almost always involves a woman dying or being raped. Do we really want to glorify this?”

Van Reyk, who has been working as a percussionist and drummist since graduating from uni twenty years ago, began to compose a decade ago. “I have a punk rock/garage rock upbringing and played drums in lots of bands,” she says. She later played as a casual in the opera and ballet orchestra, but could never see the singers. “And what you hear down in the pit is crazy.”

Polias grew up learning piano and trumpet, “mucked around” on the guitar, all while acquiring a strong grounding in theory. From around the age of ten she started sketching composition ideas “for when I had more skill”. In high school, shy as a performer, she wrote little pieces for other people. She did her masters in composition at Sydney University under Anne Boyd and applied for the Composing Women program because she wanted to “push her craft” a little more.

She’d love to revisit the opera format again some day. “I like the compressed thirty-minute form, and I love the quad bill; it’s a really great format for presenting new work. But maybe one day I’ll write a massive grand opera, who knows?”

Van Reyk is looking forward “to just keep writing music”. The next couple of things she’s working on are less political though: “To be thinking of feminism all the time can be quite exhausting.”

Composing Women offers aspiring composers either a masters of a doctorate, which includes collaborations with SCO, the SSO, and a soloist. Founded by Matthew Hindson, the initiative addresses the fact that among first-year uni students worldwide, equal numbers of women and men pursue composition, yet in the professional world, the ratio between women and men drops to 1:4.

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Two Directors and a Quadruple Bill

TWO DIRECTORS AND A QUADRUPLE BILL

An interview with directors
Danielle Maas and Clemence Williams
By Annarosa Berman

It’s not often that two women directors get to direct four operas, all composed by women, in one over-arching bill. Yet in Sydney Chamber Opera’s quadruple bill, Breaking Glass, the all-female angle is the point: the four composers are products of Sydney University’s Composing Women program, established in an attempt at addressing the imbalance between male and female composers in the music industry.

As Danielle Maas, who directs two of the operas, Georgia Scott’s Her Dark Marauder and Josephine Macken’s The Tent, puts it: “There are extraordinary works by contemporary male composers, and yet making the conscious choice to give more space to female composers is really important – in the same way that it’s really important to give more space to creators of colour, and creators of different classes. It’s about making space for a multiplicity of perspectives when historically, male composers have had the pie almost all to themselves.”

 

Breaking Glass, Photo by Dan Boud

Clemence Williams, who directs Peggy Polias’ Commute and Bree van Reyk’s The Invisible Bird, explains the logistics of two directors steering four operas that are part of a bigger whole: “We’re the captains of the ship for each individual opera, but we have an exceptional creative team who work across all four.” That in itself draws the four operas together. More importantly: “They’re young female Australian composers. They’re going to have a synergy that connects them to the whole.” While there’s room to champion the individual qualities of each of the operas, they’re always going to be seen as a group.

Williams describes Peggy Polias’ Commute as “at its simplest, about a woman’s journey home”. Inherently that journey involves fear – “Margaret Atwood said men were afraid of being laughed at and women, of being killed”. Polias’ sonic landscape vividly describes the fear women experience in the simple act of trying to get home. She’s layered her story with allusions to Greek mythology, so monsters appear along the way. Conceptualising Commute, says Williams, has been “a joy” despite the challenge of representing an internal journey on stage. “It took imagination,” she says, with a laugh. “If this were a play I would have been tearing my hair out! But the exciting thing about opera is that it allows us to exist on different plains simultaneously; we can meditate our way through, rather than go on a little journey with a character.”

Bree van Reyk’s The Invisible Bird presented a different but equally enjoyable challenge. “Bree has used the sad story of the night parrot that was thought to be extinct, only to be found again, as an allegory for women’s voices across the history of Western classical music,” says Williams. Exploring the canon from the inside out has been a deeply rewarding experience.

The Tent, directed by Danielle Maas and composed by Josephine Macken

For Danielle Maas, whose wish list for directing includes new work, women composers and electronic music, directing Josephine Macken’s The Tent and Georgia Scott’s Her Dark Marauder, is a dream come true. The Tent is a meditation on a Margaret Atwood short story, “where the idea of creation becomes an act of self preservation in the face of ecological trauma and disaster”, Maas says. Since the work is almost completely without text, Maas imagined it as a world where language is breaking down. There’s very little emotion expressed, and there’s ambiguity as to the meaning of what people are saying. “The style of the piece has resulted in symbolism, Maas says, “which is not particularly trendy in theatre at the moment, but it felt right to create a world with several layers of ambiguity.”

In Scott’s Her Dark Marauder, once again the audience is let in on a meditative experience, rather than taken on a linear journey. Maas says: “The opera is about the main character’s relationship to her depression, and what we asked ourselves was, how do you give an audience a sensorial experience of depression? Because if we can experience what depression feels like, maybe that’s a way to empathy.”

Finding a directorial angle is what directors do best, but when directing a new opera, negotiating a complicated score for which no piano reduction or recording exists, can be a headache. Williams, a trained classical singer and percussionist, reads music fluently. “If anything I need to be reminded sometimes that there are words,” she says, with a laugh, adding that it’s “a joy and absolute thrill” to be hearing a piece of music for the very first time; to be “the first set of eyes and hands to mould it into something tangible”. Yes, Breaking Glass is full of complex music, but having written music for the theatre herself, and having recently completed a course in electronic music, Williams felt able to “unlock the components of a piece of electronic music”.

“There are extraordinary works by contemporary male composers, and yet making the conscious choice to give more space to female composers is really important – in the same way that it’s really important to give more space to creators of colour, and creators of different classes. It’s about making space for a multiplicity of perspectives when historically, male composers have had the pie almost all to themselves.”

Maas, on the other hand, when asked about difficult contemporary scores, throws up her hands up and laughs: “I’m the ultimate layman…lay woman…of opera! It’s amazing that I even work in opera because I’m musically illiterate! It’s terrifying!” But all is never lost when Breaking Glass conductor Jack Symonds is near, she adds.
“I sat down with Jack and he talked through the score and what it was doing. He’s exceptionally good at explaining what things might feel like or sound like. He’ll explain a moment to you, and he’ll go, it sounds like a decaying garden. And you’ll go, Great!” The score she was given included detailed notes by Symonds and the composers. “So you work out how you’re going to translate those notes into a dramatic experience. And once you’re in the rehearsal room, you pay attention to what every musician is doing, because their bodies respond to the music.”

Thanks at least partly to the delightful challenge of Breaking Glass, in future both directors would love to continue working in opera. As Maas puts it: “This is exactly the kind of work that I would love to make for the rest of my life.” Williams can only agree: “Making new opera with a team of accomplished professionals…it’s just terrific.”

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Drowning in a Glass Church

DROWNING IN A
GLASS CHURCH

The challenge of staging Oscar and Lucinda
By Annarosa Berman

In bringing to life Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox’s Oscar and Lucinda, which opens at Carriageworks on 27 July, director Patrick Nolan and designer Anna Tregloan’s biggest challenge was presenting the central image from Peter Carey’s novel – a man drowning in a glass cathedral floating down a river – on stage. Nolan says, with a laugh: “Having water in an environment where electricity is everywhere, is hair-raising.” As for glass, “If it breaks, you’re in a lot of trouble.” Glass and water are the two things you never put on stage. “Perhaps that captures the risk of putting on new opera!” Nolan says, laughing again.

Director and designer faced another headache: staging a musically complex new opera for which there was no recording. As Nolan says: “Normally you’d familiarise yourself with the score by listening to it, as this enables you to see how it will come to life.” Working on a production without having heard the music or studied the score is, to say the least, difficult. Tregloan adds: “The Oscar and Lucinda score is out there of course, but I’m not able to study such difficult music from the score only!”

After many conversations with lighting designer Damien Cooper, Nolan and Tregloan found the solution to their first problem: light. “Through reflection, light can conjure up both water and glass,” Nolan says. As for the music: they relied on Elliott Gyger and conductor Jack Symonds to fill in the gaps. “Elliott and Jack have been describing the music to us in as much detail as possible,” Nolan says. “Staging opera is always an act of the imagination, but with a new work, you really have to enter into it.”

Photography: Samuel Hodge

In these circumstances, the libretto played an even more crucial role in informing the shape of the production. But for the creative team the process started even earlier, with research into as well as around the topic. Both re-read the novel and Tregloan watched the film, knowing that even though it didn’t directly relate to the project, audiences may have seen it. “It’s just good to know what sort of knowledge is out there about the story,” she says.

She and Nolan next explored the themes of Carey’s novel. “What Lucinda sees as chance, Oscar sees as providence,” Nolan says. “For both of them, what appears to be random over time forms a pattern. This is the central idea of the novel.”

When they read the libretto in detail, it opened up more ideas. “The text is particularly beautiful and evocative, even without music,” Tregloan says. “Like the novel, it’s very sharp and witty, and very beautiful and evocative metaphorically and visually. Reading it definitely affected the texture of the stage production.”

After the libretto, it was, in Nolan’s words, “very much a series of conversations; wandering down different paths until you eventually identify the key things that you want to communicate through the design and direction.” Director and designer came to the opera with a sense of its world gleaned from reading the book and the libretto. “The novel is a rambling, Dickensian, many-layered narrative, and what Elliott and Pierce have done, is to have reduced it down to its essentials,” Nolan says. “If the novel is a big, brothy, beefy stock, the opera is a fine consommé.”

A few themes landed early. Rather than working with naturalistic images, Tregloan says she tends to come up with metaphorical elements that have a logic of their own. “Very early on, we thought of the idea of randomness becoming order,” she explains. “And I wanted to include the idea of the Australian bush without having a naturalist scene. It took quite a while to work out how to present these ideas visually.”

Some ideas did not withstand the test of time. Performers, for example, were going to “move here and move that and then all these bottles would come on.” Tregloan says: “It reached a stage where we realised it would be physically too much for the performers to do.” She laughs. “All the elements are still there, but they’ve been pared down.”

“Staging opera is always an act of the imagination, but with a new work, you really have to enter into it.”

With imagery established, the next step was working out what the production’s performance language was going to be. “The novel, the film and the libretto are witty and funny, and in keeping with that we’ve created a playful space through containing and framing the story,” Tregloan says. “Understanding it as active theatre-making is important: rather than a factory, there’s a model of a factory. Similarly, performers start with everyday contemporary clothing, then, as part of the playfulness of creating theatre on the spot, they add costume elements on top of that, all on stage. We’re very overt about the fact that we’re story-telling.”

When we speak for this article, rehearsals have not yet begun. When they do, things may well change again. Says Nolan: “When the music finally comes to life, it will modify what we do. And it’s not only the music that will do it: the nature of directing any production is that you come to the rehearsal process with a set of ideas, and suddenly a whole lot of other things present themselves. That’s what I love about working in the theatre; it’s a constant process of change. And a deepening of awareness and understanding. I will be hearing the music for the first time when I step into that rehearsal room. And we won’t hear the full orchestral score until the final week of rehearsals.”

He laughs: “Who knows what might come out of that!”

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Oscar & Lucinda – Elliott Gyger’s Opera Journey

ELLIOTT GYGER’S
OPERA JOURNEY

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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