CLOUDSTREET’S NEW VOICE
A former judge’s vision breathes new life into one of contemporary Australia’s favourite novels, as an opera, writes Sharon Verghis
Gale Edwards, cradling her beloved pooch Tosca on her lap, fixes a gimlet eye on a quartet of young singers. They stand in front of her, shifting uneasily like schoolgirls at a recital as she takes them through their parts as perky, dimwitted telephone switch girls in a 1950s department store.
“Over-articulate the ‘p’, please — ‘hello, can I help you?’ ” she calls out. They try, singing in unison. All but one stumbles. Edwards immediately zooms in, a pin to a butterfly. “Try that again.” The young singer does. It’s not good enough, if Edwards’s pursed lips are any guide. “Again.” It will feel strange at first but do try, she implores the group.
In this big rehearsal space in the Adelaide suburb of Netley, Edwards’s directorial eye is all-seeing. Eighteen performers have gathered here for the first week of rehearsals for the State Opera of South Australia’s new million-dollar opera Cloudstreet, based on the bestselling 1991 novel by Australian author Tim Winton. We’re in the middle of scene 38 on day five of a 23-day rehearsal period, and the air is jangly with nerves as the cast navigates the continually evolving 60-scene libretto by Sydney composer and opera newbie George Palmer.
An invisible clock ticks loudly. Opening night for the country’s biggest new opera is a mere three weeks away.
Everywhere, there is veteran stage director Edwards ( The Boy from Oz, La Boheme, Jesus Christ Superstar). Silver bows glittering in her hair, she shines a spotlight on everyone in the room, forensically dissecting motive and movement as the story moves from the dynamics of bad marriages and maternal dysfunction to lost sons and damaged masculinity. She is sharp, surgically precise and relentless. “But why are you saying that?” she demands of a singer. “Don’t signpost,” she warns sternly when another two over-emote an aria. “To be or not to be — the greatest Hamlets recite that line without the audience knowing it’s coming.”
It’s a masterclass in dramaturgy; in a nearby music room, indigenous baritone Don Bemrose, who is gamely trying to unlearn, as he puts it, 25 years of classical training to sing in a Queensland Aboriginal “Cherbourg mission” accent for his role as Bob Crabb, says simply: “Gale is a perfectionist, that’s just how she is.”
Edwards concurs. “I love getting the scalpel out, I love that detective work, the psychological work.” The challenge for these singers is that not many know how to act, she says, stabbing a fork impatiently into a caesar salad over lunch. “And that’s where I come in; I’m a storyteller.”
For Edwards, this project — cumbersome, risky, sprawling, “hugely time-consuming” and involving five years of largely unpaid effort around her kitchen table, crowd-funding drives, deep generosity from peers in the arts and law, and three two-week workshops — has been perhaps one of the most satisfying of her professional life, matched only by the four-year gestation of The Boy From Oz, for which she was the original director.
It’s a rare treat to build something new and grand out of raw clay, she says — and “I have a commitment to new Australian work, whether it’s The Boy from Oz or Miracle City or Eureka. I was intrigued by this, and that’s basically what you do in this country — you just work and work with the hope that one day it will get up.”
A new Australian opera is a singular beast indeed and there’s plenty of industry interest in how Cloudstreet will fare, particularly given the lukewarm commercial returns for such works; witness the disappointing box office for Opera Australia’s $2 million Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s novel, in 2010, that has left the country’s opera flagship gun-shy, some critics claim, about pricey new full-length operas. Perched on a stool in the rehearsal room, Timothy Sexton, chief executive and artistic director of State Opera and musical director and conductor for this work, quips: “We’re guinea pigs; everyone is watching to see how we fare. But yes, it’s a big gamble, certainly.”
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Winton’s fat, sprawling tale of the lives and fortunes of the Pickles and Lamb families in working-class Perth across a 20-year period is a modern Australian classic, having lent itself to a radio drama series, a celebrated play — Belvoir St Theatre’s epic production directed by Neil Armfield — and a television miniseries. But will it work as an opera?
To Palmer, a genial, energetic 60-something who nurtured a career composing contemporary instrumental and vocal music alongside a career as a Queen’s Counsel and NSW Supreme Court judge, it’s a no-brainer.
Speaking to Review a day earlier in his home in Sydney’s leafy Paddington, he says Winton’s fifth novel ticked all the boxes: from being “quintessentially Australian, and it was important to me that we have voices in opera that are Australian”, to its focus on identity, indigenous suffering and displacement. He also highlights the book’s status as a cultural icon (it has sold more than 500,000 copies), which would help breach continuing audience resistance to new operas (Winton says he is happy for Palmer to use his novel to do “the heavy lifting”), and its narrative richness and mythological scale.
Is Cloudstreet’s robust vernacular more suited to musical theatre? In his view, no — opera alone, he believes, would do justice to its epic nature. “It is one of the greatest books written by an Australian in the 20th century and possibly for all time; it is a monumental work.”
For Winton, however, the idea took some getting used to. Speaking to Review from Perth, he initially was bemused by the idea, he says, because “opera is so far from my background that it’s pretty foreign territory, really”. The salty, demotic language of the book — think “ning-nong” and “dill” — being warbled in high Gs? He wasn’t quite sure, he says.
Palmer says this was his key fear, that Winton would dismiss the idea out of hand not just out of Cloudstreet fatigue — “it must be hard for an author for people to be constantly harking back to a book written 25 years ago as if that’s his only big hit”— but “out of alarm that it would be a very intellectualised style of opera when my style is harmonic, melodic”. Winton was reassured after watching a workshop DVD: “What struck me was how warm it was … he seemed to have caught the spirit of the book.”
In a sense, says Winton, whose novel The Cloudstreet, Riders was adapted as an opera, music, unlike “this lumpen concrete thing” that is writing, is perfect for the sprawling Cloudstreet (“there’s a lot in that book, as I realised when I reread it; it’s also much funnier, much darker”). “Language lumbers, where music just soars, weightless, leaping fences. It’s something to envy — you can spend all day trying to get someone to rush from the left side of the page to the right side of the page.”
Getting the rights to the work wasn’t easy, however. Palmer’s first approach to Winton’s agent met with deafening silence. Undeterred, he set out to recruit a heavyweight director to boost his credentials and allay concerns “that I was just another crackpot”. Enter Edwards, whom he was introduced to through a mutual friend, former National Institute of Dramatic Art general manager Elizabeth Butcher. Edwards says she was immediately struck by Palmer’s “fantastic music. I thought George’s opera composition was terrific, moving, strangely melodic.”
The pair started working around her kitchen
Singers in State Opera of South Australia’s production of Karina Jay, Courtney Turner and Kristen Hardy