A for­mer judge’s vi­sion breathes new life into one of con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralia’s favourite nov­els, as an opera, writes Sharon Verghis

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature -

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

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