When you think 'art forms of bracing contemporary relevance', you don't often think 'opera'. These days, we tend to see opera as an indulgent anachronism — and that's if we see it at all. The Live Performance Australia 2013 Report tells us there were only 340,000 opera attendances in Australia that year, down another 20% from already dwindling numbers. And yet, there's a group of inventive young Sydney artists stubbornly sticking with opera, and getting a lot of attention doing it.
Sydney Chamber Opera began in 2010 with a production of Dostoyevsky's Notes from the Underground. In 2013, they presented one hour of a woman singing Holocaust poetry with her back to us. In 2014 they mashed up chamber music with electronics in the service of a Russian poet. Their work is always surprising, complex and, though they might turn their backs on flouncy period costumes, visually seductive.
Now they're back for Fly Away Peter, a new adaptation of David Malouf's classic Australian novel of war and birdwatching. We asked SCO's Pierce Wilcox, 25, who wrote the show's libretto, why he thinks there's so much life in opera yet.
What is a libretto?
All the words in an opera, including everything that gets sung, and things like ‘Scene One’ that probably shouldn’t get sung, and suggestive stage directions that you will never ever read but might get represented by some very good acting or a clarinet doing something clarinets don’t normally do.
What makes a good one?
Elegance and economy: communicating the maximum amount of ideas, drama and character in the minimum number of syllables. In opera, it can take an awfully long time to sing one word, so you better make sure it’s a word that will set your audience’s minds afire. Like ‘incendiary’, or ‘blood-fear’, or ‘atavism’. One of those is in our opera! You have to come to find out which!
And space. Leaving gaps for other collaborators to enter into the work. It’s knowing when not to write, and trusting that this moment can be communicated by someone else’s art.
What attracts you, as a young theatre maker, to what often seems like an archaic art?
Opera should be the best art. Richard Wagner (the Ring Cycle guy) thought it could be the gesamtkunstwerk, the ‘total artwork’, which we might today refer to as ‘ALL OF THE THINGS’. Because it has all the other arts in it: poetry and drama and music and acting and design and lighting and staging.
Unfortunately most of the time it’s not that perfect balance of all artistic forms. A lot of operas skew the scale to create music that’s beautiful to listen to, but wedded to idiotic plots, offensive characterisations and a design aesthetic meant to dazzle you so you don’t notice that the singers are just standing in the centre of the stage and shouting at you. (There’s even a phrase for this: ‘park and bark’.)
It doesn’t have to be that way. Opera is music drama. Music is the way to take your audience beyond the quotidian. To reach for what lies beyond mere flesh. If you want to experience a drama that believes that the world is vaster and stranger than we can capture in words, if you want to go to the heights of heartfelt beauty and the depths of otherworldly horror, if you want to grasp – even for a moment – at some hint of transcendence, and I do, and I think we all do, then go to the opera.
What else inspires you creatively?
Poetry in translation. Smart-dumb video games. Classical tragedy. Feminism. Indie comic books. My Dad’s trans-Pacific sailing adventures. Satire, real Swiftian satire that’s straight-faced and white-hot with anger at the systemic failure that surrounds us. People and their capacity for empathy. The limits of that empathy. Trying to break those limits. The search for new words, and through them, new ways of thinking.
What drew you to Fly Away Peter?
The opportunity to climb inside the vision of a great Australian whose novels I grew up with, somehow wrestle his way of seeing the world into a drama for the stage, and make something that’s weird and massive and new. A new 21st-century opera! That is ridiculous. Nobody does that. I think we convinced ourselves we can’t, that it’s something that Europeans or Americans do. SCO has always defied those limits. It’s a rare joy to be around artists like that.
Sydney Chamber Opera is a young company all around. Is chamber opera inherently more experimental and progressive, or is it just the route the company has chosen to take?
Chamber opera is as young as we are, at least compared to big daddy opera. It only really came into being in the 1940s when Benjamin Britten started writing operas that could be toured around the UK. It’s a form that’s designed for smaller ensembles and smaller spaces, meaning it liberates you from having to fill the vast stage of a traditional opera house with a grand, often ludicrous spectacle, and allows you to play around artistically without worrying about filling the thousand seats of those opera houses.
Apparently there’s a bit of Anzac fatigue going around, with TV specials attracting low ratings. Why should the war weary come to see SCO’s Fly Away Peter?
I understand the feeling: you’re not going learn more about war or humans by seeing even more ruggedly handsome actors with perfectly crafted prop rifles and slouch hats. The final shot of Gallipoli exists; the beach scene in Saving Private Ryan exists. We’re not trying to do those again. The scale of this thing, its utter remove from everything people like you and I experience in our daily life, is impossible. The mind recoils. So we made our war an alien nightmare, where time fractures and one man’s vision spills out beyond the fighting to encompass the entirety of the 20th century.
And it’s not an Anzac story, not really. It’s a story of nature and humans as tiny passionate specks within it. Of life, and death, and the place you go after. I think it will be beautiful.