Every opera company worth its salt must perform the great canon of operas and State Opera is proud to perform Butterflies and Traviatas and Bohemes. We don’t shy away from that great challenge, but we also don’t shy away from the equally important challenge of producing Australian works of the 20th century. Our credo is to get opera out there, to produce as much opera as we can, for as many people as we can.
State Opera South Australia is funded as a ‘specialist’ company by the Australia Council and Arts SA, a designation originally given by the 1999 Nugent Enquiry into Opera to recognize State Opera’s commitment to the productions of larger Wagnerian repertoire. As time has moved on a number of other Australian companies have moved into the presentation of this type of large-scale repertoire. Consequently, State Opera South Australia has reinvented itself, turning its attention to another area of the operatic repertoire that is underrepresented: the development and presentation of Australian Opera.
Creating new operas is, of course, a passion and a necessity for any opera company and in 2022 we will present a new Australian opera, an adaptation of one of the most successful Australian plays of the last few decades. However, in the push to create new operas many great works only receive one outing. Under the banner of Lost Operas of Oz State Opera has therefore committed to producing little known Australian operas, operas that deserve an audience. We believe it is important we embrace the great breadth of Australian work out there, and in our little corner of the world especially.
The idea for the Lost Operas of Oz was inspired by my experience directing musicals for the Sydney based company Neglected Musicals. That company regularly brings together an extremely talented cast, throws around some ideas, and allows one the chance to really ‘look’ at a work, giving new life to the piece. I thought why not give some Australian operas the same treatment. After all, as Richard Bonynge says ‘Operas are just old musicals’. There are literally hundreds of Australian operas out there, worthy of reassessment. It was time we put them in front of new audiences.
In 2019 we proudly produced the first three Lost Operas, all different, from different decades, all challenging and all theatrically and musically vibrant: Boojum! (Composer Martin/Lyrics Peter Wesley Smith), Christina’s World (Composer Ross Edwards/Lyrics Dorothy Hewett) and Madeline Lee (Composer John Haddock/Lyrics John Haddock with Michael Campbell). Each opera was directed, designed and performed by Australian artists. Conductor Warwick Stengaards, a champion of Australian works, conducted all three operas.
Audiences embraced the operas, critics applauded and to top it all off The Lost Operas received the accolade of Cultural Event of the Year from Adelaide critic Graham Strahle in The Australian of Dec 31, 2019. He wrote: Each was mesmerising in its own way. The Lewis Carroll inspired Boojum! proved an absolute riot of madcap wit and colour, Christina’s World utterly charmed in its intimate portrayal of life in mid-20th Century America, and Madeline Lee burst with surprising force in its account of the fate of a downed US bomber crew.’
In State Opera’s 2020 Season we decided to elevate some of the Australian works to the mainstage, beginning with a new production of Summer of the Seventeenth Doll by Richard Mills and Peter Goldsworthy, an opera based on the iconic play of the same name by Ray Lawler. A fine Australian cast was drawn from the four corners of the country. The creative team comprised composer, Richard Mills on the podium, director Joseph Mitchell and designer Simone Romaniuk.
Originally produced in 1996, Summer of the Seventeenth Doll-the opera succeeds in translating one of the great Australian plays, one of the great Australian stories, to the operatic stage. Rather than simply cutting the play, librettist Peter Goldsworthy has fashioned a libretto which allows Richard Mills’ gloriously evocative score to ‘sing’, creating a soundscape of the 1950s as we see inside these iconic characters. We can all remember and recognise the archetypal Aussies showcased in The Doll through memory, photos or family stories. The opera is, in turn, haunting, funny, nostalgic, tragic, elegiac and familiar.
But as ‘Living in the time of Covid’ became the norm we despaired as our production of The Doll seemed to become a more and more distant dream. But I am pleased to say that on November 14, 2020, with distanced seating and after much quarantining of artists, we open our season of this Australian opera in the rebuilt Her Majesty’s Theatre in Adelaide. It is entirely fitting and a cause for celebration that alongside the challenges of the current pandemic an Australian work will herald State Opera’s return to the stage.
And it won’t be the last. We will, as part of our Lost Operas of Oz series, continue to produce Australian operas on a regular basis. These will range from chamber works with small ensembles, works for young people, solo pieces, to main stage works. We are actively planning productions of Richard Meale’s iconic Voss, Graham Koehne’s ‘detested and admired’ Love Burns, Denis Vaughn’s one-man opera The Tell Tale Heart, Paul Grabovsky and Steve Vizard’s Banquet of Secrets, Andrew Ford’s opera for children Peter Pan and former Master of the Queen’s Music Malcolm Williamson’s English Eccentrics and The Happy Prince.
So along with State Opera’s commitment to producing the best opera from four centuries of human endeavour, through our Lost Operas of Oz we are thrilled to be able to tell the Australian story, in words and music of our recent time and place. At State Opera we know we can make a lasting contribution to the musical legacy of this country by supporting the creation and development of Australian works, to hear an Australian voice. We proudly showcase the ‘Australia’ in our name.
See you at the opera!