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Opera in Australia

Opera in Australia - Bliss


With several original Australian operas achieving resounding success on the national and international stages, 3MBS asked three key figures in the field to answer questions about Australian opera and where they think it is heading.

Stuart Greenbaum (SG) – Composer, Parrot Factory
Deborah Cheetham (DC) – Composer/Creator, Pecan Summer
Alan Gilmour (AG) – Composer, The Australian Constitution: ten small operas about one big country

Do you think local operatic compositions and productions have something particularly ‘Australian’ about them?

SG: I think that productions, especially, tend to have a local flavour because first and foremost, the lead singing cast are predominantly local and bring with them Australian mannerisms. But all facets of a production from musicians through to costume, set design and lighting bring aspects of culture that filter through on some level (even if the opera is not ostensibly set in Australia).

The operas themselves are widely varied and I think are harder to identify as Australian unless the libretto is set in or referencing ‘Australia’. Musical language, in general, is highly global and increasingly cross-saturated by multiple influences so each new Australian opera ideally needs to be contemplated on its own terms.

DC: They can and, in the case of Pecan Summer, there is a quintessentially Australian voice. At the same time I feel it is important to recognise the universal themes which will inevitably embody a work which deals with our humanity.

Opera in Australia - Alan Gilmour

Alan Gilmour

AG: There is a strong desire for uniquely Australian works but to create them raises a range of questions: in a multi-cultural community, whose story do we reflect? What musical palette do composers need? Is the Opera House the best setting for new works, or can you connect to more people in a different location? Do we need to bring the audience towards us, or do we have to go and meet them?

Audiences want to see a reflection of themselves in their art and opera companies could do more to meet this need. My most recent work, The Australian Constitution: ten small operas about one big country, was made of little slices of Australian life and we had audience members in tears every night, just through the joy of seeing their story on stage.

My interest is in new operas that ask the questions which define modern Australia: who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? If our new works can answer these, then opera will be truly Australian.

What role, if any, do you think Australian opera has in stimulating social debate or in critiquing contemporary Australian society?

Opera in Australia - Deborah Cheetham

Deborah Cheetham

DC: Opera certainly has the power to make you feel and I believe it can, in its story telling capacity, have the power to make you think. As Australians we have been slow to celebrate stories that are truly our own. So often we have been content to celebrate our role in another nation's story. The exception to this of course is in sport, that other great theatrical arena. So much of our history remains untold and yet understanding where we have come from is so critical to understanding who we are. A heavy burden for opera, you might think! However, within the Indigenous tradition of opera, or Corroboree – the ceremonial practice of telling stories through song, dance, costume and drama – as we call it, thousands of years of tradition, culture and identity have been handed down from generation to generation. It is how we know who we are as Indigenous Australians, it is part of our survival story.

AG: One of the great responsibilities of all art is to trigger debate and opera is in a great place to ask questions of its culture and setting. Opera companies in Australia are heavyweight cultural institutions, so would be listened to, while the timeframe of writing new operas means a work will be a considered response, rather than controversy for controversy’s sake. I don’t think that we need to make works that critique Australian society. We should aim to develop new operas that question all humanity through the prism of Australia, in the way that Shakespeare’s plays focus on humanity’s weaknesses and obsessions, no matter their setting.

I know that there is an audience for works engaging in Australian debate, as long as they are of a similar standard to the operatic canon. Nothing scares away audiences quicker than being presented with token works about social issues. However, if you present a work that is brilliant, resonant and uses a social issue to look at the big questions of Australia and all humanity, you will not only have huge success here, you will have created an Australian addition to the operatic canon.

SG: Well opera as an art form can definitely be a mechanism for stimulating social debate, though I also think that art should be art in and of itself first and foremost, and secondarily may be politically, historically or socially relevant. Setting out with the aim of propaganda in the first instance is unlikely to yield wonderful art. For composers, the opera stage allows for almost any sort of libretto. I am attracted to librettos that say something about who we are while telling a story that could be set anywhere. There are many myths about the nature of Australians. I was mystified some years ago when John Howard wanted ‘mateship’ to be written into the preamble of the constitution. As if we had a mortgage on it. But there probably are many subtle aspects of contemporary Australian society that define us. The trouble with jingoism is the attempt to reduce this to a word. Perhaps one of the wonderful things about a book or a play and maybe even more so an opera is that thousands of ordinary words and notes can somehow combine to make us feel something complex that we cannot reduce to a simple sentence.

Where do you see Australian opera in 10 years?

Opera in Australia - Stuart Greenbaum

Stuart Greenbaum

SG: Having written two of them so far (The Parrot Factory and Nelson), hopefully not dead and buried! There are many different ways to present opera but it is an expensive art form and we have just had a federal election campaign that ignored the arts and whose main protagonists seemed unsure of the value of compassion and humanity. However all is not lost, for opera does deal very effectively with the psychology of betrayal.

I think that the opera dollar (whatever that ends up being) would be well spent across a diverse range of small, medium and large offerings, hopefully inclusive of contemporary work.

DC: The face of opera in Australia is constantly changing. Pecan Summer will make a contribution to this as have The Eternity Man, Batavia, Parrot Factory and Bliss, to name but a few.

Our stories, whether sung, spoken, danced or written become part of who we are as a nation. Opera will continue to play a role as Australia matures beyond being young and, hopefully, towards being free.

AG: If you ask someone in London about their image of Australia, they would either say Uluru or the Opera House, so they would be amazed to hear our worries about the future of opera in Australia. How can you question your own icons?

For me, the question is more about the desire to move opera away from the classics towards a younger, funkier genre reflecting contemporary multi-cultural Australia. I see a division in the next 10 years between larger companies at the Opera House and smaller companies staging fresh operas in non-standard spaces, often for single performances.

However, I think the Holy Grail in the next 10 years will be companies that can provide elite performances of the classical canon and then reappear as younger fresh-faced companies, developing new works that are closer to live art than theatre-based performance. Musician training at places like the Australian National Academy of Music and The Melbourne Conservatorium at the University of Melbourne are preparing students to work in different environments and to have a different approach to classical music. The combination of audience desire for new works and artists’ ability to create and present new music will really push opera forwards and make it a major player in Australian arts over the next decade.

This article originally appeared in OnAir, 3MBS's Program Guide, mailed out each month to all 3MBS supporters.

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