Review by Alistair Noble
A Triumph for Contemporary Opera
Elliott Gyger’s masterful opera, given a polished and committed première performance by Sydney Chamber Opera this week, is surely one of the major musical events of the year. It takes on even greater significance in the context of the ever-more conservative, fearful programming of the major musical institutions in Australia such as Opera Australia. This is not the place to rehash the recent public debates about the value or nature of contemporary opera but it is necessary to acknowledge that Gyger’s work serves as a perfect rebuttal of the foolish arguments put forward by those who think opera should be no more modern than Puccini, or no more radical than a Broadway musical. One can only hope that the prime-movers of such regressive notions have the courage to attend Fly Away Peter. If they did, they might well learn something from the experience.
During the past few days, we have seen the opera gain an exceptional degree of critical attention and acclaim in the mainstream media, reflecting not only the inherent qualities of the work and of the performance, but also the sense that the full-house audiences were in the presence of something powerful, significant, and above all beautiful. Contemporary opera is alive and successful in Australia, but it’s not in the Opera House. Perhaps that is a good thing. Poetic, provocative, beautiful, and haunting, Fly Away Peter is work that surely must have a strong future. There have already been calls for this production to tour, and I have no doubt that other companies will be keen to stage it in future years.
Cashing in on the ANZAC centenary juggernaut, the publicity for Fly Away Peter gave the impression of this being a war-themed opera. I must admit to some initial scepticism about the work for this very reason and if one did take the marketing hooks as the basis for interpretation it would be deeply problematic. Viewed as a simple war opera, it would be hard to justify such a poetic treatment, which flies dangerously close to romanticising death and destruction. As Adorno famously wrote in 1951, »nach Auschwitz ein Gedicht zu schreiben, ist barbarisch«, and surely one could argue much the same for the appallingly stupid horrors of WW1—and yet we keep at it. Fortunately, Fly Away Peter is not really a war opera, and perhaps only tangentially concerned with the war at all—in this way arguably similar to Malouf’s original book. To my relief, I found that the opera soars above and beyond the limitation of war-commemoration and is much concerned with larger issues of genuine human concerns about the nature of our meaningfulness in the world. In this sense, it is a work of incisive contemporary relevance and not at all a historical drama.
David Malouf’s novella Fly Away Peter (1982) is justly renowned for the lyrical poeticism of its descriptive writing. Malouf sings his landscapes and characters lovingly to life with words that convey much more than is written, opening spaces for imagination and wonder. Dramatically, it presented some challenges to the librettist, in so far as there is not a great deal of direct dialogue and indeed not a great deal of plot—some of the key ‘action’ takes place off set, or off the page, and what remains serves more as material for contemplation than drama. Pierce Wilcox has done a very artful job of creating the libretto for the opera, and his text serves as the structuring vehicle for both Gyger’s music and the dreamlike world of Imara Savage’s staging.
The cavernous industrial space of the Carriageworks theatre works very well for the set designed by Elizabeth Gadsby—an assymetrical pyramid of giant steps washed over with white clay. This set, like many aspects of the work, is only simple at first glance. As the piece unfolds we find that the production is elegantly minimalist, with a well thought-out function and poetry that goes far beyond the merely minimal. The only props are simple blue buckets, laid out across the steps in different ways at different times, and containing the white clay that gradually ends up smeared over characters clothes and bodies. There is a nuanced ambiguity in this, as one wonders whether the humans are growing out of the mud, or dissolving into it.
I particularly enjoyed Verity Hampson’s lighting of this production, which uses angled side-lights to play with the singers’ shadows on the huge expanses of concrete wall at Carriageworks. This contributed strongly to the dreamlike, poetic nature of the work as one’s eye was drawn back and forth between the bodies of the singers on the set and their giant, puppet-like figures moving across the walls. As the opera progressed, this created a magical sense of a multi-layered drama in which certain aspects are played out on the ground and embodied, while others are metaphysically projected into other realms of being or consciousness.
The singing cast of Mitchell Riley, Brenton Spiteri and Jessica Aszodi have a considerable burden to carry as the only characters on stage for the 80-minute uninterrupted play. The success of this present production is certainly due in large part not just to their individual abilities but their strength as a remarkably unified ensemble. Their actual characters are not fixed, as they fluidly shift from their main parts to speak for others at different times, and to sometimes voice more abstractedly reflective or poetic words—and even birdsongs.
It is clear that Gyger composed for these particular voices, making careful use of their individual abilities and strengths. Spiteri has a beautiful, effortless tenor voice that is wonderfully consistent in tone across its range and brings a refined lyricism to his main character of the wealthy landowner Ashley Crowther. Riley’s voice is in some ways more complex, with gear-shifts that complement the youthful athleticism and foal-like awkwardness of his character Jim Saddler, a working man and passionate bird-fancier. In the final, transfigurative scene of the opera, Gyger makes a sensational use of Riley’s powerful falsetto. Jessica Aszodi’s part as the middle-aged photographer Imogen Harcourt is also judiciously composed to use her distinctive and always well-controlled voice to great effect. She has a challenging role to play in some respects, as her character is sometimes part of the main action, sometimes drifting to one side as a kind of chorus, and at other times chatting with the two soldiers (Jim and Ashley) far away on the Western Front, as all three meet in world of the mind that is the centre of gravity of the opera. Her strong lower register proves useful, as her vocal line at times sits within the same space as the male voices; on a musical level as well as a dramatic one she can move in and out of the men’s world.
Supporting and embracing the theatrical core of the vocal parts, the instrumental ensemble directed by Jack Symonds is very strong and colourful. There is terrific playing from all seven members of the group (violin, double bass, clarinet, bassoon, trumpet, trombone, percussion), while violinist James Wannan and percussionist Alison Pratt both play key roles with flair and sensitivity.
Gyger’s music is always skilful, cleverly designed, poetic and elegant. All these characteristics serve to bring out the subtleties of Fly Away Peter’s libretto and, perhaps more importantly, provide the background energy and structure that carries the play forward with a compelling momentum. The overall musical cohesion of the piece is a tremendous feat—it successfully feels like one great sweep of music and theatre rather than a succession of set-pieces and scenes. This is achieved partly by the use of a carefully planned set of harmonic structures, in which chords and (by extrapolation) melodic lines relate to each other by vertical symmetry—an analogue for the air and earth relations that are fundamental to the text.
These particular harmonies, and the way in which they are used for much of the work, enable the creation of music that has a lovely, radiant transparency. This is the source, I feel, of the beautiful dreamlike character of the opera overall, that is sympathetically translated to set, staging and lighting by the production team. At the point of the play where the two young men are translated to the war-zone, the chord materials are re-organised to be more dense, with the harmonic shift being heralded by a skilfully phrased drum solo that grows out of the sound of an aircraft engine. Later sections of the opera seem to move between these two sound-worlds, of the radiantly spacious on one hand and the more claustrophobic, entrapped on the other.
Although the instrumental septet is a conscious replica of Stravinsky’s Soldier’s Tale ensemble (1918), there is little other reference to Stravinsky’s work—except perhaps obliquely in the magnificent jazz-age rhythms that drive the aircraft/war section of the opera. Gyger uses the small ensemble in such a colourful way that one cannot help thinking that the large orchestras of conventional symphonically-oriented opera are a little redundant. From the intimacy of brief solos to the massed sound of the full ensemble, a universe of sound is encompassed. The use of muted brass and bowed percussion add another layer of affective colours.
With the ornithological focus of the story, it was inevitable that the composer must consider the use of birdsong in the music. Gyger has made skilful use of transcribed birdsongs in some sections of the opera—more in the manner of Messiaen than of Sculthorpe, in so far as the songs are not simple effects but integrated with the musical materials in interesting and powerful ways, moving across registers and woven through the harmonies. In a very interesting recent article, Gyger has noted that this use of birdsong has introduced two new kinds of material to his work: glissandos, and microtones. This is, I feel, very significant. At the age of 46, Gyger has given us his first opera—and at the same time the project has changed his music. To some extent this illustrates how important it can be for composers to have opportunities such as this, to collaborate with writers and dramatists, and in the process to inspire us also to reinvent our worlds.
Opera is an inherently strange artistic medium—it is by nature contrived, an extremity of artifice. How could this possibly be made relevant to us as Australians in the 21st century? In this, one senses the significance of the broader achievement of Fly Away Peter: Gygyer has demonstrated that it is possible to write theatrical vocal music that is singable without being simple, that is expressive without being cheesy or melodramatic, that invites us to suspend disbelief and enter the world of imagination that is opera itself. Rather than being stuffy and elitist, this is a universe where each of us hears to some extent our own voices, and where we observe ourselves acting out the drama of human existence.
How, the character of Jim asks, can we as fragile individuals stand against such a leviathan as war? He has a vision of a future in which people are herded into cattle-trucks… and he is not only speaking of the holocaust but warning us of our own loss of freedom, of the ways in which we too are herded. The things Jim understands, his natural abilities, seem worthless in this world.
Fly Away Peter is an opera about ordinary people being caught up in the great meat-grinder of history. It is about powerlessness. It reminds us that the things we love and understand (symbolised by birds and seedling plants) have no value in the economy of politics and war (wars, after all, are not started by armies but by politicians). Similarly, human life and the natural environment we inhabit seem to have all value leached away, dissolved into the barren mud. And yet, after the tide of inhuman ‘great event’ has turned, these simple, individual activities and delights revive. The war recedes into the form of a near-meaningless nightmare, while ghosts dreaming of birds on the estuary at home in Queensland become ever more meaningful and real.
To some extent, Fly Away Peter strikes me as a manifesto of very current relevance: to what sinister machineries of state/nation/ideology/economy are we (unwittingly) serving as the cannon-fodder? To what limited extent is there scope for resistance? What are the dreams and loves that we would cling to, that bring beauty and meaningfulness to our brief lives, and form our only true legacy?
– Alistair Noble
Fly Away Peter
Music by Elliott Gyger
Libretto by Pierce Wilcox from the novella by David Malouf
Sydney Chamber Opera
Carriageworks 2-9 May 2015