The origin-stories of works can shed light upon their final shape. Gordon Kerry’s new opera Snow White began in May 2014, when Kerry attended a production of Carmen by Opera Scholars Australia at the Old Melbourne Gaol. Graeme Wall, director of Australian Music Events, approached Kerry about writing a stage work for the Opera Scholars. With the support of an old friend also present at the concert, Kerry agreed to write a modern opera on a libretto by the Australian poet John Kinsella. But writing for the Opera Scholars posed challenges. The work was to be the first contemporary opera that many of the young singers would ever perform, it had to accommodate a high number of soloists, and it had to be satisfying to Kerry as an experienced composer of contemporary music. The fairy tales collected by the Grimm brothers were just the thing. Five short stories included numerous solo parts, while their gruesome content provided opportunities for chromatic, expressionistic vocal lines.
Faced with this set of challenges, Kerry, Kinsella, the Opera Scholars, and the Hopkins Sinfonia presented a triumphant new piece of repertoire for young singers. The palpable foreboding of the tales is evident from the opening act, “The Seven Ravens.” The leaping, bird-like harp part (provided electronically by Jodie Lockyer) contrasts with the sinister, syncopated chorus of brothers who have been transformed into crows for carelessly dropping a pitcher of water into a river (not much room for error in Grimm). Josephine Grech sympathetically sang the part of the sister who bravely saves the brothers from their avian fate.
After the first act’s creepy cawing, Stephen Coutts’ powerful solo as the rich farmer in “The Grave Mound” broadened the expressive range of the opera. It is unfortunate that Coutts disappears into the eponymous grave mound so soon, but the audience was rewarded with a timely parable about same-sex parenting. A poor man inherits the rich farmer’s wealth on the condition that he watches over the rich man’s grave when he dies. A soldier, hanging around the graveyard late one night, stumbles across the poor man and agrees to spend the night with him. The devil tries to lure them away from the graveside with gold, but the soldier tricks the devil to remain until daybreak, at which point he melts away leaving a large sack of gold. The soldier and the (now rich) poor man retire to the latter’s house to look after his children together. They finish with a beautiful duet about how happy they will be together.
The star of “Snow White” would have to be Elizabeth Barrow as the evil queen who, as well as performing strongly throughout, screams and dies excellently in red-hot iron shoes. The act is a lesson in rapid storytelling and Kerry evidently enjoyed challenge of illustrating such a hectic plot line with clever effects and allusions. A crunchy chord in the woodwind accompanies Snow White’s mother’s fatal pin-prick. The forest is painted with echoes of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande. The words “over the mountain” are accompanied by a particularly juicy cello line (Belinda Liew). Things turn very Lord of the Rings once Snow White gets across said mountains and meets the seven marvelously beardy dwarves. So effective was the costuming that I’m completely unable to single out particular singers beneath the hair. Their funeral chorus was very affecting, however.
“The Peasant in Heaven” is one long gag. A rich man and a poor man arrive at the gates of heaven and the poor man is ignored while the rich man is welcomed with fanfare. The peasant asks whether he is a second-class citizen in heaven as on earth. St. Peter reassures the peasant that this is not at all the case; he is just happy because it is so uncommon for a rich man to reach heaven. The story is actually an acute critique of privilege blindness. The rich man enters heaven oblivious to his preferential treatment, being accustomed to that extra centimeter of smile when he arrives at airport gates. Meanwhile, the poor man is asked to accept inferior treatment just this once, on account of the exceptional arrival of the rich man. Of course the poor man would have experienced the same dismissive treatment many times on earth, at the doors to schools, jobs, and concerts, even if the perpetrators never meant it intentionally. Stephen Marsh brilliantly sings the part of St. Peter as a besuited schmoozer, a sort of business development officer claiming to be on the side of the poor man, but who is dressed to better welcome rich men. He’ll angle for a donation later, after a personalised tour of heaven’s deteriorating organ pipes.
Kerry did not save his best work to last. Like many folk tales, “The Old Woman in the Wood” has a repetitive plot line. Kerry chose to cut and paste material for each repetition, rather than increase dramatic tension or musical interest by differentiating the score. Janneke Ferwerda acted and sang with conviction as another heroic young woman. Tim Daly’s clear voice doubled well as a tree and a dove.
Full of compelling vocal lines, Kerry has produced a dramatic collection of short stage works. Snow White is ideal for any young operatic ensemble seeking to gain experience performing contemporary music. The Opera Scholars rose to the challenge with grit and charisma, proving themselves a versatile troupe of operatic performers.
Opera Scholars Australia
Snow White and Other Grimm Tales
Libretto by John Kinsella
Music by Gordon Kerry
Melbourne Recital Centre
28 May 2015