The surreal style of David Malouf’s novel Fly Away Peter attracted Elliott Gyger when searching for a text for a companion piece to Stravinsky’s The Soldier’s Tale. The Soldier’s Tale is one of Western art music’s great false starts. An colourful ensemble of clarinet, bassoon, cornet, trombone, percussion, violin, and double bass is chain-ganged into the service of a second-rate text. Composed in the wake of the First World War, the folk-tale of a soldier selling his violin to the devil says too little about the events that had just shaken Europe. Writers and composers have since tried to give the work teeth. In 1993 Kurt Vonnegut reworked the text into a tale about the first soldier in the United States military to be executed for desertion. Gyger’s companion piece takes the same ensemble, but provides it with new music, a new text, and even a few new instruments. To Gyger, writing for Resonate Magazine, surrealism is an essential prerequisite for “the wonderful absurdities of the operatic medium.” But surrealism is also an essential strategy for dealing with the incomprehensible carnage of war. Fly Away Peter, produced by Sydney Chamber Opera for the second time as part of the 2015 Melbourne Festival, does not reduce the First World War to a dadaist romp. Instead, like a musical Malouf, Gyger carefully balances clear binaries and their fragmentation.
Clancy is torn apart half-way through the novel. The protagonist Jim Saddler rests to take tea after loading supplies for the trenches. Clancy approaches carrying a billy and mugs. Suddenly Jim is covered in blood and Clancy is nowhere to be seen. Clancy had been struck by a “minnie,” one of the German minenwerfer or trench mortars that bombarded the Western Front in the First World War. The traumatic event separates the optimism of Jim’s bird-watching days in Australia from his hardened military career in the trenches. On the surface, the novel is rife with such clear thematic binaries (as a generation of Australian high-school students will tell you): Birds and biplanes, natural and human timescales, life and death. But surreal fragmentation, disorientation, and dismemberment pervade the novel from one end to the other. The novel’s emblem is not the bird, but the minnie.
The novel’s fragmented binaries are reflected in Gyger’s music. The score is based on a grid of 21 five-note chords. The pitches of the chords are fixed in register, covering the entire range of the ensemble. Taking his cue from the libretto’s binary of earth and air, each chord is mirrored by another, inversionally-symmetrical chord, resulting in a “landscape-like” grid of pitches. The piece’s pitch profile generally moves from treble to bass as the characters move from halcyon Australia to the battlefield, an aural sensation obvious to all. But instead of simply choosing chords from the lower half of his pitch grid, Gyger reconfigures and layers the grid when Jim reaches the battlefield. The symmetrical binary established at the beginning of the piece is “turned inside out” by Gyger’s musical minnie. One can hear this device as evoking war’s effect on bodies, their dismemberment and distribution over vast areas. It can also be heard as war’s effect on the mind, or more precisely, as evoking the new understanding of human subjectivity to which the War gave rise.
The libretto by Pierce Wilcox is set out in three columns, one for each of the principal voices here stunningly performed by Mitchell Riley (baritone) Jessica Aszodi (mezzo-soprano), and Brenton Spiteri (tenor). In this way Wilcox reflects the fragmented subjectivity of the novel’s central trio. Each character is gifted their own distinct faculty of knowing the world around them. The landowner Ashley Crowther is a musician who reverts to tuneless singing when at a loss for words, Imogen Harcourt the nature photographer captures the world in images, while Jim has a unique gift for the names of birds. Like the three wise monkeys of Japanese mythology, they are the three innocent monkeys who have not yet heard, seen, or spoken evil. Only the omniscient narrative voice has access to all three faculties of hearing, seeing, and naming. The distributed subjectivity of the trio prefigures Jim’s psychoanalytic observation, made while drenched in Clancy’s blood—though in the detached voice of the narrator—: “The body’s wholeness, it seemed to him, was an image a man carried in his head.” Fly Away Peter shows how the trauma of war reveals the imperfect and multifaceted knowledge we have of ourselves and our environments.
The surrealism of Fly Away Peter is therefore found at the meeting point of intense sensation and detachment. The story is the perfect match for Gyger’s detailed and transparent compositional style. The opera opens with gorgeous birdsong transcribed for the violin of James Wannan. Moments later Jim is taken on a terrifying ride in a biplane painted with little more than a gentle drum roll. At times I found myself gliding along these surface-level depictions. But if one pays more attention to the music, Gyger’s rich harmonic landscape flies by in full colour.
The beautiful staging by Elizabeth Gadsby is also both schematic and affecting. Dozens of blue buckets of clay are the opera’s only props. Their varied placement around the five-tiered white stage is an art installation in itself. They begin in asymmetrical patterns, but finish ranged in rows like tombstones. This minimalist staging evokes suffocating terror as the singers cover themselves in the clay.
The whole experience flits past so quickly that I feel the work will reward multiple viewings and stagings. Riley, Aszodi, and Spiteri seamlessly and effectively switch between characters and scenes in the retaking of a violin bow. Ultimately the strength of these performers hold together a challenging new work.
Fly Away Peter
Composed by Elliott Gyger
Libretto by Pierce Wilcox
Based on the novel by David Malouf
Sydney Chamber Opera
The Melbourne Festival
The State Theathre
21 October 2015