Tag Archives: Sydney Chamber Opera

Sydney Chamber Opera, Ensemble Offspring: Biographica by Mary Finsterer

Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

Review by Alistair Noble

Opening this week as part of the Sydney Festival, Mary Finsterer’s new opera Biographica presents a satisfying opportunity to hear some splendid performers (in what, by some measures, might be considered to be Australia’s leading opera company) presenting a major new work by one of our finest living composers.

Like Elliott Gyger, whose first opera Fly Away Peter was heard in Sydney and Melbourne during 2016, Finsterer has come to the writing of opera in mid-career. Indeed, she has written very little vocal music of any kind since the 1980s, so Biographica represents a new turn for her in several respects—as vocal music, as a theatre work, and as a large-scale piece. The duration is an interesting new development as many of Finsterer’s best-known works are relatively short, while the only piece longer than 30 minutes in her published catalogue prior to Biographica was the sound-track for Shirley Barrett’s film South Solitary.

So, it would seem logical that Finsterer’s approach to composing a large-form (90-minute) opera would be informed by her experience as a composer for cinema. This does seem to be the case, and Biographica benefits from a cinematic sense of timing—but also, more importantly, from the composer’s filmic skill with pulling focus. Her strong musical personality is such that it easily takes the foreground—indeed this arresting quality has always been a key characteristic of Finsterer’s work. But here she shows a deep, 3-dimensional capacity for shifting the musical material to the middle-ground of the theatrical experience, and even at times to the full background, thus allowing space for the subtlety of a dramatic moment or gesture to be seen and felt by the audience.

Biographica is a staged meditation on the life and work of Gerolamo Cardano (1501-1576), a Renaissance polymath whose abilities and life-story make someone like Leonardo Da Vinci seem rather dull. In many ways, Cardano’s legacy is much more important—while Da Vinci left us the Mona Lisa, Cardano’s intellectual legacy (to mention just a few things) includes pioneering work on mathematical probability, theories of how to win at card games, and designs for complex universal joints that are still used today in your car. When it came to gambling, Cardano was known to be a violent player; he always set out to win by applying his mathematical theories, so card-swapping interference from old-style cheats sent him into a rage—one imagines because they upset his calculations even more than his finances.

And then there was his personal life… hell’s bells. To say that Cardano had a dysfunctional family would be a kindly euphemism. His biography begins with an illegitimate conception and his mother’s failed attempts at abortion (she is played here by Jane Sheldon). It goes downhill from there, and in the opera we witness a few select low-lights: his beloved eldest son (Simon Lobelson) was executed for poisoning his own wife; his second son (Andrew Goodwin) ended in prison for theft (but not before Cardano Sr. cut his ear off); his daughter (Jessica O’Donoghue) died of syphilis… one sad case the master physician could not cure.

How does one present a tale like this in operatic form? How does one compose an opera at all in the 21st century? The answer, as discovered by Finsterer, is in a carefully designed set of twelve tableaux, and a main character who does not sing. The part of Cardano is played by the actor Mitchell Butel with sincerity and gravity. Here is a man of towering genius, misdirected passions, and personal tragedy… yet in the end his passing is radiant. Opera, of course, was a historicist art-form from the beginning (developed in the years just following Cardano’s own lifetime) in its concerns with reinventing a lost theatrical sensibility of some imagined golden age, and in the use of historical or mythological tales as a thinly veiled means for engaging with contemporary issues. So, while it was always concerned with the past, it has never been about the past. This deep reflection on Cardano’s work and life is really about us… you and I and our magnificent, disturbing world.

To some extent, Biographica is also a more universal reflection on the relation of work to life. Cardano’s personal life is sensational in a tabloid sense, but ultimately his intellectual work is surely more important. Or maybe not? Can we separate work from life, and if so, how? As a consulting doctor to a dying archbishop, Cardano delivers a lecture on hygiene, arguing that the man himself does not require treatment, “…it is the room around him that must be cured!”. This and other insights grew from his belief in the inter-connectedness of things. The heavenly bodies, he noted, drag entire oceans in their wake as they dance through space. How could they fail to exert an equally overwhelming influence upon tiny creatures like us?

In the music for Biographica, Finsterer re-processes Renaissance musical language but not simply as pastiche, this is something more profound… and in fact the composer has been working on this opera for quite a few years, developing her thinking about this musical world through several ‘satellite’ pieces (to borrow Larry Sitsky’s phrase), such as Angelus (a 2015 trio for clarinet, cello and piano) and Silva (a concerto for percussion and ensemble composed in 2012). In these pieces, we find Renaissance materials (melodic, harmonic, and gestural) filtered through a 21st century sensibility and technique.

performed by Sydney Chamber Opera. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

How does a non-tonal composer assimilate diatonic and triadic materials meaningfully? This is not as simple a question as it sounds, and I suspect that it is in this area that the composer has made full and effective use of the several years spent developing this work. At the same time, we now notice through the filter of Biographica that intervals of 3rds (perhaps especially minor 3rds) have always been strongly present in Finsterer’s music, even in her more abstract pieces of the 1990s—as also is a tendency to build music structures around drone-like pedal points and long-held centric tones. Both of these have been made to serve as points of linkage for the incorporation of the Renaissance-inspired materials. In terms of orchestration, Finsterer is a composer who has always used extended playing techniques fluently as very natural sonorities alongside more conventional sounds, they never seem like mere effects in her music. The score for Biographica is full of lovely colours, both dramatic and subtle. The result is captivating, intelligent, and theatrically powerful.

The libretto by Tom Wright is complex and subtly nuanced, with layered textures that are an effective way to present some of the complexity of the stories and characters. The text spoken by Cardano (Mitchell Butel) is strong and offers a fine vehicle for the actor. Jane Sheldon is consistently excellent as Cardano’s mother, the special instrument of her higher register used to great effect. The omni-talented Jessica O’Donoghue (a wonderful pop singer-songwriter as well as classical performer) finds an elegant awkwardness for the tragic daughter of Cardano. One hopes to see more of her on the opera stage in future. The splendid mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser almost steals the show, both in the sense of her wonderful lower register playing a crucial part in Finsterer’s ensemble writing, and also in that her aria (tragi-comically sung as she takes a pause in dying from poison) somehow forms the dark heart of the opera, like the black hole at the centre of a galaxy.

The production is poetic, creative, and effective. Directed by Janice Muller (with support from Danielle Maas as Assistant Director), the staging is minimalist but with dark depths and surprising angles, making full use of the huge floor-space at Carriageworks. Designer Charles Davis has succeeded in creating a Renaissance effect, without the over-blown sense of a historical drama… it’s subtle enough to be almost a taste, or a philosophy, rather than a mere representation. The performance is gorgeously lit (by Matt Cox)—and the few moments in the later scenes where the lighting seems less convincing coincide with moments where a little dramatic momentum is lost generally (such as in scenes 10 and 11, and the transition to the final scene, ‘Day of Death’), suggesting that some additional rehearsal time might have been useful.

Opera is in its very nature a collaborative art-form, and this performance of Biographica is certainly the result of a very impressive and imaginative team-effort. Unlike a film or a play, however, this is a staged work that very clearly could only have been conceived by a composer, and in this sense it seems fair to give the final tribute to Mary Finsterer. Biographica is a beautiful, haunting and thought-provoking work from an important composer of our time.

Music composed by Mary Finsterer
Libretto by Tom Wright
Sydney Chamber Opera in association with Ensemble Offspring.
Carriageworks, 7-9 & 11-13 January 2017
Review by Alistair Noble

Melbourne Festival: Fly Away Peter

Brenton Spiteri in Fly Away Peter. Photo courtesy of the artist.
Brenton Spiteri in Fly Away Peter. Photo courtesy of the artist.

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


Sydney Chamber Opera: Fly Away Peter

Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.
Mitchell Riley, Brenton Spiteri and Jessica Aszodi. Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

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.

The Libretto

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.

Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.
Brenton Spiteri. Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley.

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 Ensemble

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.

Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley
Jessica Aszodi. Fly Away Peter, Sydney Chamber Orchestra, Carriageworks, 2015. Photo by Zan Wimberley

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.

The Music

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.[1] 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.

The Message

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

[1] http://www.australianmusiccentre.com.au/article/insight-fly-away-peter