Amid a rich menu of work at this year’s Sydney Festival, the new opera Antarctica is a standout. By Chantal Nguyen.

Sydney Festival 2023

A white glass box surrounded by darkness holds three people wearing 18th century garb, they are all singing and holding one hand up to the glass. Above the box is white text reading "Terra Australis".
A scene from the opera Antarctica, part of this year's Sydney Festival.
Credit: Ada Nieuwendijk

This year the Sydney Festival is titled “The Art of Summer” and the publicity graphics are all bright, beachy colours. But it’s been a strange La Niña season, with weeks of cold and rain interspersed with the more familiar sunny haze and long blue skies. With Sydney’s weather gods so temperamental, it’s fitting that some of the festival’s strongest offerings buzz with a subtle environmental consciousness.

One of the high points is Antarctica, an ambitious, hauntingly beautiful opera by composer Mary Finsterer and librettist Tom Wright. Co-commissioned by Sydney Chamber Opera and the Dutch instrumental ensemble Asko|Schönberg, it thrilled audiences when it premiered at last year’s Holland Festival.

Antarctica tells the strange tale of a ship captain’s young daughter, pulled alive from Antarctic ice in the present day but wearing seafaring clothes from two centuries before. She recounts a doomed sea voyage embarked on in 1822 by a theologian, a philosopher and a cartographer. All three were following rumours of a vast, undiscovered ice continent. And each had secret reasons, some more nefarious than others, for undertaking the perilous journey that led to the voyage’s tragic ending.

Finsterer and Wright began creating Antarctica after attending a scientific symposium with Antarctic researchers, and the music is reportedly inspired by the sound of grinding ice sheets, jellyfish and krill. It sounds nothing like what I expect: there’s no postmodern dissonance here. Finsterer’s familiarity with Renaissance music means that Antarctica sounds like a sacred oratorio for the modern ear. As with liturgical music, the songs – characterised by intertwining vocal parts and long, sensuous arcs of melody garlanded with ornamental flourishes – evoke the ineffable and pay homage to mystery.

Similarly, Wright’s words embrace the numinous rather than the empirical. Unlike a scientific report or even a conventional narrative, his libretto unfolds as a series of almost otherworldly emotional portraits. Suspended in a world of ice, desperation and hope, the characters evoke the half-dreamt memories that first beckoned them to Antarctica. The narrative falls apart only at the very end, where some questionable dramaturgy weakens the conclusion. But this is a small complaint given the sweeping beauty of everything before. Exquisitely sung by an ensemble of Australian singers and actors, with Asko|Schönberg providing seamless accompaniment, Antarctica is one of this year’s most exciting operatic productions.

Moving from the glacier to the beach, I catch Sun & Sea, a humorous climate change opera by Lithuanian artists Rugilė Barzdžiukaitė, Vaiva Grainytė and Lina Lapelytė. Winner of the Golden Lion at the 2019 Venice Biennale, this opera transforms Sydney Town Hall into a sandy beach, where sunbaking holidaymakers sing languid arias about their lives and the changing environment. Fittingly, there is no start or end time. Audience members waft in and out as they please, leaning over the Town Hall railings to enjoy the sandy spectacle below.

This is one of the best things about Sun & Sea: it wants you to shamelessly people-watch to your heart’s content. And there’s lots to see: kids play beach ball games, a pair of bored-looking teenage twins scroll on their phones, some elderly men do yoga, a glamorous woman adjusts her bikini and hands her son a fruit skewer, an older lady pulls out some knitting and – the scene-stealing star of the show – a ridiculously cute dog happily scuffs through the sand.

This opera has clearly been created with fastidious attention to dramatic detail and you never get bored watching its cast go about their beachy business. The colours are beautiful too: striped towels, blow-up pool toys and bright swimwear shine like a mosaic against the golden sand. This joie de vivre all makes the opera’s ultimate message even more heartbreaking.

Closer to home is Tracker, the dance-theatre piece by director-choreographer Daniel Riley in one of his first works as artistic director of Australian Dance Theatre. In Tracker, Riley and co-director Rachael Maza tell the story of Great-Great Uncle Alec “Tracker” Riley, the celebrated Wiradjuri Elder and tracker. Having joined the New South Wales police in 1911, Tracker’s skill led to his involvement in high-profile criminal cases, including the capture of serial killer “Mad Mossy” and the arrest of Roy Governor, the brother of Jimmy Governor of The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith. Tracker was also the first Indigenous man to hold the rank of NSW police sergeant but, despite years of service, discriminatory legislation meant he never received the police pension he had carefully saved over the decades.

This is an intimate, poignant story examining the choices Tracker made in walking that fine line between protecting his cultural heritage and working in a colonial criminal-justice system. Eschewing loud drama or didactic messaging, Maza and Riley’s script favours storytelling that is powerful in its softness, gently evoking Tracker’s skill, humility and quiet dignity. James Henry’s ambient electronic soundscape adds to this reflective, nostalgic air.

The story is told in flash-forward and backward, alternating between Tracker and his present-day great-nephew. Both roles are given a committed performance by Kalkadoon woman Abbie-lee Lewis. Recruited in last-minute gender-blind casting after the show’s original actor, Ari Maza Long, pulled out following the sudden death of his grandmother, Lewis deserves special mention for taking on such a weighty role at short notice. Part detective story, part family memoir, it is almost impossible to leave Tracker without feeling deeply moved.

The final festival headliner I see is ROOM, the most recent stage production of circus superstar – and Charlie Chaplin descendant – James Thierrée. This piece is also about environment, but one created by Thierrée. In his world, buildings are alive, walls and ceilings become quite literally distressed, musical instruments and chandeliers turn into glittering animals that scale the walls, dancers burst out of fireplaces and desks and pianos play themselves.

In all this whimsical madness, Thierrée performs the role of a frazzled architect becoming increasingly frustrated with his out-of-control building and distracted team of assistants. He is backed by an immensely talented supporting cast: every member of Thierrée’s troupe is multilingual and multiskilled, playing various instruments, singing, acting, dancing or spinning from a dizzying acrobatic pulley.

Visually and sonically, ROOM is dazzling, bursting with the inventive vision that characterises so much of Thierrée’s work. It’s also very funny – even with only half the dialogue in English, audience laughs come loud and often. While the whimsy does begin to feel a bit detached and overindulged during the final 20 minutes, this is circus theatre of a nature and quality not usually seen in Australia. 

The Sydney Festival continues until January 29.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on January 21, 2023 as "Paying homage to mystery".

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