To set the scene, I put on make-up and an evening dress, turn the lights low and sit down at my computer. It’s not quite the pleasure of a glass of wine with a friend, waiting outside a concert hall, or the expectant hum of a seated audience, but still, this was the world premiere of a quartet of new operas the music world had been looking forward to before everything shut down. It seemed appropriate to make an effort for the occasion.
Sydney Chamber Opera, co-founded by its conductor, Jack Symonds, in 2010, has a track record of commissioning new works performed with a small orchestra, a financially manageable vocal cast and minimalist mise en scène. One memorable production was a take on David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter – music by Elliott Gyger, libretto by Pierce Wilcox – performed in the presence of the author in 2015. Another, in 2018, was an unearthly and metaphorical meditation on the audibility of the female voice in society, The Howling Girls, by Damien Ricketson and Adena Jacobs.
SCO was set to premiere a quartet of short operas, Breaking Glass, by rising composers, who happened all to be women, at Carriageworks in Sydney on March 28. Then, the pandemic intervened. And so, the premiere took place last Saturday instead, broadcast on the SCO’s Facebook page. It was not live-streamed but filmed in rehearsal and edited into a polished offering.
Peggy Polias, Bree van Reyk, Georgia Scott and Josephine Macken are the four composers behind Breaking Glass. At the end of 2017, they were named to the Sydney Conservatorium’s two-year Composing Women program, mentored by the renowned Liza Lim.
The evening opens with Scott’s Her Dark Marauder, inspired by the life and work of Sylvia Plath. The singers – soprano Jane Sheldon, mezzo Jessica O’Donoghue and baritone Simon Lobelson – are seated, responsibly socially distanced, on rocks in a sea of clouds. Each has a manual typewriter. Each begins to groan, then shout repetitively:
No one will trouble me
… When I am in the ground
Let me burn
The music is abstract, but the voices are harmonious. The vocal lines build into long sweeping cadences, interrupted by staccato interventions. Occasionally there are spoken voiceovers. The singers shift only a little, standing and sitting again, in movements with titles such as “First”, “Diagnosis” and “Inspiration”. A large white oblong adorns the back wall; it will come to life as a giant pixelated screen in the later works.
Her Dark Marauder is about the position of intelligent, sensitive and creative women in a patriarchal world. It is about despair and suicidal ideation. From the start though, the mood is less one of fear – despite the libretto – or even foreboding, than of deep mourning. It is sad and beautiful.
The screen goes dark for a little while at the end of the work before the second opera – Commute by Peggy Polias – begins. Fascinatingly double-layered, it is a feminine interpretation of Odysseus’s voyage home after the Trojan War, overlaid with the dangers faced now by women walking home at night.
A woman, played by O’Donoghue, stands in business-like attire on one side of the stage. Two men, Lobelson and Mitchell Riley, dressed in suits, stand on the other side issuing grunting sounds that are neither quite shouted nor sung. The screen behind them has become a pixelated high-tech monochrome and the men begin to move towards her. The music is menacing. As they reach her, she cringes, holding her bag to her chest. The screen goes dark.
When the opera reappears, the subtitle reads: “EPISODE I/O HEKATONCHEIRIS/THE HUNDRED-HANDED”. The woman begins to move, tall and slightly stooped as though injured or defeated. The screen springs back to life: in a video, a man’s hands, which will become several hands, begin to clap and to rub together. A loud and rhythmic clapping sound emerges. Men’s voices begin to count in Greek.
The woman will sing of the Cyclops’ vision and mentions Homer’s “wine-dark sea”. She sings of the abyss of memory and of it fading with tears and time. The horror, in essence, of rape. The screen has transformed into the giant iris of an eye, which frames her as she creeps. The men, like a Greek chorus, sing, a little incomprehensibly but ominously, of men.
O’Donoghue’s performance is mesmerising. The music is tumultuous and rhythmic, but her singing is as slow and tentative as her steps. Her voice is a perfect vehicle for the almost mediaeval style of her part. The whole piece is intense, riven with historical subtexts – of the real horror stories we’ve heard of women attacked in the dark on their way home, as well as Odysseus’s heroic journey.
Another strange journey begins in The Tent by Josephine Macken, based on Margaret Atwood’s 2006 collection of experimental writings. Rather than being emotive and gender-political, however, Macken’s opera is cool and scientific in the face of ecological catastrophe. Three singers – Riley, Sheldon and Lobelson – are dressed as lab technicians and stand behind desks in a row across the stage. The concept of social distancing keeps coming to mind, unbidden.
The music begins with a low and portentous thrumming, leavened by tinselly percussion. On the desks, light boxes are embedded, and ring binders lie beside them. The singers open the binders, bring out photographic plates and place them on the light boxes. The section titles are words such as “FERN” and “SPORE” and “LICHEN”.
Macken’s music, broken and sporadic, demands attention. The singers blurt out words, then sing their scientific explorations. The violins and woodwind emerge sometimes urgently, sometimes lyrically, sometimes thoughtfully. The whole exudes a pulsing sense of urgency.
Breaking Glass’s final piece, The Invisible Bird by Bree van Reyk, is the least successful of the evening, largely due to the direction. The story is delightful: a rare piece of good news in the late Anthropocene, about an Australian parrot found not to be extinct. The work’s execution, however, is bizarre. O’Donoghue, Riley and Sheldon are in formal evening wear and dance a vaudevillian shuffle, à la Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, before singing what amounts to a rollcall of Australian bird names.
Too static to be visually gripping, too literal to be conceptually interesting, it contains only one interlude towards the end that rises to the occasion, when Sheldon, clad in a short, feathered cloak the colours of the night parrot, moves into a glass specimen case. The music becomes more emotionally expressive and the message more poetically clear. The cloak’s feathers are pulled off and dropped one by one. Existential sadness permeates the stage.
But then, the literal re-emerges. The line “and then another was found alive” is repeated many times in a return to grinning vaudeville. And the moment is lost.
Soon after, the screen goes dark. My evening at the opera is over. But who to discuss the music, the design, the movement with? Who to argue with? All new works are particularly contentious. These were demanding performances executed thrillingly with, as always, some caveats with which not everyone will agree.
Perhaps, as these events become the norm – one hopes only temporarily – we will begin to plan ahead. To organise Zoom parties with our friends, say, to re-create the sociability of the theatre and to give vent to the thoughts that accumulate as an evening at the opera unfolds. Although nothing, in truth, could ever replace the feeling of being there.
Breaking Glass will remain on the Carriageworks website, free to the public, at carriageworks.com.au/journal/breaking-glass-sydney-chamber-opera/
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 2, 2020 as "Top of the Glass".
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