So what do you have to do to get a new Australian opera off the ground? The answer is ‘a lot’.
Australians are among the most avid early adopters of new technologies. The culture of the ‘new’ is a phenomenon which is a re flection not only of Australia’s general a ffluence, but of a society that is hankering for faster, quicker, more immediate experiences. This hunger for new technologies doesn’t seem to translate as vigorously into a hunger for culture that is new. Never has this been so evident than in the search for the ‘great new Australian musical’ and, in parallel, the ‘great new Australian opera’. Audiences absorb and accept creative works from overseas, but work which is generated locally is viewed through far more critical eyes. A pervasive cultural cringe still impacts on the audiences’ acceptance of home-grown works, no matter how good they are. Sometimes they’re not very good. At other times they might be brilliant, but they never see the light of day, or, more saddening, get performed once and are never seen again. So what do you have to do to get a new Australian opera off the ground? The answer is ‘a lot’. State Opera SA’s world premiere of Cloudstreet! – the opera based on Tim Winton’s classic Australian novel – in May 2016 is the culmination of a process which began more than five years earlier. Unusually, it is a process that did not involve direct commissioning of the work. Composer George Palmer approached director Gale Edwards to assist him in pulling together a series of separate musical pieces based on Cloudstreet, the novel. And so began a process of dramaturgy and dynamically evolving dialogue and composition that resulted in a (self-funded) workshop of much of Act One of this new work in Sydney in 2012. That presentation was filmed and distributed to opera companies and presenters around Australia, in the hope of generating interest in taking it further. State Opera SA (SOSA) took the bait, e ffectively joining the process part of the way in. I then joined the creative process, commuting regularly to Sydney over many months, to sit around Gale Edwards’ kitchen table, while George, Gale and I worked to develop the as yet unwritten Act Two, which SOSA planned to present in workshop in early 2014. Much of the heavy lifting with the new material happened around that table, and via hundreds of emails and phone calls between Adelaide and Sydney. SOSA funded a two-week workshop with 15 singers in February 2014, breathing life into the notes and words on paper. George Palmer also created the libretto, drawing heavily on Tim Winton’s text from the novel, and an enormous amount of discussion ensued about which parts of the novel to include, and which to omit. Cloudstreet, the play, lasted nearly four-and-a-half hours. Cloudstreet, the miniseries, lasted a number of nights. Distilling Cloudstreet!, the opera, into something that was shorter than the Wagner Ring Cycle was paramount or the work simply wouldn’t succeed. As a result, quite a lot of beautiful material ended up discarded. Ironically, many of these were the sections we loved the most, but if they didn’t progress the story then they had to go. The Act Two workshop made it clear that the opera was not only viable, but incredible. With assistance from the Federal Ministry for the Arts, SOSA staged a further workshop in late 2015, this time of Act One (which in its earlier 2012 incarnation, had not undergone the rigorous kitchen table culling applied to Act Two). This two-week process allowed the work to be further distilled and re fined. To get the work to this stage took more than five years of behind the scenes creation and one-and-a-half months of workshops, with many singers, musical and production sta ff engaged to bring it to fruition, not to mention literally thousands of hours of meetings, discussions and creative input. With a blueprint for the work roughly in place, all of the other theatrical and musical elements had to be brought into play – with costumes and sets designed and built, orchestrations written for the more than 4,000 bars of music that comprise the opera – a collective process which will continue to evolve right up to the last possible moment. It’s a monumental and truly serious commitment. The creation of a new work like this involves scores of theatrical professionals. Still, it is no guarantee of success. In times of economic uncertainty, audiences are reluctant to risk their valuable dollars on something they don’t know. This is the biggest risk – investing considerable sums of money to create something brilliant and new, but not knowing if people will take a chance on it. However, these new works are spoken in the language of now. Taking that step into the unknown can lead to experiences like no other. If we pride ourselves on being clever country, then we need to rediscover a hunger for new culture so that our technologically savvy society is also genuinely culturally progressive and engaged. Timothy Sexton is the CEO and Artistic Director of State Opera SA Cloudstreet! Thursday, May 12 to Saturday, May 21 Her Majesty’s Theatre saopera.sa.gov.au