State Opera will premiere its adaptation of one of Australia’s great novels as part of its 2016 season.
Practically every library in Australia worth its name, and many a home too, is likely to have a well-thumbed copy of Cloudstreet lying around. Since it appeared 24 years ago and subverted the canon of modern literature, Tim Winton’s classic novel about the Australian spirit has worn well. Its various incarnations attest to that, including a wonderful play adapted by Nick Enright and a highly successful TV mini-series. Next comes Cloudstreet! the opera. Presently in its final stages of development and premiering in Adelaide next May, we’ll just have to wait and see what kind of opera it is going to be. But five years of toil and dedication from Sydney composer and former NSW Supreme Court Justice, George Palmer, and Adelaide-born theatre director Gale Edwards have gone into creating it. Winton himself has no direct part in the project, though we do know he has given his consent and enthusiastically supports it. We also know that Cloudstreet! closely follows the novel in chronicling 20 years of personal stories inside a “great continent of a house” in suburban Perth as two working class families try to make it under the same roof. Palmer worked alone for two years adapting the text and composing the music before bringing his sketches to Edwards. “It was his lovechild,” she says. “When he brought it to me it was in bits and pieces with no dramatic sweep,” she says. “I could see how wonderful its potential could be. I think his music is fabulous – it’s a soaring and deeply moving score spanning everything from Kurt Weill to vaudeville and Tchaikovsky”. “The interesting thing also is that because George’s background is in law, this made him remarkably open to collaboration. He’s not a person who has put a lot of shows on the theatre stage, and he’s really open in terms of ideas of what to do. I would also say he is incredibly faithful to the original. There is an almost vaudevillian flavour in the novel, but also a strange mystical world, in which two Aboriginal girls are taken up by an elderly white woman who wants to turn them into ladies, but whose spirits remained trapped in the house” To meet these challenges musically, much distilling had to be done to keep it to three hours (the play is five-and-a-half hours), and dialogue was jettisoned. “It’s an utterly unique opera, like nothing previously in opera or on the Australian stage,” says Edwards. “It is not a play with music. It lives entirely in the world of music. If the characters are not singing, there is music at all times, reflecting the emotion, telling us what will be happening next, and relating the joy or sadness in the lives of these two families” Edwards’ role is that of dramaturg. This represents a new experience for one of Australia’s most acclaimed theatre directors – among numerous other achievements she is the only Australian to direct on the main-stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-on- Avon. “The music and lyrics are all George’s,” she says, “but I am constantly collaborating in areas of character development, themes underpinning the story, and how the musical sweep needs to be created – questions such as ‘do we need an aria here?’or ‘is there too much or too little recitative there?’ We spent two years alone on this, just the two of us, with no help.” The challenges are manifold. Cloudstreet spans the period 1943-1963, which means the characters begin aged seven and develop into 27 year olds. “It’s a very complicated dramatic challenge to keep their stories at all times and yet to give the audience a spine of narrative to follow,” says Edwards. “It is such a wonderful novel, exploring the notion of family at a time when family was important, and it deals with complex interrelationships between people: their separateness and togetherness, how they find reconciliation and forgiveness. So I find all this fascinating, apart from loving the novel and hearing George’s amazing music.” Another challenge is Winton’s riotously slangy language. Swear words jump off the page in Cloudstreet. But this is hardly a deterrent, as Edwards explains. “The third thing for me is also the love of the language. All the colour, slang and nuance are preserved in George’s opera. There are lines like ‘Shit, I don’t know what to do’, and the fact that these are words to set I find so exciting. As Australians I think it is time we found our voice. I just love the prospect that our Australian vernacular will be sung in opera style. It is tantalising for someone who has spent their whole life trying to find the Australian spirit, whether in Boy from Oz or this new opera. It’s my passion to find it.” It was 26 years ago that Adelaide-born Edwards directed the Australian premiere of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd in Her Majesty’s Theatre, and she sees Cloudstreet! as an opportunity to do something equivalent beyond the usual trail of ‘jukebox musicals’ (The Adventures of Priscilla, Boy from Oz), and produce something of real stature: “What we want is for people to go into the theatre and feel the excited rush of blood knowing they are about to hear a brand new work. American audiences are used to hearing that, but we are not. When the orchestra strikes up, I hope people will have this feeling that we are about to hear something completely and wonderfully new.” Cloudstreet! Thursday, May 12 to Saturday, May 21 saopera.sa.gov.au