This August, Carriageworks presents Sydney Chamber Opera’s (SCO) new production of composer Jack Symonds’s and librettist Pierce Wilcox’s Notes from Underground. Directed by Patrick Nolan and designed by Genevieve Blanchett it will be presented over five nights on 13, 15, 17, 19 and 20 August. The last time the company presented this opera it was for their 2011 inaugural production at Sydney’s Cellblock Theatre. This production established SCO as one of the most important and distinctive new voices in Australian opera.
Notes from Underground was the first SCO work to be created jointly by Symonds and Wilcox; using Dostoyevsky’s novel of the same name, it explores ideas of memory, obsession, desire and belonging. For this production, Symonds has composed brand new music tailored specifically to the performers.
The novel is in two parts: the first, set in the present, is a diatribe by a man who has locked himself underground to remove himself from a society that he thinks has lost its way. The second, a series of recollections revealing what led to this voluntary isolation. Symonds and Wilcox created this work for SCO so the two parts – and two time periods – unfold on stage simultaneously.
Alongside Nolan and Blanchett, the creative team includes: lighting designer Nicholas Rayment, video designer Boris Baggatini and choreographer Cloé Fournier. They have shifted Dostoyevsky’s 19th Century Russia to the present, so the past in the story is just after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the USSR. A time of massive social upheaval, which resonates well with the Russia Dostoyevsky was writing about.
The work of David Lynch, Georges Perec and Spike Jonze and their exploration of memory and the way an individual fits into a society (or not) has been a source of inspiration for the production.
Talking about the design, Nolan and Blanchett explain “In developing our concept, we envisioned the performance space as map of the Man’s mind, a space that holds the obsessions and regrets of opportunities missed or misread. The characters that crowd these obsessions are a constant and disquieting physical presence, lurking on the fringes of the performance space, with the orchestra representing his deeply buried memories – a multitude of dark shadows from daily life that fuel the engine of his fantasies with their music.”
Underground Man is played by international baritone, Simon Lobelson, who performed with SCO earlier this year in the highly praised Victory Over the Sun for the 20th Biennale of Sydney.
Representing Underground Man’s younger self, Aboveground Man is a hopeful, romantic-minded young civil servant, who awkwardly makes his way through a string of social encounters, desperately trying to maintain his pride and dignity in the face of a difficult world. He is played by brilliant young tenor Brenton Spiteri, acclaimed for his extraordinary performance in SCO’s Fly Away Peter at Carriageworks in 2015.
His final meeting is with Liza, a young woman sent to the city by her family to work as a prostitute. In each other they find a potential future of love and happiness but all is not as it seems. Liza is played by soprano Jane Sheldon, who has performed two virtuoso solo works with SCO: Exil in 2013 and An Index of Metals in 2015, both at Carriageworks and both highly praised by audiences and critics alike.
Talking about the production Nolan says, “The struggles of a man coming to terms with his loneliness may sound like a heavy night at the theatre, the genius of Jack and Pierce’s adaptation is the way it embraces the dark humour and acerbic wit that mark Dostoyevskey as one of Literature’s great storytellers. What results it is a remarkably insightful, funny and beautiful opera that speaks very directly to our time.”
The final night of the production on Saturday 20 August, will be preceded at 6pm by a free public talk hosted by Caroline Baum in discussion with composer Jack Symonds and librettist Pierce Wilcox, to mark the launch of a new album by Symonds. Guests to the talk will be able to purchase the newly released album on the night.