Song and Chance
by Mark Mordue
Peter Carey is driving through country New South Wales.
The great writer is on the cusp of turning 40. He has written two novels, Bliss and Illywhacker, and seems to have absorbed a strain of magical realism all his own.
It is hard to put a finger on this quality: he combines Henry Lawson’s Gothic realism and boozy yarn spinning with Charles Dickens’ knack for quicksilver character sketches and rabbit-hole story sprawl. All of it wit-sharpened by Carey’s forays as a copywriter in the brash advertising scene of the 1970s, before becoming a counter-culture tree-changer and, finally, an expatriate New York novelist forever anchored in his subject matter to Australian myths and history.
Is he a fake? Or is he real? There was almost a disbelief around Carey’s vitality and success, an aura of inauthentic genius. In truth, the author came on like a lyrebird, a creature whose own song incorporates an outrageous mimicry of other birds, animals and noises – both natural and unnatural – to form a repertoire and a camouflage. Visible, invisible, and bizarre, that’s quite some song to sing.
As Peter Carey drives along this day, he sees an old church by the roadside. Locals tell him the entire structure is slated to be moved elsewhere. The thought of its displacement preys on Carey’s mind, inducing a melancholy he can’t explain – and prompting him to imagine it on a river barge floating away. But the seeds of what will become his next book have as much to do with philosophy as images. As he will tell Lawrence Groebel of the New York Times, “I remembered what Pascal said about belief in God being a gamble. And when I find two things like that I find it interests me.”
By then, Peter Carey was 44-years-old and the 1988 Booker Prize-winning author of a third novel, Oscar and Lucinda. The book culminates in a bet between two chronic and fantastical gamblers, Oscar Hopkins, a preacher’s son with a fear of water, and Lucinda Leplastrier, an orphaned heiress who ends up owning a glass factory.
Set against the backdrop of colonial Australia, this larger-than-life tale sees Oscar gamble that he can get Lucinda’s glass church to Bellingen before the coming of Good Friday. At stake is each of their inheritances; and within that gamble, the inability of two odd and damaged creatures to voice their love for one another.
Peter Carey would later say his writing is about “creating something new and beautiful that never existed before”. One feels in the storytelling behind Oscar and Lucinda the fabulist denying oblivion, or holding it at bay for the brief time that he sings. A case of love’s labour not entirely lost; and a peculiarly Australian endeavour when it comes to puzzling out who we can be in this country of dreams and Dreaming.
Pierce Wilcox is lost inside a cathedral of words.
The young writer is on the cusp of turning 30. He has previously created the libretti for three works by Sydney Chamber Opera, ambitious interpretations of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Notes from Underground, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter, and a reimagining of a notorious Russian Futurist opera, Victory Over the Sun. The latter had required Wilcox to reinvent an imaginary language called ‘zaum’, supposedly the mode in which birds, gods and stars communicated.
Now, Wilcox must evoke the faith, love and addiction in Peter Carey’s Oscar and Lucinda. “111 chapters, 665 pages,” he says like a builder measuring up a project that is towering, yet delicate in form.
When SCO met with Peter Carey to overcome his scepticism about an opera of Oscar and Lucinda being possible, they used Wilcox’s early Notes libretto as a calling card. Carey declared it one of the cleverest adaptations he had ever seen. It could not have escaped the author’s attention that like his character Oscar, Dostoyevsky had been a gambler obsessed with the meaning of God.
Ironically, Wilcox had been reluctant to try his hand when Sydney Chamber Opera’s founders, Louis Garrick and Jack Symonds, invited him to collaborate with them on Notes way back in 2011.
“I told them I know nothing about opera. They said not to feel weighed down by whatever I might think opera is. They said, ‘We want to make theatre that is driven by music. We don’t want make old-fashioned work. We want to make weird, modern opera. We want to make new work.’ They took a huge gamble.”
Sonically, narratively, visually, Sydney Chamber Opera have achieved something remarkable since those beginnings, establishing themselves as a resident company of Carriageworks and redefining the operatic form for a new generation. Their approach has yielded an exciting new canon, combining a wide variety of contemporary music with wildly new approaches to the lyrical and narrative spine of opera.
The energy with which Wilcox speaks suggests his own voyage. Oscar and Lucinda has made him wonder about the purpose of art – and where it can best explore “a moral charge: how to be a good person? Art has always had a moral charge, of course. But lately there seems to be this Sesame Street version being put forward everywhere of how to be good.”
Against that existential and political question is the seduction of beauty itself. “A lot of conventional opera is beautiful. But these days there is something urgent going on that can make beauty alone feel irresponsible,” Wilcox says. “A lot of artists are being driven by the urgency, by stories worth telling.”
Wilcox has moved between those polarities as his libretto evolved. He admits an empathy for the character of Lucinda, who regards gambling – and life – as a matter of chance. A proto-feminist figure, Lucinda believes you have to make your own meaning. Oscar, by contrast, regards gambling as divine providence or destiny, another aspect to his faith.
The task of giving them – and Carey’s wildly picaresque story – a voice reunites Wilcox with the composer Elliott Gyger, with whom he worked on SCO’s interpretation of Fly Away Peter. Without wishing to be too deterministic, Wilcox says “Elliot is more of a believer”, and is therefore “maybe more like Oscar”. It’s a loose claim, he knows. “Maybe everyone who comes to the show will identify with one or the other, Oscar or Lucinda,” he says, starting to laugh. “Everyone’s crazy, but everyone’s crazy in a different way.”
Wilcox taps the cover of the novel percussively. There’s a critical kitchen scene where Oscar and Lucinda “find each other”. Wilcox had written his heart out to get it right. Then he erased it to leave a great space instead. “Some people are good at talking about they feel,” Wilcox says. “And some people are not. And that’s not a crime. I had written a scene with a bunch of words; with them singing how they felt. But I realised there are things that can’t be articulated in words. It’s why we have our bodies. It’s why we have opera.”
Published: 2 July 2019