The theatre was empty, but on Monday night the premiere of Breaking Glass by Sydney Chamber Opera was filmed at Carriageworks in rehearsal. Before we present the film in the coming weeks, Artistic Director, Jack Symonds, introduces the four composers who share the stories driving this unique quadruple bill.
Breaking Glass is the culmination of two years working with four exceptionally talented composers, whose voices are essential as opera moves into the third decade of the 21st century.
Opera still has a long way to go in addressing its historical inequities, but this project is the natural outgrowth of SCO’s commitment to gender equality in the lead artists making our work.
The stories these women are telling through this endlessly reinvented artform could not and would not be told anywhere else, by anyone else.
– Jack Symonds, Artistic Director, Sydney Chamber Opera
Peggy Polias: Communte
‘ἦμος δ᾽ ἠριγένεια φάνη ῥοδοδάκτυλος Ἠώς’
Transliteration: ‘êmos d’ ērigéneia phánē rhododáktulos Ēṓs’
Translation: ‘As soon as early Dawn appeared, the rosy-fingered…’
I’ve always found this little turn of phrase from Homer’s Odyssey delightful and endearing.
In its original epic poetry context, it is an ornament announcing the continuation of the story that follows, as formulaic as ‘Once upon a time…’ In my chamber opera Commute, which concerns the homeward journey of our protagonist Odyssea through city streets, I chose to isolate this little fragment as one of the only direct quotations from the Odyssey in my libretto. It is set in the Postlude of the opera.
In closing the work, I wanted to prioritise this image for its own sake, optimistic and in some ways quite sensual and feminine. The music in this section echoes the same mood, and in general, here and elsewhere, the work as I’ve score it is quite un-prescriptive in terms of the staged elements. It’s been fascinating to see how the team in this production have interpreted, extended and complemented aspects of the music and text across lighting, video, design, costume and movement, creating a rich, multilayered experience for the audience.
Georgia Scott: Her Dark Marauder
‘Last glimpse of stiff limbs coloured by shadow’
Sylvia Plath’s work revolves around the beauty inherent in concepts often considered averse or taboo such as death and mental and physical pain. Through his libretto, Pierce Wilcox expertly draws the listener in, asking them to revel in the beauty of the morbid and dark. One section of the libretto which sums up this exploration is: ‘Last glimpse of stiff limbs coloured by shadow’ from the ‘Killing’ section of Her Dark Marauder.
This line his in some ways a creative extrapolation upon the line ‘Dying is an Art’ form Plath’s poem Lady Lazarus conjuring the same feeling of revolted fascination. The phrase ‘Stiff limbs’ brings connotations of death, particularly rigor mortis, pulling the listener into Plath’s morbid world and delighted fixation with death. Wilcox then plays with this idea in much the same way that Plath would have, depicting the limbs as a blank canvas ready to be coloured by shadow and light as they slip into the mysterious and, as Plath believes, strangely alluring next world.
These ideas were immensely inspiring to me as a composer. Plath’s world is filled with shadow, light, and many shades of grey. In setting this line I explored this by having the vocal lines and some of the instrumental parts shadow each other exploring the same musical material. The material I chose to set this libretto to is highly melismatic, aiming to explore the different colours of the voices and instruments.
Opera provides a perfect medium through which to explore the element of spectacle so often present in many of Plath’s and Wilcox’s descriptions. Opera lends itself to heightened drama and the exploration of complex emotional states, affording the creative team the rare opportunity to combine music, libretto, lighting, staging, design and videography to highlight often conflicting elements of the same concept.
Josephine Macken: The Tent
‘Collector of dead things, dreaming indifferent specters into form, understand this; where my world withdraws yours emerges.’
In developing the work with the SCO creative team, I engaged with Margaret Atwood’s prose as conceptual framework rather than as a source for adaptation. The Tent (2006) compelled my interest in the contradictions that arise through attempts to preserve personal and ecological histories. The result is primarily devoid of text, with a pertinent exception at the centre of the work.
In a moment of lamentation, one of the figures addresses the cognizant machine designed to preserve taxonomic relics in the event of mass extinction. The advent of intelligible language grounds us for a moment in the humanity of the work, conflating personal experiences of loss with the universal dimensions of climate grief.
Bree van Reyk: The Invisible Bird
‘Calyptorhynchus latirostris (Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo)
Ubi es? (Where are you?)
Calyp, perdidistine? (Calyp, are you lost?)
Aplonis fusca fusca, ubi es? (Tasman Starling, where are you?)
Ubi es, Dromaius? (Where are you, Emu?)’
These lines from the Confinement Aria are sung by our hero, Bird, at the opening of the second part of the work and they mark the start of an uneasy spiral of complicity and reduction whereby Bird’s friends disappear, and her rich and versatile song and fluid use of language is gradually drowned out by a monotonal repetition of ‘the’ – being the most common word in the English language.
One of the exciting discoveries for me in writing the opera is the depth and beauty that can be bestowed by these wonderful singers on to text as dry and scientific as the CSIRO’s ‘Action Plan for Endangered Birds’, and that it’s possible to embed emotional significance and weight into what is essentially a list of bird names.
The season of Sydney Chamber Opera: Breaking Glass was not able to proceed due to COVID-19. The film of the rehearsal will be released on the Carriageworks Journal in the coming weeks to watch free online.