Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian librettists

I’ve written some long posts recently so have decided to make this one a short one. I have been intrigued in recent years to discover how many Australian novelists and poets have turned their hands to libretti, often adaptations of novels but not always. Some are opera libretti, but others are for other vocal musical works. I’m not an opera tragic – though I did attend the Sydney Opera House’s opening season and have attended several operas over the years – so I’m not going to critique what these authors are doing. My post here is purely informational because I find it interesting. I’ve chosen 5 writers, who are of particular interest to me, to write about.

David Malouf (b. 1934)

I’ve written about David Malouf several times in this blog, including reviewing his most recent novel, Ransom. I also wrote early in this blog’s life about an event I went to focused on Patrick White’s novel, Voss. David Malouf wrote the libretto for the opera, which was performed in 1986. He sat on the board of Opera Australia from 2001 to 2009).

His libretti are:

  • Voss (1986)
  • Mer de glace (which seems not to have been well-regarded) (1991)
  • Baa Baa Black Sheep (based on an autobiographical short story by Rudyard Kipling, and drawing also on The jungle book) (1993)
  • Jane Eyre (based on you know what) (2005).

Randolph Stow (1935-2010)

Randolph Stow, like Malouf, is a Miles Franklin Award winning author. He wrote novels, poetry, children’s books and, of course since he’s in this post, libretti. Both his libretti are for theatrical works by English composer and conductor, Peter Maxwell-Davies.

His libretti are: 

  • Eight songs for a mad king (a half-hour monodrama about King George III) (1969)
  • Miss Donnithorne’s maggot (half-hour piece based on the life of the woman claimed by some to have been the model for Dickens’ Miss Havisham), (1974)

Louis Nowra (b. 1950)

Like Stow and Malouf, Nowra is a versatile and an award-winning writer, having written novels, plays, essays and other non-fiction, and yes, libretti. I’ve reviewed his most recent novel, Into that forest.

His libretti are:

  • Inner voices (about the son of Catherine the Great, with music by his ex-wife, Sarah de Jong) (1978)
  • Whitsunday (3-act opera about farmers and slaves in 1913 northern Queensland) (1988)
  • Love burns (subtitled “an ironic opera in two acts”) (1992)
  • On the beach (presumably based on the Nevil Shute novel) (2000)

Peter Goldsworthy (b. 1951)

Goldsworthy is a writer and GP, and, like those preceding him here, is versatile, writing novels, short stories, poetry, film scripts and libretti. I have only read (before blogging) one of his novels, Three dog night, which was shortlisted for many awards, including the Miles Franklin. His daughter, Anna Goldsworthy, is a concert pianist and has written two well-regarded memoirs. Both his libretti were written with the Australian composer and conductor, Richard Mills.

His libretti are:

  • Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (based on the classic Australian play by Ray Lawler) (1996)
  • Batavia (about the wreck of the Batavia off the Western Australian coast in 1628, which inspired William Golding’s The lord of the flies) (2001)

Batavia won the 2002 Robert Helpmann Award for Best Opera and Best New Australian Work.

Dorothy Porter (1954-2008)

And last is the only woman in the group, the late poet Dorothy Porter whom I’ve reviewed a couple of times. Primarily a poet, including several acclaimed verse novels, she also wrote children’s books, and lyrics. Both her libretti were written with composer Jonathan Mills. When she died she was working on a rock opera with musician, Tim Finn.

Her libretti are:

  • The ghost wife (based on a short story by Barbara Baynton) (2000)
  • The Eternity Man (about Arthur Stace who, over 35 years or so, wrote “Eternity” on the walls and footpaths of Sydney) (2005)

Have any readers here seen any of these works? And do you know of other novelists or poets who have written libretti?

18 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Some Australian librettists

  1. I saw Voss at the Sydney Opera House which must have been in 1986. I can’t remember much about it.
    I saw Inner Voices as a play I think it was in the 70s, the first time I saw Colin Friels or heard of Louis Nowra. Such a long time ago. I have a much stronger recollection of this play.

  2. Dear Whispering Gums

    Thought I’d mention the local scene re poetry/libretti. Among many others I would include Geoff Page and Hal Judge who have recently written for musical performance and the writer Marion Halligan who has written for Stephen Leak. I would include myself, John Stokes, in the group, the most recent effort being a libretto after Peter Sculthorpe’s Sun Music as part of an upcoming anthology from the School of Music Poets. This poem is called “Wildfire” and we were fortunate in receiving an endorsement for that piece by Sculthorpe himself (what a gracious man) just before he died. Which gives me a hook to modestly mention that my book in which that poem appears, called Fire in the Afternoon”, is to have its official local launch at Paperchain bookshop in Manuka, Canberra, at 6pm on Thursday October 30. It will be followed by an informal reading and celebration “picnic” at Manning Clark House, Manuka at 3pm on Saturday November 8. The latter event should be somewhat like the event we had at the Goulburn Art gallery organised by Nigel Featherstone and Irma Gould ie several friends reading.

    Always look forward to your posts!


    John Stokes

    Sent from my iPad

    • Thanks for commenting John. I didn’t know that about you local poets/writers … That’s great to know about. And yes, Peter Sculpthorpe always came across as a gracious man. I somehow often think of him and David Malouf as our gracious men of the arts.I reckon Sculthorpe died to young … He was born the same year as my mum and she’s still going strong!

      Anyhow, I presume those events you mention are open to the public. I’ll put them in my diary. I was sorry to miss that Goulburn event as it sounded wonderful.

  3. You’re amazing ! – your research is endless, Sue. 🙂
    I had no idea of any of these – none at all. It just goes to show how ignorant one can be if one is sufficiently determined …
    The only writer I can mention in the context of quasi-knowledge is Louis Nowra, who, a thousand years ago when I worked in the film industry, was a widely-known and much admired scriptwriter !
    And, of course, Malouf is one of my heroes. What a bloke !

    • Why thanks MR … yes, I think Nowra is the most active in that group in writing for film. That’s how I first heard of him, not for his play Cosi but the film. And yes, too, I totally agree re Malouf. Such a dignified, gracious and thoughtful man.

  4. You’d think it would be a difficult switch to write for music, but maybe not, it is, after all, still storytelling. Margaret Atwood has written a couple libretti though I’ve not heard/seen any other them.

    • Yes, that was my thought at first too, Stefanie, but then I thought too it’s storytelling and, I think, the best writes do have an ear for rhythm don’t they.

      Thanks for the info about Margaret Atwood … I’m not at all surprised to hear that a versatile a writer as she would have tried this too!

  5. Kathleen Mary Fallon wrote a libretto for Chamber Opera I think it was, WG. Sorry I can’t give you the opera’s name or the date, but I do know she wrote it and I believe was very involved in the production.

    • Thanks Sara, I don’t know of her, but I did find her (now) at the Australian Music Centre; it’s Laquiem and is adapted from Her book The Mourning of the Lac Women. Searching further, elsewhere, I find she’s also written an opera called Matricide. Looks like she’s published by UWA. Thanks for this.

    • Thanks Rowena … I love it when my posts result in comments that teach me something, and in comments from readers saying they’ve learnt something. Makes all the blogging work worthwhile.

  6. I saw The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, and was disappointed. However, I would like to see more libretti. A bit off the subject, but I did see Black Diggers yesterday. A play with songs, based on true stories about Australian Aborigines who were in the war, and thought they would be treated better when they returned to Australia.

    • Oh did you Meg – a shame it wasn’t great. Black Diggers sounds interesting. Were they original songs or songs of the times? It is pretty terrible the way they were treated on their return – I have read and heard a little about that.

  7. The songs were of the times, and some had changes to them. The play involved brief and descriptive events that occurred during WW1 interspersed with some singing. The actors all male, played several parts, such as white Australians, women, Germans and Indians.

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