Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian novels adapted for opera
Today’s post is inspired by an article, “Fly away Peter: When Australian literature goes to the opera”, published in May this year in The Conversation. Written by Associate Professor of Vocal Studies and Opera at the University of Sydney, it was inspired by the production of an opera based on David Malouf’s wonderful novel, Fly away Peter.
Now, as some of you may remember, I’ve mentioned Fly away Peter several times in this blog, one being in my second Monday Musings post. Fly away Peter is one of my favourite Australian novels and is also one of a fairly select group of Australian novels dealing with the first world war. I have also mentioned David Malouf in relation to opera before, most recently in a Monday Musings post on Australian novelists and poets who have also written libretti. Malouf has written a few libretti, the most famous being for Patrick White’s Voss, about which I wrote in a post on The Voss Journey. You can probably see, by now, why I was interested in Halliwell’s article.
Halliwell discusses a number of Australian novels/short stories that have been adapted for opera – and I’m going to share them here, in alphabetical order by novelist (with links to my reviews, where I’ve done one):
- Barbara Baynton’s “The chosen vessel” (my review) was adapted by Australian-British composer and festival director, Jonathan Mills, with libretto by Australian poet Dorothy Porter. It was retitled The ghost wife and premiered in 1996. Halliwell writes that “Baynton’s bleak story, debunking the dominant male myth of the noble bushman, was translated into a confronting music theatre work”. It was performed in Melbourne and Sydney, and had, says Halliwell, a “well-regarded run in London”.
- Peter Carey’s Bliss was adapted by Australian composer Brett Dean, with libretto by British librettist Amanda Holden. It premiered in Sydney in 2010 to a positive reception, says Halliwell, and was similarly positively received in Melbourne and Edinburgh. It was later presented, in a new production, in Hamburg, under Australian conductor and supporter of the work, Simone Young.
- Helen Garner’s The children’s Bach (my review) was adapted by Australian composer Andrew Schultz, with libretto by Australian librettist Glenn Perry. It premiered in Melbourne in 2008. Halliwell describes it as “a lightly-scored and evocative chamber opera which took the central metaphor of the fugue from the novel”.
- Patrick White’s Voss was adapted by Australian composer Richard Meale with libretto, as I’ve already said, by David Malouf. It premiered at the Adelaide Festival in 1986. Halliwell says that it was “hailed at its premiere in 1986 as the ‘Great Australian Opera'”, but it has never been produced again – at least not yet. There have been attempts to adapt Voss for film but some have argued that, while its mystical, visionary aspects translate well to opera, this is not so easy for film.
- Tim Winton’s The riders was adapted by Australian composer Iain Grandage with libretto by Australian poet, novelist, playwright and librettist, Alison Croggon, It premiered in Melbourne last year (2014). Matthew Westwood wrote in The Australian that “Grandage uses a hunting instrument — the horn — to evoke a man’s odyssey across Europe for the wife who has deserted him. (Frustratingly for that man, Scully, and many of Winton’s readers, the elusive Jennifer never appears.)” Oh dear. I must say that The riders is one of Winton’s least memorable works for me – and I don’t think I’m the only one to feel that way. However, the adaptation was very positively received, says Halliwell.
Alison Croggon is reported in The Guardian as saying that although it’s daunting, it’s logical to write libretti if you write poetry. This makes sense to me: rhythm is critical to poetry, songs and music. Three of the five librettists here – Porter, Malouf and Croggon – are poets.
Halliwell commences his article by quoting Malouf’s statement that “No libretto can reproduce the novel from which it is drawn”. Grandage and Croggon like to call their opera “a reimagining rather than an adaptation”. I’d argue that this is true of all adaptations of a work from one form to another. It’s surely unrealistic to expect a work to be the same. The challenge for the adaptation is to decide what is the essence of the work and to convey that – and for audiences to see if they agree!
Anyhow, if you are interested more widely in the subject of novels adapted for opera, you can check out this Wikipedia category page. It’s by no means complete – indeed not all of the operas I’ve listed here are included.
I’d love to hear whether you have seen any operas adapted from modern novels. Or, do you have a favourite novel you’d love to see adapted for opera?