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?

12 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian novels adapted for opera

  1. I haven’t seen any of these, unfortunately, as I do love a night at the opera. I did see Batavia, by Richard Mills and libretto by Peter Goldsworthy. I don’t think that opera was based on a single book, but I might be wrong. It was rather bloodthirsty, but that’s par for the course with opera!

    I love Barbara Baynton’s short stories, too. I have an enormous respect for her, and for any woman back then, who found not only the time and energy, but the courage, too, to pursue her creative and intellectual interests. It must have been so much more difficult in those days.

    • I haven’t seen any of them either Louise, though I’ve eat all those books. I’ve heard of Batavia, but haven’t seen it. I’m not sure it’s based on a book, a novel, as you say, but Goldsworthy is a lovely writer I think (though I’ve only read one of his).

    • Thanks Anna … I looked at the YouTube and it looks like something I’d love to see. I notice that this, and some of those I list, are described as Chamber Operas, which is an appealing form to me. (BTW for those reading these comments, the book is by Nava Semel and was published here by Hybrid Publishers.)

  2. Like you I have read the books but not seen the operas, and I love the opera. I like to see The Well by Elizabeth Jolley, but Slap by Christos Tsiolkas with all its drama would probably be a better choice.

    • Oh yes, The well is a good one Meg. Particularly perhaps for Chamber Opera which I think would suit its claustrophobic sense? Perhaps her Newspaper of Claremont St would be good too.

      The slap would be better as big in your face opera!

  3. So cool there is an opera adapted from Fly Away Peter, a very good novel I read thanks to you 🙂 Margaret Atwood wrote the libretto for an opera called Pauline that was performed in Canada last year. I had thought Year of the Flood had been turned into an opera but I was mistaken.

  4. Then of course there’s Manning Clark’s History of Australia, the musical. Not a novel, I know, and did not garner high praise!

  5. Hi Sue, I came across this article as I was cleaning out my inbox – Georgiana Molloy is the botanist I’ll be writing a book on next – the production sounds fascinating:
    Also, I read ‘In My Mother’s Hands’ and thought it was wonderful – and, bizarrely, I went to school with the daughter of Carl Bridge (who finished his last tome) – such a small world!

    • Amazing what you find when you clean out your inbox, eh Jessica? You must have been thrilled to find this – and thanks for bringing it here. I love the idea of letters inspiring music and song.

      So glad that you enjoyed In my mother’s hands. And yes, it sure is a small world.

Leave a Reply to Jessica White Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s