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?

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?