Australian operas set in the outback are not uncommon, though urban backgrounds are far more prevalent in recent works. Contemporary fiction and cinema, by contrast, often have outback and regional Australia as their setting. Several operas engage with the most enduring myths of the mysterious centre; most significantly in Richard Meale and David Malouf’s adaptation of Patrick White’s novel Voss, which premièred in 1986. Set in the early-nineteenth century, Meale’s opera became a benchmark for later composers. The challenge was taken up by several composers who dealt with Australian stories set in the late nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries.
A fantastical vision of Australia was found in Brian Howard and Louis Nowra’s Whitsunday (1988), in which the action takes place on an island off the east coast. Set in the year before the outbreak of World War I, the opera provided a bleak view of race relationships of the time, but offered a hopeful vision of a future with some form of resolution. Also ending on a sanguine note was Elliott Gyger and Pierce Wilcox’s 2015 adaptation of Malouf’s novella Fly Away Peter. While much of the work occurred in the trenches in Flanders, the opera ended on an upbeat note on a beach in south-east Queensland. Brett Dean and Amanda Holden’s adaptation of Peter Carey’s Bliss (2010) also had much of its setting outside urban centres, ending in an idyllic setting in a Queensland rainforest.
Jonathan Mill’s The Ghost Wife (1999), a setting of Dorothy Porter’s libretto based on Barbara Baynton’s story ‘The Chosen Vessel’, was a musically and dramatically bleak, uncompromising, and confronting view of an isolated woman in the country. In music of raw intensity, Mills’s opera depicted her rape and murder with no sense of any final redemption. Graeme Turner argued some decades ago that the dominant nationalist definitions of the 1890s were still in operation – one might assert that this is still the case in the present – and that this burgeoning nationalism was often accompanied and accomplished by ‘the differentiation of Australia from an effete British culture which effectively coded nationalism as masculine’. Turner noted the overwhelming incidence of violence against women, male drunkenness, and desertion in nineteenth-century marriages.