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.
Marilyn Lake regards women’s resistance to this behaviour at the time as essentially feminist: ‘They sought to curtail masculine privilege and those practices most injurious to women and children – notably drinking, smoking, gambling and male sexual indulgence. They did not seek a total independence for women, but to make their dependence a happier and more secure state.’ These views would seem to underpin many of the themes running through Paul Dean and Rodney Hall’s opera, Dry River Run, which is set at the time of the proclamation of Federation. The reaction to this potentially momentous event in a small outback community is ambivalent, with some political developments bringing about profound social changes for women, particularly the vote, as well as a breaking down of the patriarchy.
Novelist and poet Hall’s original libretto creates the impetus for the events of the opera, commencing with the funeral of Archie Callaway, a prominent member of the small community at Dry River Run. Archie’s brother, the Reverend Callaway, Archie’s widow Gladys, and their daughter Veronica all reflect on his life to the sound of buzzing flies in the violas, while the hymn ‘O God our help in ages past’ is played quietly by offstage horns, soon joined by the chorus. This might be a first in opera: that quintessential Australian sound of flies as establishing the sonic landscape of the work (Dean jokes that the fact the first sounds of the opera conveying these flies are produced by the violas – a tribute to his violist brother Brett Dean). The use of the hymn is seen by Dean as addressing that fundamental operatic ‘problem’: why are they singing? Every member of the cast appears onstage within the first few moments of the opera through this dramaturgical strategy. The hymn also acts as a frame for the opera as well as providing a metaphor for a sense of community, which is severely tested during the course of the events. The hymn also plays a musical role throughout the opera, providing a series of musical cells; a very effective moment for solo saxophone ends scene three as the hymn is ‘deconstructed’, and the opera ends with the sound of the hymn and the flies once more.
Archie appears to have been a pillar of the community as other voices join in with their own thoughts on his life in this extended opening scene, one characterised by particularly expressive string writing and choral forces reminiscent of Britten in Peter Grimes. The central irony for all of them is that Archie had been a strong proponent of Federation, but his funeral is taking place as it is proclaimed. The opening scene dissolves into a scene with two of the main protagonists, the young men Henry and Joseph, riding through the arid countryside. Both of them would like to settle down and marry, but the only prospect that interests them is Veronica. Suddenly, a more sombre tone is sounded as a mysterious Aboriginal figure, the Ochre Man, speaks to them of the hidden history of the land where many killings have taken place. This figure is not developed in the opera – a spoken role – and although he does appear briefly at various intervals, he remains somewhat tokenistic, which is a pity.
The essential drama occurs between the Revered Callaway and Veronica. He manipulates his knowledge of Henry and Joseph’s attraction towards Veronica to challenge her to ride with the men and spend a night at an isolated hut in the countryside, ostensibly as a test of her mettle. While Henry and Joseph are out riding, Callaway breaks down the door and rapes her. This violent encounter results in Veronica’s pregnancy, the central event of the opera, with the subsequent action revolving around its aftermath. One of the musical high points of the work is a monologue for Callaway as he fatalistically contemplates the implications and potential consequences of what he is about to do, echoing Claggart’s great monologue in Britten’s Billy Budd. This is some of the most expressive music in the whole work, and Hall’s skilfully constructed libretto provides a series of interior moments, exploiting opera’s great capacity to explore the psyche of character through text, but even more so through music. Here, the sometimes overwrought language of the libretto is most effective as it suits the character well.
The three men and Veronica are the most developed characters in the opera, and this is where the central drama resides; however, Gladys is a conduit for the political currents surrounding the extension of the vote for women to the whole country and the striving for equality. Many of the themes in the work have a contemporary resonance, including the issues of family violence and clerical abuse. Gladys comes into her own in the final scenes when the sudden opportunistic political aspirations of Callaway emerge despite his previous vehement opposition to Federation. The political resonances were not lost on the opening night audience, and there were several uncomfortable chuckles of recognition.
Dry River Run was written for the Opera School of the Queensland Conservatorium, and the singers are all students. Of course, this must be borne in mind in any assessment of the performances, but one would have liked more vocal heft from some of the characters in the more dramatic exchanges. Oliver Boyd plays the Reverend Callaway with a suave, smooth baritone voice capable of expressing the contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisy of the character. Occasionally over-extended at the top of the range, Boyd nevertheless created a strong impression of this reprehensible figure who dominates the opera. Opposite him as Gladys Callaway, Xenia Puskarz Thomas displayed a rich and incisive mezzo, a striking stage presence; she sang with musicality and expressiveness. This was the stand-out vocal performance. Veronica was Sheridan Hughes, whose sweetly flexible soprano conveyed vulnerability and anguish yet with an underlying strength. Phillip Costovski’s warm and full tenor voice embodied the figure of Henry, while Henry Pinder was a baritone Joseph. This is a voice with much promise, although there were some intonation issues at times. There were also some promising voices in the smaller roles, and the choral forces provided much of the power and expressiveness of the score.
The production is directed by librettist Rodney Hall, and his obvious intimate affinity with the work brings an intensity and coherent focus to the staging. The psychological relationships are well established, and Hall directed the forces with a clear eye for effective stage pictures with choreography by Delia Silvan. Peter Mumford’s designs were excellent – for the most part an open stage, but with innovative use of movable sets to establish the town and the isolated hut on the large stage, all very effectively lit by Nigel Levings.
The Head of Opera at the Conservatorium, Nicholas Cleobury, conducts the work. His vast experience with contemporary opera in Europe is apparent; he directs his young and relatively inexperienced vocal and orchestral forces with great control and flexibility. It is of great benefit to the student performers to work with someone with such wide-ranging and deep, practical operatic knowledge. The overall excellence of the orchestral playing must be highly commended; many of the instrumental solos were memorable. It was certainly of a professional standard.
A question many might ask is whether there is a family affinity in musical style between Paul and his brother Brett, who has recently enjoyed unprecedented success for an Australian opera composer with his second opera, Hamlet, premièring last year in the United Kingdom and seen in Adelaide in March 2018, and with further performances slated at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and in Europe. Like many contemporary opera composers, Paul Dean acknowledges his debt to predecessors such as Benjamin Britten in terms of writing operas in English, and definitely to his brother. A comparison might be seen in their mastery of expressive and detailed orchestral writing. Paul Dean writes for the Queensland Conservatorium orchestra with great skill, evoking a large range of colours and textures to complement the action on stage. Some of the vocal writing is awkward, but that is a skill that is developed over time, given the opportunity.
One has the impression that this might not be the final form of the opera. If the opportunity arises, there could be some revisions of the work, a practice common in operatic history. The interval break might occur after the rape scene: or perhaps it might be more effective as a one-act opera. Some of the scenes in the first act and near the end lose dramatic tension and could be shortened to maintain a consistent dramatic arc; an experienced opera dramaturg might have been useful during the development.
However, Dry River Run is a fascinating and timely addition to the canon of contemporary Australian opera. The issues it engages with may be more than a century old, but they may have even more relevance today. Dean’s is a distinctive musical voice; one hopes that there are more operas in his future. The art form thrives as much through the consistent emergence of new work as with the imaginative and innovative engagement with the popular works of the past.
Dry River Run is being performed at the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre until September 9.
ABR Arts is generously supported by The Ian Potter Foundation and the ABR Patrons.