Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

State Opera South Australia
by
ABR Arts 16 November 2020

Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

State Opera South Australia
by
ABR Arts 16 November 2020

It gives some indication of the relative youth of Australian theatre that Ray Lawler, author of the watershed 1955 play Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (‘The Doll’ for short), is still alive. Ninety-nine years old, he apparently even had a hand in this production, just the second staging of Richard Mills and Peter Goldsworthy’s largely faithful operatic adaptation. Premièred by Opera Victoria in 1996, then remounted by Opera Australia two years later, the opera has not been performed since. It has now been dusted off, with minor changes made by composer–conductor Mills, by State Opera South Australia as part of its three-year ‘Lost Operas of Oz’ project. It’s a mark of Anglo-Australian culture’s immaturity, too, that it remains restless and amnesiac, almost wilfully ignorant of the past in its perpetual quest for the ‘next big thing’.   

Well, either that or these ‘lost’ operas really are deserving of their fate, justly forgotten forays into a highly particular, quintessentially European tradition not easily assimilated into Australian cultural modes. Lyndon Terracini, artistic director of Opera Australia since 2009, maintains that, of the more than 160 operas commissioned by the Australia Council since 1973, none has entered the repertoire. Perhaps, but it seems to me that the hunt for some elusive ‘Great Australian Opera’ is a misguided and perhaps quixotic project. I doubt that we would recognise any opera thusly even were it to come along, such is the straitened nature of the cultural discourse in Australia today. Terracini’s claim also elides the fact that the most interesting operas being made in this country, by companies like Pinchgut and Chamber Made, are generally occurring on the fringes rather than in the mainstream. Finally, I think, it makes us especially unforgiving of operas that, while unlikely ever to be canonised, are nevertheless important or at least intriguing.

Comments (5)

  • Apologies, my comment was ambiguous, Peter McCallum was talking about Batavia (Richard Mills and Peter Goldsworthy's second opera) - not the Doll. I disagreed about his judgement of Batavia then, and still do now. I do think, however, that the Doll had a rather one-sided, if not biased reception in 1996. In certain circles there was still a rather rigid adherence to operatic modernism, and the operatic Doll didn’t conform to the agenda. I found the performance in Melbourne most impressive and remember well the wonderful quartet in the final act - “The old year vanishes, like music in the air”. Mills had, and has, one of the most lyrically beautiful operatic ‘voices’ in Australia.
    Posted by Michael Halliwell
    03 December 2020
  • Thanks for your correction, Michael. I did indeed have my McCallums crossed! However, to be clear, the quote is from Peter's review of the later opera, Batavia - not the Doll.
    Posted by BENJAMIN BROOKER
    03 December 2020
  • Thanks, Ben, for your very interesting review. A quick correction: the review from which you quote the comment regarding the opera being ‘the vilest thing [he had] experienced in the theatre’ was by Peter McCallum, not John. It caused quite a furore at the time - I remember it well. I profoundly disagreed with Peter at the time, as I think the operatic Doll is one of the most significant, and moving, Australian operas.
    Posted by Michael Halliwell
    02 December 2020
  • Sounds like we're on the same page in regards to the nature of the play's, and Olive's, tragedy. But I still think the image of Olive cradling the doll in that way scans less as a testament to her 'sacrifice' than as an affirmation of the view that her tragedy is a failure to achieve 'womanhood'. I think we both know this to be a fundamental misreading of the play/opera.
    Posted by BENJAMIN BROOKER
    19 November 2020
  • I agree with you about Olive's decision to leave behind the contemporary ideals of wife and mother for an alternative life with Roo. It is Roo's staying home and getting a job and proposing that is the tragedy for Olive. THEY chose, in the first play, to deny these conventions for a life together that was progressive, and chose NOT to have children and marriage. Roo goes back on this promise and Olive sees this as a betrayal. He is settling for all the conventions they had denied. And this makes her mourn the loss of their wonderful alternative life, and then brings into sharp relief what she has sacrificed for nothing, cradling a child. Even the strongest of feminists can mourn this instinctual yearning in the face of a pact being shattered. Seventeen years for what? It is a tragedy.
    Posted by antoinette halloran
    19 November 2020

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