Peter Carey’s award-winning novel about a British Anglican priest and wealthy Australian businesswoman whose lives intertwine through an unusual wager is regarded as a literary masterpiece. It’s not surprising then, that it has been used as the source material for a new opera, although its 600 odd pages of narrative certainly make it a challenging feat. Co-commissioned and co-produced by Sydney Chamber Opera, Opera Queensland, and Victorian Opera, Oscar And Lucinda features music by Elliot Gyger and libretto by Pierce Wilcox and will make its debut at Carriageworks this month.
Jack Symonds, creative director of Sydney Chamber Opera, describes the novel as being full of fantasy and impossibilities and therefore perfect for such an adaptation.
“Opera is a very unreal art form at the best of times,” says Symonds. One of the challenges was condensing Carey’s work without losing its substance. Wilcox has managed to sketch the main themes in the libretto with Gyger fully realising them in the music.
“That’s the job of successful music in an opera, that it can create those feelings and fully form the metaphors,” says Symonds.
At the centre of Carey’s story is a wager involving building a church made of glass, which Symonds calls a “gift for a composer.”
“To draw that image in sound is irresistible – and [Gyger] has certainly given us a very extraordinary glass cathedral in sound.”
Symonds describes Gyger’s music as very lyrical, precise and pictorial; familiar yet unique.
“Even though he’s using simply the same 12 notes of the scale that composers have used for hundreds of years, the combinations we’re hearing in this opera have never been heard before.”
Equally, librettist, Wilcox has been able to preserve the sensibility of Carey’s work while distilling.
“Pierce’s gift is he takes the essence of what might be a couple of pages in Carey and transforms it into one sentence using the iconic words in those passages,” says Symonds.
This performance will be a world premiere, which, Symonds says, has mixed blessings for the creatives involved:
“The greatest challenge is that… for the singers, they’ve never sung in these roles before – nobody has. So they have to create something from nothing.” On the other hand: “There’s no preconceived tradition of how these things are meant to go. The two leads […] don’t have generations of recordings and audience expectations of how this is meant to be sung.”
Jul 27-Aug 3. Carriageworks, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh. $35+b.f. Tickets & Info: www.carriageworks.com.au
By Rita Bratovich