Quadrant Music

Opera’s Ever-Troublous Times

I found myself doing a Joseph II when I attended Opera Queensland’s August season of Cosi fan tutte. For readers who have yet to experience Amadeus (1984), this confession can only cause confusion, but those familiar with Miloš Forman’s masterpiece can fondly recall Jeffrey Jones’s hilarious portrayal of the flummoxed Austrian emperor. During the premiere of Le nozze di Figaro, Joseph, in the waning measures of “Contessa perdono!”, squirms awkwardly before producing an embarrassed, magisterial yawn. And this fictional incident occurs in Figaro, no less; Cosi is, I think I may remark, very much Mozart and Da Ponte’s poorer offering. So, I feel slightly less ashamed for dozing off in Opera Queensland’s adaptation as I did.

This essay appears in October’s Quadrant.
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In Limelight, Paul Ballam-Cross criticises the production’s second half, which, to quote set and costume designer Elizabeth Gadsby, attempts a “psychological exploration” of the opera’s characters. Dr Ballam-Cross rightly notes that the characters, in fact, possess little depth in the first place. There being nothing to explore, director Patrick Nolan commits his audience to a less engaging Act II. It seems to me that instead of striving in vain to modernise the operas of Mozart, companies and their creatives should just program modern operas. If psychological exploration is the objective, Berg’s Wozzeck might better do the trick—or, for just some Australian examples, Richard Mills’s Summer of the Seventeenth Doll (1994), Moya Henderson’s Lindy (1997) and Brett Dean’s Hamlet (2013–16), as well as Richard Meale’s better-known Voss (1985). I should probably even note my own chamber opera, Edward and Richard: The True Story of the Princes in the Tower (2020), which I suppose one might consider chiefly concerned with Elizabeth Woodville’s psychological state. 

Opera is not quintessentially an Australian medium. The first opera composed here by Isaac Nathan, Merry Freaks in Troublous Times, did not appear until 1843, fifty-five years after Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack. A light-hearted comedy on the life of Charles II to a libretto by civil magistrate Charles Nagel, Merry Freaks was not properly staged at the time of its premiere and has never been revived. That the first Australian opera should fade into obscurity is only somewhat ironic. Fortunately, Nathan (left) was a man of resolve; his Antipodean exile, brought on by financial ruin after an enigmatic incident involving William IV, was one which he embraced totally. His Don John of Austria (1846) followed Merry Freaks. Don John is a Spanish romance, complete with some tragic furnishings, to a libretto by Jacob Levi Montefiore. The Montefiores, a family of brokers whose assets stretched from London to Barbados, had known Nathan before his arrival in colonial Sydney. How interesting it is that the first Australian libretti, thus, were not the masterpieces of artisan dramatists but the incidental work of lawmen and financiers.

Don John premiered on May 3, 1847, at the Royal Victoria Theatre on Pitt Street, nine months after its completion. The delay was, of course, the fault of bureaucracy, for, that year, an act had been brought into effect to codify an established practice: the submission of all new stage works to the Colonial Secretary for approval by licence. Indeed, the legislation reminds us that if today’s Commonwealth government wishes to tighten its controls on what artworks the state does and does not support, precedent exists—in an Australian context, no less. Edward Deas Thomson, who had served as Colonial Secretary since 1836, needed to be approached three times by Montefiore, and assent to Don John was not issued until April 30, 1847. In Bell’s Life the next day, one Griffiths, the Old Vic’s theatre manager, confirmed that “arrangements” for the “representation” of Don John had been made.

Had Griffiths lived today, he would no doubt have been a prolific user of Facebook, and he might reasonably have asked his network just why it took Thomson nine months to grant Don John its performance permit. We can only imagine the comments his querying thread would have garnered. In any case, there is little documented to suggest Thomson, a Scotsman by extract whose father had served as Britain’s Accountant-General of the Navy, cared for art. But his wife, Anne Maria, was described in her obituary as an “ardent student of music”, as well as the “patroness of all youthful aspirants of the arts”. Could she have played an instrumental role in convincing her husband to support Australian opera? We can never know. She died on February 3, 1884. Thomson, eventually a vice-chancellor of the University of Sydney and later President of the Australian Club, may be remembered by Queensland readers as the namesake of the Thomson River.

Don John, not quite as neglected as Merry Freaks, has only been performed twice since its 1847 premiere, with both its 1997 and 2007 revivals conducted by Alexander Briger, Nathan’s great-great-great-great grandson. In Australia, we are well versed in celebrating even the earliest cultural achievements of others at the expense of our own. L’Orfeo, for instance, has been performed and staged numerous times by companies, ensembles and conservatoires in the last twenty years alone. We revere Monteverdi, the grandfather of Italian opera, but relegate Nathan, the pioneer of Australian opera, to the dusty annals of Quadrant Music.

Recalling Amadeus once more, just as Tom Hulce’s Mozart is the rival of F. Murray Abraham’s Salieri, Nathan’s chief competitor was the Melbourne-based composer and harpist Stephen Hale Marsh. Marsh (right), whose early career in London had benefited from the support of the Duchess of Kent, saw his Australian opera, The Gentleman in Black (c. 1847), staged in 1861 by the Irish impresario W.S. Lyster.  Described as a “serio-comic” opera, the cover of its haphazard libretto by E. Searle claims to be “the First [author’s emphasis] original opera produced in Australia”. This is, as we know, not the case; that honour falls to Don John. But like Merry Freaks, The Gentleman in Black has never been revived. 

Perhaps the question then becomes whether the first Australian operas—Merry Freaks, Don John and The Gentleman in Black—should be revived simply because of their historical importance. In all this, though, we have made no remark of these works’ scores; I have presented a historical survey, not a musical analysis. (For such, musicologist Elizabeth Wood provides a definitive exploration of all three operas.) And here is now an appropriate juncture for me to take issue with Dr Ballam-Cross’s aforementioned review of Opera Queensland’s Cosi fan tutte. For in his review of 612 words, only forty-seven words are dedicated to any sort of musical discussion; the vast bulk of Dr Ballam-Cross’s observations concentrate on matters of text and theatre. Indeed, it is becoming unhealthily fashionable to discuss and critique operas through their innate or perceived extra-musical qualities, and anyone who argues for a revival of Merry Freaks purely because it is Australia’s first opera stumbles, perhaps innocently, into this trap.

A new study emerged in August, titled “Risky Business: Policy Legacy and Gender Inequality in Australian Opera Production” and published by the International Journal of Cultural Policy. The authors, Caitlin Vincent (Melbourne University), Katya Johanson (Edith Cowan) and Bronwyn Coate (RMIT), argue that between 2005 and 2020 state-funded Australian opera companies have discriminated against women. “We find that women experience gender-based disadvantage across the key creative roles of opera.” In other words, there are not enough professional female conductors, directors or set and lighting designers, and the industry must employ more. A lighting director, whether man or woman, must always be hired for their merit, not their biological sex. In previous Quadrant Music pages, I have argued that an artwork’s craft is of greater importance than an artist’s identity. This axiom cannot be inverted. Whilst art of both high and low qualityas defined in the September issue of Quadrantexists courtesy of any artist, an artist, in the truest sense of the word, exists only if the quality of his art is high. The increasingly proffered suggestion that the artist is a worker should be categorically rejected; though the artist creates work, he is not merely a worker who produces—only a neo-Marxist ideologue (or the Minister for the Arts, apparently) would reduce him to such. He who toils for years composing operas is not comparable to he who labours in a factory, in that he who labours in a factory does so purely for financial purposes, to the foremost advantage of himself and, conveniently, the subordinate advantage of the state. An artist, however, creates for expressive purposes, for art of the highest quality is the highest form of human expression. By prioritising expression and rejecting commerce as his chief concern, the artist upholds his authenticity.

It is true that there are, for example, fewer Australian female conductors than male. But it is not clear to me that this is the result of contemporary malice. In Australia, there is not one competitive opportunity that exists exclusively for male composers, but there are several for women, including the Merlyn Myer Music Commission, the Sue W. Chamber Music Composition Prize and the Australian Women’s Wind Band Composition Award. Women also compete alongside men in other composition competitions, such as the two Paul Lowin prizes and the Albert H. Maggs Composition Award, complicating matters further.

I do not believe that Australian women of talent today are barred from achieving in the arts. Simone Young, Australia’s greatest living conductor, is a woman whose career dwarfs those of her male colleagues. Indeed, in my final undergraduate year, I was the only male composition student among my peers. One has to believe that if women want to participate in the arts then they are able to do so, with greater ease than ever before—unless one equally preoccupies oneself lamenting the under-representation of men in the nursing profession, or, as Jordan Peterson might put it, the scarcity of female bricklayers.

All this is to contribute to the conclusion that opera as a genre is needlessly besieged by an encroaching obsession with the extra-artistic. Dr Vincent, in 2019, wrote that “opera is stuck in a racist, sexist past”. She takes issue, for instance, with the “Muslim caricatures” in Die Entführung aus dem Serail, and suggests, as an appropriate “strategy”, to rewrite the opera so as to “remove racist language”. Mozart, it seems, did not consider any of Die Entführung’s characters to be mere caricatures, and instead railed against such notions through amendments to Gottlieb Stephanie’s original libretto. In a letter to his father, Leopold, dated September 26, 1781, Mozart wrote: “In the original libretto Osmin has only [one] short song and nothing else to sing, except in the trio and the finale; so he has been given an aria in Act I, and he is to have another in Act II.” When Leopold responded, criticising the libretto’s general literary quality, Mozart sent another letter, dated October 13, defending Stephanie. “In an opera,” he wrote, “the poetry must be altogether the obedient daughter of the music … when music reigns supreme and one listens to it, all else is forgotten.” There can be no more appropriate sentiment to offer Dr Vincent and her like-minded proponents of the extra-musical.

For there to be a future for Australian opera, a return to principles of craft, style, quality and authenticity are essential. From the moment the composer sketches his new overture to the final dress rehearsal of a timeless classic, art must reign prime and check the influence of the artist’s identity—as well as the art’s own extra-musical characteristics. The historical importance of Isaac Nathan’s and Stephen Hale Marsh’s operas, the first Australian operas, must be placed in the context of their artistic merit. The repertory of high-quality Australian operas is rich, and works like Summer of the Seventeenth Doll, Lindy, Hamlet and Voss should be championed. Certainly, aspirants of opera composition can emulate the keen entrepreneurship of Nathan and Marsh. Merry Freaks, Don John and The Gentleman in Black were not commissioned but rather the output of composers who simply wished to compose. In the words of Jeffrey Jones’s Joseph II: “Ah-ha.” 

In this issue, Benjamin Crocker explores the musical philosophy of the late Sir Roger Scruton, and Emeritus Professor Malcolm Gillies AM returns with an insightful review of Sarah Kirby and John Gabriel’s Australasian Music, at Home and Abroad (2023). All of us at Quadrant continue to encourage contributions to these music pages.

Alexander Voltz is a composer and the founding editor of Quadrant Music, alexander@adkvoltz.com

2 thoughts on “Opera’s Ever-Troublous Times

  • David Isaac says:

    I am too much of a musical ignoramus to judge whether Simone Young deserves her exalted status but the sort of anti-male discrimination which is already being instituted in the arts will throw a shadow over any woman who comes after her. Of course the same could be said of many other fields. The truly competent women generally know this and have no truck with it. In a healthy society we should expect these demanding roles to be predominantly filled by men, but then this is not a healthy society. Critical theory is just the latest in a long stream of infections to afflict it.

  • Peter Marriott says:

    Good piece Alexander and I like the above comment from David Isaac. I’ve always wondered what makes a “great” conductor as opposed to just a normal conductor, but I would think the temptation would be there to see a woman as greater than a man, simply on the basis that so few of them seem to do it at the top level.
    Surely it can’t be judged on knowledge of music notation and the score, as we can all assume that everyone in the orchestra, including the conductor, would know this, and if the players don’t know how to play their instruments well I would think that the conductor can’t do anything about, it except get someone else in to fill their place.
    If it’s just the body movements and action with the baton that makes one conductor better than the other surely this can be toned up looking into a mirror, in other words….. acting.
    I’ve read Roger Scrutons book The Aesthetics of Music and have it on my book shelf, and even though I can’t read music notation myself I find it fascinating, just from the imaginative order point view, though I realise I would get more from it with an intimate knowledge of the scripts.
    Interestingly, from my point of view, there comes the odd time when something on music crops up in my reading mind and I do check his book on it…….just for the narrative and his views alone.

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