Soaring into the eye of the storm


In Breaking Glass, Sydney Chamber Opera intended to present new visions of the operatic genre in four new works – one might call them micro-operas.

Exploring themes of depression, oppression, dystopia, and extinction, an apocalyptic pandemic would not have been out of place in any of them.

Breaking Glass tells the story of the Night Parrot, once thought extinct, then apocryphally rediscovered through fake photographs and now presumed to exist but in decline.Credit:Daniel Boud

As lockdown loomed, in keeping with the theme of rebirth also woven throughout, Sydney Chamber Opera under conductor Jack Symonds combined two live rehearsals at Carriageworks and the final audio take for an internet performance that can now be viewed at Sydneychamberopera.com (where you can also donate to keep this enterprising company alive).

Though conceived as a live rather than virtual experience, the internet version retained the creative energy and originality.

Georgia Scott’s Her Dark Marauder with text by Pierce Wilcox launched into an anguished and disturbing soundscape, starting with vocal gasps and howls against a rocky instrumental texture to evoke the entwining depressive thoughts in the mind of poet Sylvia Plath.

Georgia Scott’s Her Dark Marauder

Georgia Scott’s Her Dark MarauderCredit:Daniel Boud

The tempestuous start subsided to calmer stretches and soaring sustained lines as the poet wrestles with depression and the act of writing.

Danielle Maas’s production set the singers in three separate islands amid heavy mist, sometimes shrouded, sometimes glowing, while the musical texture alternated between spoken reflection, agitation, and luminous ensemble sounds.

At the close, the mist clears, as two characters (Jane Sheldon and Mitchell Riley) move onward with awakening calm while Plath (Jessica O’Donoghue) composes the line, “I open my mouth and eat the future”. This was a short, compressed work of visceral intensity.

Peggy Polias’s Commute superimposes a woman’s daily walk home against the journey of Ulysses in Homer’s Odyssey. Director Clemence Williams set the piece as a single slow progression across the stage by the soprano O’Donoghue.

Against the pulsating, abrasive white noise of whatever mythical vehicle is transporting her, she hears threatening grunts and aggression.

In the first episode images of giant marauding hands invade her space. The one-eyed Cyclops in Homer becomes the violating gaze of the man in the street with a giant eye projected at the back before a rosy-fingered dawn brings arrival, safety, and light melismatic vocal writing.

The Tent by Josephine Macken (directed by Maas) takes Margaret Atwood’s eponymous story and transposes it into a dystopian post-apocalyptic future in which an artificial intelligence collects remnants of the human.

Against a spare, nihilistic soundscape, three figures stand at stark white tables (Simon Lobelson, Sheldon and Riley) examining transparencies while the screen assembles patterns resembling the organic.

Colour re-emerges and the tables move away, in what I took to be the reinvention of some form of post-human intelligence and creativity.

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Bree van Reyk’s The Invisible Bird (director Clemence Williams) began playfully with three singers in evening dress (Sheldon, O’Donoghue and Riley) doing bird imitations of the Macaroni Penguin and other endangered or extinct Australian birds.

Musically the work is palindromic, moving from polyphony to homophony to haunting chant and back again. One of its most memorable moments came in the haunting central chant section where Sheldon, bedecked in gorgeous feathers in a light cage recited the names of birds, plucking a feather and letting it drop to the ground as each was declared extinct.

The closing section tells the story of the Night Parrot, once thought extinct, then apocryphally rediscovered through fake photographs and now presumed to exist but in decline.

O’Donoghue, Sheldon, Lobelson, and Riley spanned remarkable vocal demands and range with exemplary professionalism. The invisible but crucial instrumental ensemble bound textures together with the balanced tautness of ensemble under Symonds’ characteristically focussed leadership.

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