Opera in a Land of Song

Posted on Posted in My blog, Opera articles, Songlines, Uncategorized

As a recent  member of the California-based internet network MuseSalon I wondered what contribution I could make to their blog. I decided I might be able to say something about opera in Australia that would excite Americans about opera where they least expect it. This is a version of that post.

Australia is very strongly defined by its visuals – clear blue oceans and pure-white sand on much of the coast, forests of tall, sometimes shaggy gun-metal grey eucalypts, ribbons of red and purple mountains in Central Australia which trail off to distant papery-blue peaks. Our painters are probably (after our actors and some of our film directors) our best-known artists.

'Blues oceans, pure-white sands'
‘Blues oceans, pure-white sands’ – the Northern Beaches of Sydney

But there has been considerable operatic activity since Isaac Nathan wrote Australia’s first opera in 1847. Nathan’s Don John of Austria, written with Jacob Montefiore, told of a three-way love affair between Miriam a Jew, Philipp II of Spain and his half-brother Don John at the time of the Inquisition. It was an interesting plea for tolerance in that rough colony still emerging from the ironbark forests of Sydney Cove. Since Don John, notable operas have been Voss (Richard Meale and David Malouf’s opera based on Patrick White’s novel of a German explorer of our inland), Lindy (Moira Henderson and Judith Rodriguez’s opera about Lindy Chamberlain whose daughter Azaria was taken by a dingo near Uluru in 1980) and Mills and Goldsworthy’s Batavia (about the massacre among shipwrecked survivors of the Batavia on the Abrolhos Islands off Western Australia in 1629). Andrew Schultz has dealt with contemporary issues such as terrorism in Going into Shadows, written with his sister, Julianne, and aboriginal deaths in custody in Black River (I collaborated with him on the Central Australian concert drama, Journey to Horseshoe Bend). Gordon Kerry has written a number of operas including Medea, performed in Washington and Germany, and Richard Mills has become something of a specialist opera composer with works such as The Summer of the 17th Doll, Batavia, and The Love of the Nightingale. Mills was working on an opera about J. Edgar Hoover at one stage. But I’d have to ask him what happened to that.

Besides composers, performers have included Sir Charles Mackerras, who could be credited with establishing Janacek’s operas in the English-speaking world (it was his great-great-great grandfather, Nathan, who wrote the first Australian opera); also singers Joan Sutherland and Nellie Melba. Most Australians these days probably haven’t a clue who ‘that sheila on our $100 bill is’, but Melba was one of the most famous persons in the world around the turn of the 20th century.

These are impressive enough statistics I guess. But what really impresses me is something else (and I have to say that I limit myself hereon to what happens in Central Australia because that is what I know best.)

In traditional aboriginal culture, Australia is criss-crossed with song. These have become known as Songlines (after Bruce Chatwin’s novel about them, but the term was probably invented by Tonkinson in the 1970s). Songlines are basically epic accounts of the exploits of ancestors who travelled the country shaping its natural features in what the Pitjantjatjara call ‘tjurkurrpa’ or Arrernte call ‘altjira’ (often inaccurately translated as Dreamtime). These songlines can stretch for hundreds of miles. No one individual or group owns the whole extent. A person might inherit a stretch of songline from his father or father’s father, and may speak only for (and authorise the performance of) that section. Somewhere further north or south, or east and west, someone else takes over. In the course of a lifetime, a person may also gain access to and knowledge of (though not necessarily authority over) the songs of his own conception site (if he was born ‘out of country’); other travelling songs intersecting at his ‘clan’’s totemic centre; his mother’s father’s stretch of song (and country); etc… In this way, a repertoire also becomes a kind of map. Songs have been known to be sung when travelling to make the yearned-for country ‘come up faster’.

The totemic landscape
The totemic landscape

In a sense the owners of songs own on behalf of the group because reiteration of the song on ceremonial occasions is thought to sustain the species and conditions which guarantee the groups’ continued existence. (The ancestors, even when in human shape, were often at the same time species of animals or plants.) Embodying essences of life, giving voice to the ancestors themselves (because their creations), a lot of these songs are secret-sacred and out of bounds for the uninitiated. Their texts are distorted in such ways as to be (in an oral/aural tradition) impenetrable to the non-initiate.

Europeans often can’t tell the difference between one chant and another. A common complaint in early settlers’ accounts was that aboriginal singing was ‘monotonous’. But aboriginal people in Central Australia can hear the differences in their chants. They would know which ancestor was being commemorated, which patch of country was being referred to. There is something in Pitjantjatjara chant called ‘mayu’ – flavour (the Arrernte talk of ‘scent’.) And musicologists have speculated that the ‘flavour’ might reside in the exact shape of the middle terrace of the descending contour (for Central Australian chant is distinguished by a melodic descent in three stages, called, colourfully, a ‘tumbling strain’), or in the segment of melody between two significant intakes of breath. Aboriginal people can hear it and know it straight away. And it is important that they do. Land Claims (titles to unalienated Crown Land in the outback) have been granted by the Federal Land Commissioner on the basis of applicants’ correct identification of a songline with a particular parcel of land (in closed session, if they’re secret chants).

All this probably makes you wonder how any of this could translate into contemporary opera, especially since the real secret-sacred stuff is out of bounds. At the very least, its value is inspirational. I get a thrill knowing that I was born in a country underpinned by epic song. And songlines suggest a certain Australian appropriateness, and reconciling usefulness of, the operatic form. I once went out west of Alice Springs to negotiate with an ingkata (ceremonial leader) over the potential inclusion of some chants in an opera I was then working on. In the end we were only allowed to use some verses from what is called ltata (entertainment songs, sometimes harmless extracts from larger cycles). We were not allowed to use any urumbula (‘men’s business’) or ilpintji (love magic; it might have been ‘dangerous’). But on the way out to the ingkata’s place I said to his nephew, ‘How are you going to explain opera to uncle?’ He said, ‘I’m going to tell him it’s white man’s ltata.’

Gordon Kalton Williams

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