WE all know that opera excels at tragedy, but the Canberra bushfires? Isn’t that a bit close to home?
Not so far as The Street Theatre is concerned, as I found last year when I attended a “First Seen” presentation of writer Helen Nourse and composer Sandra France’s searing new opera, “From a Black Sky”.
Set in Weston Creek, where Nourse lives, it focuses on the human dimensions of the fire – a fracturing marriage, a lesbian relationship, the question of whether to stay or to go as the birds drop from the sky and fire ravages the suburb.
“The subject is so embedded in Canberra’s living history that feedback was invaluable,” conductor and musical director of the work, David Kram, tells me by phone from Melbourne.
Kram is no novice. From his early professional years in Switzerland and Germany to his recent experience as musical director of Deborah Cheetham’s indigenous opera, “Pecan Summer”, he’s been at the forefront of new opera.
While working at the Victorian College of the Arts, he met and collaborated with Caroline Stacey, nowadays the director of The Street Theatre, and that partnership continued after she moved here, on the Griffin-inspired music theatre piece, “Capital”, by Fiona Fraser.
When it became clear that “From a Black Sky” would get up, Stacey was on the phone to Kram again, aware that he does his own orchestration and thinking it would be developmentally fruitful for France to work with him.
“It’s an incredible piece of music-drama, with interesting characters,” he tells me, “it will have a life beyond Canberra.”
He and Stacey have assembled a three-generational cast of adult opera singers, children from the Arawang Primary School Chorus and teenagers from Erindale College.
With Alan Hicks as “a strong concertmaster,” he also has orchestra leader Rowan Harvey Martin mentoring France, basically a guitarist and pianist, by helping her find “what works well for strings”.
His ensemble, augmented by woodwind, brass, piano and percussion, adds “incredible rhythm and musical variety” to what he stresses is not a neo-romantic opera, but rather melodious music that works “the same way The Beatles lifted pop music above the saccharine to a more universal level”.
“Audiences are most attuned to melody… and they will be able to hum the tunes in this work,” he says.
Kram’s task is made easier by the fact that the principals, David Rogers-Smith Rachael Duncan, Judith Dodsworth and Aboriginal opera singer Don Bemrose, are accomplished professionals who are enjoying the process.
So how will the music evoke the bushfires?
“It does it very well, but it doesn’t do it in a blatant way,” Kram says.
“It’s not an opera about the bushfires, it’s an opera set against the background of the bushfires, showing how people behave and react in a city where it was said, ‘this could never happen’.”
“From a Black Sky”, Centenary of Canberra at The Street Theatre, September 20-22. Bookings to 6247 1223 or thestreet.org.au