Arts / Pocket opera of love, blood and guts

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“The Healers” star, Dutch soprano Simone Riksman… had grown men and women weeping when she appeared at the 2014 Canberra International Music Festival.

PAINSTAKINGLY, Christopher Latham has pieced together a “pocket” or “jukebox” opera about the role of women in World War I.

Latham is the brains behind the World War I-targeted project “Flowers of War”, which in 2015 saw his “Gallipoli Symphony” streamed live around the world when it premiered in Istanbul.

His new production, “The Healers”, made up of 22 pieces for voice and orchestra from the era, features Dutch soprano Simone Riksman, who had grown men and women weeping when she appeared at the 2014 Canberra International Music Festival.

She plays a Belgian nurse and Australian tenor Andrew Goodwin the wounded Australian soldier. Because of what Latham calls the “blood and guts, and too much mud” theirs is a love that cannot be spoken.

Riksman, who is enjoying a burgeoning career in Europe, is an expert on the work of Lili Boulanger, who died during the war before realising her potential to become, in Latham’s view, “our greatest female composer”.

The soprano’s closeness to the work she’ll be singing will combine with what Latham calls her ability to “feel the emotion of her roles more than any other person I’ve met.

“She’s like a method actor, like what Lee Strasberg said of Marlon Brando and Marilyn Monroe… and there’s something about her that looks like a World War I nurse,” he says.

Latham, a dual citizen of Australia and France, argues that both melodic music and Impressionism were destroyed by the war and has been at pains to consider the closeness of his performers to the subject. The one-armed clarinettist Maurice Jaspart will be performed by clarinettist Tom Azoury, while Catherine McCorkill, as the nurse who treats him, has in real life suffered a nerve injury. David Pereira plays the wounded stretcher bearer and cellist, Maurice Maréchal, Caroline Almonte plays the Red Cross volunteer and the piano, and Latham plays Boulnois.

“I wanted to prove that healing is possible,” Latham said, explaining the influence of his own grandmother, who had been a nurse during the war and who suffered from nightmares about shell explosions afterwards. “She told me that women put concerts on in hospitals,” he says.

That gave him the physical context for his opera. The High Court will be set up in the round like a ward. The wounded will have bandages and woollen poppies will be strewn around as symbols of the blood stains.

“Many women were damaged, they were the ones who patched the men being blown up by shells and they are completely under-described,” he says of the nurses.

“They were the ones watching death, so many young boys, so I wanted to explore what it’s like to lose the men they learnt to love.”

Some of the composers featuring in the score are Lili Boulanger’s sister Nadia; Ivor Gurney, who was gassed in Passchendaele; Joseph Boulnois who had been a nurse in the French army, and a Latham favourite, the Australian Olympian and composer Frederick Septimus Kelly, whose beautiful song “It is Not Dawn ‘til You Awake”, will be sung by Goodwin in his role as the soldier while the nurse he loves, is sleeping. The soldier knows he is dying, he knows he loves her but they can’t do anything about it, his gift is to sing.

“The Healers” will be seen for one performance only at the High Court of Australia on Tuesday, October 10, but it’s not really a one-off, as it travels the next day to the hospital town Poperinge in Belgium, then to France, where the opera will be performed twice by L’ Orchestre de Picardie. A highlight will be a performance at the Australian Embassy in Paris on October 23.

Alas, Latham’s left-of-field plan to have the players in hospital pyjamas was thwarted by the French musicians union, which determined that it would technically turn them into actors.

It’s no accident that former “CityNews” Artist of the Year, Latham, was recently appointed as the first musical artist in residence for the Australian War Memorial – his views that Australia’s colossal losses in the Great War have left a “deep bruise in our psyche” require musical attention.

His appointment is aimed at enriching the memorial’s music collection and also giving “a human face to our nation’s losses”, necessary, he says, if you consider the “obscene amount of suffering”.

Two other upcoming concerts he is presenting are: “Monet’s Flowers of War”, where “the rock star of French art” is sitting in his garden at Giverny near the Western Front painting darker and darker waterlilies, as Australian flautist Jane Rutter performs at the James O. Fairfax Theatre, NGA, September 29 and 30.

At the High Court on Wednesday, November 8 there will be a performance of “1917: the Night is Darkest Before the Dawn”, including a sneak preview of the “Diggers’ Requiem”, a mighty piece for which he commissioned works from Nigel Westlake, Alex Lithgow, Richard Mills and Elena Kats-Chernin.

“The Healers”, High Court of Australia, Tuesday, October 10.

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