Australian Contemporary Opera Co (ACOCo – formerly Gertrude Opera) is continuing to build a solid reputation for innovative musical experiences involving some of the best operatic and creative talent from Australia and overseas. This double bill of one-act operas by two significant contemporary American composers has given weight to ACOCo’s bold claim of being “the leading independent producer of contemporary opera in Australia”. In David Lang’s The Loser (2016) and Jake Heggie’s To Hell and Back (2006) we heard operas by composers whose works have been part of ACOCo’s repertoire for some time.
Composed for solo baritone voice, solo piano and small ensemble, The Loser is an opera in eight scenes with a libretto by Lang himself, adapted from Jack Dawson’s translation of the novel by the Austrian writer Thomas Bernhard. The anonymous narrator tells the story of his friend’s suicide. The downward trajectory begins after he and his friend participated in Horowitz’s masterclass with the young Glenn Gould. They realise that they can never achieve greatness and give up thoughts of a career as a concert pianists. Suicide beckons for both, but it is the friend (The Loser) who eventually hangs himself after feeling abandoned by his sister.
Lang’s opera requires enormous stamina on the part of the singer and considerable powers of concentration on the part of the audience for its one-hour duration. Christopher Hillier was so riveting that I thought the conductor, Carlo Antonioli, must have increased the tempo; I was shocked to find the time had passed so quickly.
This year, I have seen Hillier put in two major impressive performances – for the Royal Melbourne Philharmonic and for Melbourne Opera, but this one exceeded even them. The Loser requires a colossal feat of memory; it is wordy and the instrumental accompaniment is generally sparse, with viola, cello and double bass often providing just a repetitive pizzicato and the percussionist often adding atmosphere rather than a defined melodic line. Although Hillier had a tablet cleverly strapped to his hand, he made little use of it, and discarded it entirely as he sat took off his shoes and stocks, and sat on the edge of the stage, deciding whether he would jump off the mountain. Lang has said that he wants members of the audience feel as though the narrator is talking just to them – a feeling that friends sitting in the front row certainly experienced. Much of the vocal writing is conversational in nature, but there are moments when Hillier was able to use his powerful voice to great dramatic effect. The less than intimate space of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall was an advantage in that his voice could always be heard clearly in the quieter moments and rang out in resonant burnished glory for the climaxes. It was an Australian premiere of an opera that deserves to be heard many times, especially as performed by Hillier.
Jake Heggie is possibly best known to Australia’s opera-going public for his full-length opera Dead Man Walking, which was given its Australian premiere by the State Opera of South Australia for the 2003 Adelaide Festival. Based on the non-fictional novel of the same name written by Sister Helen Prejean, this production and Heggie’s music was met with high praise. His 40-minute opera To Hell and Back is also concerned with contemporary moral issues, in this case violent domestic abuse and its impact on the direct victim and the perpetrator’s mother. Librettist Gene Scheer drew on Ovid’s retelling of the Greco-Roman myth of Persephone, the goddess of Spring, who was abducted to the underworld by the god Pluto and condemned to spend half the year with him in “Hell”. In the opera, Stephanie/Persephone is rescued by her mother-in-law, Anne/Cyane, who can no longer ignore the abusive behaviour of her son Peter/Pluto, and pays for Stephanie’s plane ticket to sanctuary, where “for now, three days out of four I’m fine”. The opera revolves around Anne’s response to a letter written by Stephanie when in rehab.
Commissioned by the Phiharmonia Baroque Orchestra to celebrate its 25th season and the 20th anniversary of its music director Nicholas McGegan, Heggie’s musical language reflects this Baroque connection. The Overture echoes aspects of the French overture style such as dotted rhythms, while dance rhythms and forms also evoke Baroque usage. ACOCo’s band of eleven players was well equipped to do justice to Heggie’s score. The work is essentially tonal and lyrical incorporating many duets as well as solos within its five scene framework. Heggie wrote with two specific voices in mind: a classical soprano for Stephanie (Isabel Bayradarian) and a Broadway singer for Anne (Patti Lupone). For ACOCo’s production Desiree Frahn sang the role of Stephanie and Dimity Shepherd was Anne.
Frahn and Shepherd have sung these roles in previous ACOCo productions with great success, and their level of performance was similarly remarkable on this occasion. Frahn has an exceptionally attractive voice – fresh, vibrant and resonant, and a suitable contrast to Shepherd’s earthier style. Shepherd might be better known as a classical singer, but she possesses the colour, range and style required by Heggie for the role. Both singers have superb focus and were utterly compelling in the way they interacted and traversed their own anguished journeys. Props consisted of two chairs, two mobile phones and a scarf. The lyrical gardening scene in which Stephanie and Anne are so mindful of the vulnerability of plants while avoiding the unspeakable was convincingly mimed; it was simple and placed the emphasis on the mixture of joy in nature and fear of hurt to be expressed in this duet. Although the orchestral ensemble shared the stage, attention was firmly on these two exceptional artists.
Despite the unquestionable acoustic virtues of the Elisabeth Murdoch Hall, it was not the most suitable venue to showcase the work of either the composers or the performers. Unfortunately, at the moment, Melbourne has no better alternative. Nevertheless, the relatively small live audience appreciated this opportunity to hear these works so skillfully and passionately performed.
Heather Leviston reviewed American Opera Double Bill, presented by the Australian Contemporary Opera Co and the Melbourne Recital Centre at the Melbourne Recital Centre, Elisabeth Murdoch Hall on October 3, 2022.