The final image displayed on the screens flanking the Athenæum Theatre 2 stage read “Happy Birthday!”. IOpera was celebrating George Dreyfus’ 95th birthday with a concert production of his long neglected opera, The Gilt-Edged Kid. Possibly, the only better birthday present the composer could have received – musically speaking – was a fully staged version of his opera by Opera Australia accompanied by an abject apology from them for failing to perform it after commissioning it in 1969, and turning a deaf ear to his vigorous and occasionally spectacular campaign of protest against this injustice.
Dreyfus has been quoted as describing his opera as “the most famous Australian opera ever because it’s been persecuted by Opera Australia.” There was a certain irony in having no lesser a personage than the composer’s son, Australia’s Attorney General, Mark Dreyfus, sitting in the front row of a sizeable audience; but, thanks to Peter Tregear, IOpera’s Artistic Director, a gesture towards redemptive justice has been made. Tregear views the company’s performance of The Gilt-Edged Kid as a gift from Melbourne musicians to Dreyfus as a mark of respect for the composer himself as a person and his contribution to music.
As a one-act opera The Gilt-Edged Kid is a substantial 90-minute work scored for a chamber orchestra of almost 30 players plus 10 singers (soprano, coloratura soprano, tenor, 2 high tenors, 2 baritones, high baritone, 2 basses). For this performance the number of players was more than halved – a practical advantage since the absence of a pit made it difficult to understand the text in louder passages. The challenging score that, as the program notes put it, “deftly combines post-tonal harmonic inflections with allusions to both older ‘art music’ and contemporary popular and folk music” was negotiated most commendably under the baton of Warwick Stengards. Marianne Rothschild’s sole violin was exceptionally secure and appealing.
According to the opera’s librettist, Lynne Strahan, the model for the Gilt-Edged Kid in this “playful fable” was “Albert Langer, scourge of the bourgeoisie and uncrowned king of Monash University campus”. She also saw the struggle for power as being almost prescient with Whitlam as the Gilt-edged Kid and Sir John Kerr as the Administrator. The playfulness of Strahan’s libretto – one that included some astonishing out-of-left-field moments of dark humour – was complemented by some amusing screen images in addition to short plot summaries. To resolve the power struggle, Drozdov, a Soviet-era official, proposes a leadership game comprising a Game of Strategy, a Singing Contest, Gambling, a Wood-chopping Contest and an Archery Contest. Images of Scott Morrison with his notorious ukele appeared during of the Administrator’s contest song with lute (electronic keyboard using a lute registration).
As the Administrator, Christopher Hillier shone. He was the only singer whose words could be understood at all times, enabling listeners to better appreciate the witty libretto. His use of gesture, facial expression and vocal variation enabled him to characterise the role most effectively, and his singing of the John Dowland song, complete with some nicely modulated soft passages, earned the first applause.
Lyndon Green was given a matter of days to learn the title role of rebel leader due to an emergency calling away the original singer. Although on the soft side, making the text difficult to understand at times, his voice was true and pleasant; his was an admirable feat of confident musicianship. Images of Che Guevara appeared during his contest song, Ballad for a Dead Guerilla Leader, with Latin rhythms and featured bongo drums. It became a highlight of the opera as the Kid’s supporters, Rusty (Maurice Wan) and Roy (Timothy Daley), joined in the catchy tune and encouraged the audience to clap along. This contest was, unsurprisingly, declared a draw.
All cast members gave committed performances. Nicholas Beecher’s Drozdov was expressively sung and he was able to deliver much of the text with commendable clarity, partly because his music was often more lightly orchestrated. Drozdov’s pessimistic conclusions about human nature, learned from his job of bear baiting, featured the necessity for speed and taking advantage of one another. Jerzy Kozlowsi was a rich voiced Chief of Police with one of the most startlingly unexpected lines in the opera: “I just want to arrest someone”; he actually shoots the Administrator at the end of the opera. Asher Reichman was a vibrant Chief of Security, and Peter Tregear a soulful French revolutionary full of nostalgia, who welcomed the Gilt-Edged Kid into the ghostly ranks after being inadvertently shot by the Administrator during the final Archery competition.
Both Lee Abrahmsen as Clio, the muse of history, and Rebecca Rashleigh as Catafalque, a medieval martyr, sang with great beauty of tone, Abrahmsen pure and resonant, Rashleigh vocally agile and effervescent.
Surtitles may well have made this modified concert version of The Gilt-Edged Kid less bemusing at times, but the opera was constantly fascinating and well worth producing. Sitting in the audience, George Dreyfus must have experienced a great deal of satisfaction hearing his music performed by such an accomplished team of singers and orchestral musicians. Or maybe he felt even more indignant about Opera Australia’s failure to recognise its worth.
Heather Leviston reviewed “The Gilt-Edged Kid” by George Dreyfus, presented in concert form by IOpera at the Athenæum Theatre 2 on July 22, 2023.