This a piece which composer Aaron Copland and librettist Edwin Denby created especially for students in 1938. For this production, the Victorian Opera Youth Company, featuring singers from the Victorian Opera Youth Chorus perform oratorio style, with a large chorus and seven soloists. The accompaniment was brilliantly provided by pianist Tom Griffiths and the company conducted with sensitivity by Angus Grant.
In a performance just over an hour long, we meet six students who volunteer to help in a rescue operation following a devastating hurricane. They are flying to the disaster zone, when the plane develops engine trouble and makes an emergency landing. The pilot has them unload the cargo of emergency supplies, an inflatable raft and a radio. He leaves them to wait on a nearby hill while he flies on ahead for help. After he leaves, the original hurricane returns and our group of students are left in harm’s way.
The group can’t agree on what to do, and there are struggles between self-appointed leader, Butch (Lachlan McLean) and the others. Radio geek Lowrie (Thomas Harvey) wants help to move the precious radio from the landing place to the hill and avoid the impending flood from the river below. School bully, Fat (James Young) wants to open the food supplies, but the others insist it is for the hurricane survivors. In the middle of an erupting fight between Fat and Gyp (James Emerson), a young survivor Jeff (Dorcas Lim) appears. He has been abandoned by his family as they fled the storm. Queenie (Shimona Thevathasan) and Gwen (Saskia Mascitti) decide to open the food supplies to feed Jeff and themselves. This annoys the others and they decide in their immaturity to split up and go in search of help. They leave Fat behind in case the plane returns. I won’t ruin it by going further. You’ll have to go and find out what happens for yourselves.
This feels like a very contemporary piece, and despite its eighty years, carries a clear message about coming together in times of trouble. It also has another level where we see how the characters are changed by their experience. Because they have faced death together and survived, it will set them apart from others forever. The stage direction by Alastair Clark is imaginative and the large vocal ensemble is beautifully choreographed to give motion to their narrative. The forty strong chorus tells the unfolding story with clarity despite the often complex harmonies and variations in pace. Extra characters and plot developments are sung by various chorus members, often revealing delightful voices.
Despite the youth of this company (aged 15 to 25 years), the standard of musicianship and stage craft is outstanding. The ensemble singing is ethereal and very haunting at times, then urgent and frightening at others. Copland marries it to the story line as we follow the storm and its aftermath. The chorus singing in this work was the highlight for me. It is rare indeed to hear such beautiful unembellished vocalisation.
Although the piece is set in the United States, there are no attempts here at American accents. With such a large cast, it would be impractical to have them all in the same dialect. Besides specific place names in the text, there is little else which distracts because of it. Eduard Ingles’ set and lighting design is Spartan and most effective for this piece. Simplicity in this case enables the performance to be appreciated in a simple distilled form. Copland’s score shines through and engages with the listener, just as it must’ve done back in the 1930s. Time has not diminished it, and in fact, with the most recent natural disasters in the United States and other parts of the world, The Second Hurricane seems to be very timely indeed.
There are four more performances of this rarely seen work still to come, on Saturday 14 and Sunday 15 October at 1pm and 4pm, at Horti Hall, 31 Victoria Street Melbourne.