Dr Elliott Gyger is one of our most esteemed composers. He sat down with us to talk about the challenges of converting a piece of literature into an operatic work.
Composer and conductor Dr Elliott Gyger is one of the most highly commissioned composers in Australia, having created innovative and exciting works as varied as In Praise of Sandstone (2012) for solo voices, choir and percussion; Smoke and Mirrors (2014), a concerto for tenor saxophone; the song cycle on air – dialogue for orchestra (2011); Liquid Crystal (1990) for clarinet and piano; and his highly acclaimed opera Fly Away Peter (2015) based on the novel by Australian author David Malouf. Born in Sydney but now based in Melbourne where he is Associate Professor in composition at the University of Melbourne, Elliott Gyger sat down to tell me a little about his new opera, Oscar and Lucinda, based on Peter Carey’s masterful 1988 novel, and which has its world première in Sydney this July.
Oscar and Lucinda isn’t the first literary work you’ve been inspired by. Dante’s Inferno, AS Byatt’s Angels and Insects, David Malouf’s Fly Away Peter and Kenneth Slessor’s iconic poem Five Bells are among other works you’ve composed in recent years. What is it about these stories that inspires you to set them to music?
It’s true that literature is a major source of extra-musical inspiration for me – no doubt because reading is my main (only?) non-music-related hobby. I am drawn equally to colour and drama of literary imagination, and to the musicality of finely crafted prose or poetry in its own right. There may be very different specific points of connection in different works, however.
I grew up by Sydney Harbour, so the nocturnal waterscape of Kenneth Slessor’s Five Bells was deeply familiar to me; and the poem’s themes of time and memory are primary concerns of every composer. By contrast, the appeal of AS Byatt’s dark fairy tale worlds is precisely in their strangeness, although my work Angels and Insects borrows little more than that book’s resonantly contradictory title, which seemed both apt and provocative for a celesta concerto. Dante’s Inferno, with its lurid visions of Hell, had a similarly exotic allure when I was planning a virtuosic tour-de-force for pianist Michael Kieran Harvey; however, in the course of writing the piece, I became more than a little uncomfortable with the poem’s theology of vengeful punishment. For Fly Away Peter, it was above all the lyrical beauty of David Malouf’s writing, in poignant contrast to the horrors of the war it depicts, which seemed to demand a musical response.
You’re obviously attracted to Oscar and Lucinda. Your 2017 work A church made of glass: for three singers and three players focuses on the central and lasting image of Carey’s glass cathedral. Can you tell me a little about the appeal of this novel for you personally and artistically?
I was twenty when Oscar and Lucinda was published. I remember it as being one of the first contemporary novels that I discovered for myself when it was hot off the press, and it’s remained a favourite of mine ever since. There are so many levels to it: the sheer flair of the language; the unusual structure of over a hundred short (sometimes extremely short) chapters; the Dickensian array of eccentric characters and bizarre situations; and the brilliant way in which the improbable coincidences of nineteenth-century fiction are built into the plot via the central characters’ fascination with gambling.
But two things above all define the special flavour of the novel. One is the imagery of glass, and in particular of the glass church sailing up the river. A church made of glass sets a compendium of the writing concerned with the church itself, of which there is surprisingly little given the powerful impression it creates on the reader; as the novel says, the church is “an idea with a force of its own”, and it is also one with great potential for musical interpretation, in its combination of transcendent beauty and ludicrous impracticality. The second is the characters of Oscar and Lucinda themselves – both of them exquisitely vulnerable misfits, with rich imaginations and inner vision which is sadly incompatible with the world they inhabit. I think their passions and obsessions are ideally suited to the surreal intensity of opera.
How do you go about writing an opera? Do you sit down with the librettist, in this case, Pierce Wilcox, and director Patrick Nolan to nut out what parts of the story you may need to leave out or emphasise for dramatic effect? Do constraints imposed by others – such as length, venue, directorial preferences etc – affect your creativity? Are they problematic or just part of the process?
Every problem is definitely part of the process! Composition (and I assume other forms of artistic activity as well) is largely made up of creative problem-solving; if the problems are not externally imposed, then you create them for yourself. In adapting a huge novel like Oscar and Lucinda the major challenge is not so much what to leave out, as what you can’t leave out. Pierce and I began with certain key scenes – notably the final events of the two acts – and more or less worked back from there.
There are many characters and plot strands that we completely omitted, and other places where Pierce ingeniously wove together elements from several different chapters to make a single scene. The libretto remained in a state of flux right to the point where I was setting it: in the process of composing a scene, it might become apparent that some text wasn’t necessary, or conversely that a few extra lines were required to establish a character or idea. We occasionally consulted Patrick where logistics might play a role in deciding what should or should not be included, but have tried to avoid being too prescriptive about staging.
Do you choose particular instruments or instrumentations to represent particular characters or events? Do you take into account music or themes from the period you’re representing, in this case, nineteenth-century England and Australia, or do you strive for something completely new?
My compositional strategy for a large work begins with long-range planning, which sets certain parameters in place defining the sound-world. For Oscar and Lucinda, this involved some organisational strategies for harmony, and the selection of the instrumental line-up: a relatively warm-sounding ensemble of woodwind, horns and strings, with percussion, piano and harp providing some of the necessary glassy colours. These sonic choices were made with the palette of nineteenth-century orchestral and chamber music in mind, but without evoking a period-appropriate musical style. In order to keep the sound fresh across a long piece, it also often helps to hold certain things in reserve. The prologue to the first act is accompanied only by plucked strings, piano and percussion; the wind instruments are introduced only gradually, with each scene differently scored, and the whole orchestra is not heard together until quite close to the end of the act.
The writing of the music itself follows as a relatively intuitive, improvisational course within these constraints. In an opera, that also means responding as sensitively as possible to the words and dramatic situations in the libretto. Timing is key – how long you spend on each syllable, but also how long you wait between one line and the next, can deeply affect the natural flow and mood of a scene. And the instrumental accompaniment is an incredibly powerful tool for creating subtext and character in every moment.
However, individual decisions also start to carry particular meanings which can then resonate later in the piece; specific harmonies or instrumental colours gradually acquire connotations. For example, Oscar’s characteristic colours are harp and cor anglais, suggesting his other-worldliness and isolated rural upbringing, while Lucinda’s music typically features the edgier, more urban sounds of piano and clarinet. (These associations also reflect the considerable degree to which Carey’s protagonists reverse gender stereotypes: Lucinda is much the stronger and more assertive, where Oscar is fragile and highly-strung.) The further into the work, the more the process feels like weaving – picking up existing strands and braiding them together to create more of the musical fabric.
Composition (and I assume other forms of artistic activity as well) is largely made up of creative problem-solving; if the problems are not externally imposed, then you create them for yourself. In adapting a huge novel like Oscar and Lucinda the major challenge is not so much what to leave out, as what you can’t leave out.
Does the author of Oscar and Lucinda, Australian author Peter Carey, have any input into the musical work? What has his reaction been to having his novel turned into opera?
Peter Carey at this point is a serial adaptee, with Brett Dean’s operatic adaptation of Bliss and the celebrated film versions of both Bliss and Oscar and Lucinda. Without having had any direct contact with him, my impression is that he is interested and curious but happy to remain at a distance from the process. That was definitely true of David Malouf with Fly Away Peter. Malouf is very much an opera connoisseur and has written opera libretti himself, but perhaps because of that fact was aware that opera plays by its own rules, and must reinvent its source material to make it viable for the operatic stage.
Do have any ideas about how to attract more audiences to opera, in particular, new operas telling Australian stories and written by Australian composers?
The opera scene in Australia has been diversifying in several directions in recent years – in terms of musical style, vocal technique, scale, venue and technological innovation, to name just a few. These are all positive developments in making opera more accessible. Where this diversification hasn’t yet made significant inroads is in terms of the makers of opera, who are still predominantly affluent, male and white. There is a significant and overdue focus at the moment on opera’s problematic relationship to gender; issues of race and cultural identity should hopefully not be far behind. Perhaps when opera’s creators are more representative of the population at large there will be flow-on effects in terms of audience.
Interestingly, I think that the issue of Australian subject matter is sometimes overemphasised. Liza Lim, one of Australia’s most successful opera composers internationally, has never focused on Australian subject matter in her stage works, while Brett Dean’s version of Hamlet is set to be the first Australian opera ever staged at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. Although both my operas to date are adaptations of Australian source material, I wouldn’t wish to be confined to that in the future. Contemporary Australian opera is a vital part of our cultural scene not because of what it depicts, but because audiences benefit enormously from seeing works created from something approaching their own perspective – alongside those from other places and times.
Oscar and Lucinda, an opera in two acts, is a co-production and co-commission of Sydney Chamber Opera, Opera Queensland and Victorian Opera. It will have its world première at Carriageworks, Bay 20, 245 Wilson St, Eveleigh, Sydney, 27 July-3 August 2019. See the website for details.