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The Children’s Bach The Children’s Bach
photo Jeff Busby
LIKE ANY ADAPTATION, THE ANDREW SCHULTZ-GLEN PERRY OPERA FOR MELBOURNE’S CHAMBERMADE OF THE CHILDREN’S BACH IS AND IS NOT THE HELEN GARNER NOVEL OF 1984 ON WHICH IT IS BASED. THE REAL TIME OF EXPERIENCING A NOVEL IS THE READER’S OWN, AS SLOW OR FAST AS THEY WISH. THE REAL TIME OF THE STAGE IS RELATIVELY FIXED AND BRIEF, AS IT IS FOR EVEN THIS SLENDER NOVEL. BUT WHAT A NOVEL AND, AT FIRST GLANCE, WHAT AN UNLIKELY CANDIDATE TO BE ‘OPERATED’ ON. AND WHAT AN ENGAGING NEW OPERA, SUCCESSFUL IN PART BUT, LIKE MUCH CONTEMPORARY OPERA, NOT WITHOUT THE STYLISTIC PROBLEMS OF A FORM IN TRANSITION.

If you’ve read a novel which has inspired an opera, you’ll be be sensitive to the inevitable sacrificing of elements of plot and character. You’ll wonder if the characters on stage will match those you conjured in your reading. And then there’s anxiety about the larger mutation of interpretation, as librettist, composer, director, performers and designers make the original their own. Its language is likely to be particularly vulnerable: edited, of necessity, re-shaped, re-written, often deprived of the voice of its implicit narrator (whose role in opera is likely to become the orchestra’s) and transposed from the inner reader to the singer. If you love the book, you live in fear that the experience of it will be tainted, as happens with many a film adaptation. Sometimes the match between original and adaptation is such that the opera casts the book in a new light; more often, opera and book are like parallel universes, closely related, but very different experiences which we refuse to confuse.

Helen Garner’s idiosyncratic novel is hardly what you’d call plot-driven—it’s a quiet reverie of multiple minds observing the world and themselves in the everyday. The third person narrational point of view shifts briskly if gently from mind to mind within single frames (a meeting, a dinner, a trip). Although these glimpses can sometimes be quite brief, the novel has a great sense of residing in the moment and resisting the pull of plot: Garner gets the moment/momentum dynamic just right, evoking the interiority of a small suburban network of family and friends, some small dramas and a larger one when 40 year old Athena briefly leaves her family (partner Dexter and their two children, Arthur and the autistic Billy) for her friend Elizabeth’s musician lover Philip (single parent of Poppy, in her early teens).

Librettist Perry retains one son, Billy, and places him, first and last, centrestage, staring out into the audience. Within the opera Billy punctuates the action with his moments of intense preoccupation, frustration and anger, including tinkering with or hammering an old upright piano. He’s a victim of Athena’s apparently callous indifference when she frees the rabbit to which we know he has some kind of attachment. In the novel he is beyond such a connection. But in the opera we are being well prepared for Athena’s abandonment of her family. In the novel, Garner pays pretty much equal attention to Athena and Elizabeth, but because Elizabeth’s life can’t be resolved into story, in the opera she increasingly becomes an observer. The balance tips towards Athena and the opera towards the conventionally theatrical. However, composer, librettist and director attempt, in their own terms, to balance the push and pull of moment and momentum and retain a strong sense of the novel’s reflectiveness.

If Billy provides a simple frame for the opera (a child’s very innocent and largely detached view of things) and provides moments that are not plot-connected, likewise young Poppy, sitting up in bed, literally gives us a children’s Bach as, from time to time, she reads aloud passages (projected with the surtitles) that explain the musical structure of the fugue and the nature of counterpoint. She doesn’t do this in the novel, but in the opera Perry deftly uses it to provide her with focus, a desire to learn, a preoccupation, as she drifts away from the amiable intimacy with her father; and offers the audience an unfussy theoretical counterpoint to the unfolding story.

In its use of aria, of duet, trio, quartet and, of course, repetition, opera is a form capable of achieving a powerfully immersive sense of moment, although much of 20th century opera resisted this inheritance, turning sometimes to a kind of conversational naturalism—not always musically memorable on first hearing (while the orchestral score often can be). Schultz’s solos and duets share some of this awkwardness, of the trained opera voice delivering everyday dialogue, the inevitable aristocracy of tone at odds with the vocabulary and syntax of the lower middle class characters of the novel. The effect can be to make the dialogue sound silly, or redundant—why all that projection and modulation to say, “Shall we go inside?” (Dudley Moore once brutally parodied Benjamin Britten, actually a lesser offender, for producing this heightened banality.) Of course, if you’re an opera afficionado, familiar with the conventions, you’ll be forgiving of such disjunctions. However, in The Children’s Bach, we very occasionally hear the spoken voice, and the gap is prised further open.

Schultz’s songs however often catch the ear, almost at times like a musical (Sondheim having to some degree bridged the opera-musical gap), as when Philip sings to Poppy about his beloved Paradise Bar, or Dexter about ‘lerv.’ While the score is not accessible in the manner of Glass or Adams or, more conventionally, Golijov, nor is it the jagged modernism of an earlier Schultz opera, Black River (1989, film 1993). The composer’s score is lyrical and pervasively melancholic, save a joyous, dancing, unsung passage and the opera’s baroqu-ish duet coda. Not surprisingly it’s the Bach-ian texturing and pulsing of the score that gives the work warmth and drive. Each of Poppy’s readings from her ‘Children’s Bach’ seem to trigger the requisite realisation of the theory from the orchestra, driving the opera on but also adding to the sense of moment, a certain thoughtfulness, a musical reflectiveness. Schultz’s score sings, muses and dances and is superbly realised by the onstage conductor (Nicholas Carter alternating with music director Brett Kelly) and fine instrumentalists on piano, cello, clarinet, double bass, marimba, vibraphone and violin.

Chris Kohn’s direction, Dale Ferguson’s design and Richard Vabre’s lighting do much to conjure the spirit of Garner’s novel. The set occupies the whole of the open Merlyn stage: at first glance a mass of furniture without walls which is soon delineated by lighting and character movement. It’s a simple but effective, fluid space suggestive of Garner’s multiple points of view and allowing for easy transitions and edits and evoking a shared world of overlapping lives. Amidst all of this, just upstage only slightly to one side are the conductor and musicians—part of this world.

As well, Kohn has elicted from each of the performers an affecting natural presence (in contrast to the thrilling hyper theatricality of his own company, Stuck Pigs Squealing) and an ease of movement within and to and from the various domestic spaces. Composer, librettist and director have also integrated the upright piano further into the scenario, Athena struggling with her Bach, Billy toying with the instrument and Philip picking out a tune—the orchestra sometimes seamlessy picking up on these.

Schultz and Perry have deftly ‘plotted’ their version of The Children’s Bach, but maintained some of the requisite sense of moment, musically and, with additions of their own, structurally, and this has been adroitly furthered by director and designers. Musically, the orchestral score has an engaging contemporary lyricism—without resorting to minimalism or pastiche—but vocally the opera feels like it belongs well back in the 20th century. Nonetheless, despite the various mismatches there’s much to enjoy and a certain poignancy felt at the ending as a reconciled Elizabeth and sister Vicki duet the novel’s closing narration (an odd shift in the framing, but endearingly composed and sung) and Billy looks out at us in silence...as if, in an odd way, we’ve shared this suburban world with him.


ChamberMade, The Children’s Bach, adapted from the novel by Helen Garner, composer Andrew Schultz, librettist Glenn Perry, director Chris Kohn, performers Kathryn Gray, Dimity Sepherd, Andrea Carcassi, James Eggleston, Tess Duddy, Hannah Kostros/Alexa Madden (Poppy), James Christensen/Jackson Cairnduff (Billy), music director Brett Kelly, conductor Brett Kelly/Nicholas Carter, musicians James Cowell, Mitch Berick, Susannah Ng, Mark Kruger, Nicholas Synott, Eugene Ughetti, designer Dale Ferguson, lighting Richard Vabre, sound design Russell Goldsmith; The Merlyn, Malthouse, Melbourne, June 20-July 5

RealTime issue #86 Aug-Sept 2008 pg. 14

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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