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Melbourne International Arts Festival

Magical sci-fi opera

Keith Gallasch talks to Tony MacGregor

Opera and music theatre works often endure the longest of gestations in the arts, let alone extended agonies of birth and often the shortest of lives. The on-off history of composer David Chesworth and librettist Tony MacGregor’s Cosmonaut (commissioned and workshopped but not taken up by OzOpera) entails waves of inspiration, excitement and frustration, radical editing of the libretto (determined by the scale of the forces available at various times), and finally realisation at the 2004 Melbourne International Arts Festival. I spoke to Tony MacGregor, writer and Executive Producer of Radio National’s Radio Eye and The Night Air about his sources for Cosmonaut.

MacGregor is a great admirer of the writer Elias Canetti (see Janice Muller, “In the space between words”, p. 8), particularly his seminal Crowds and Power. In the mid 1990s MacGregor had wanted to write something about the People Power of the 1980s in the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe and the Philippines. David Chesworth called to say there was a commission in the offing. One of the stories MacGregor put to the composer was about the cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev. When the Soviet Union crumbled in 1991, Krikalev was left stranded for 6 months in the space station Mir, “circling the world and immersed in media reports while his fellow Russians took history into their hands.” The librettist sees Krikalev’s situation “as a metaphor for ourselves. We know a lot about what’s happening in the world, but we are largely isolated from it.”

The Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) was another inspiration. A mathematician and “President of the Planet Earth and King of Time”, Khlebnikov believed that “with the right formula you could get inside light and see history.” The “magical sci-fi” possibility of being able to unpick history in a world where “we are saturated by media rays” excited MacGregor. The scenario he invented has a cosmonaut, Viktor, circling the earth but with no likelihood of rescue. In her Melbourne home, Angela, possibly autistic, perhaps schizophrenic, and gifted with mathematical brilliance, accidently tunes her radio to the cosmonaut’s wavelength and communicates with him. With the prospect of him falling into the earth’s atmosphere and burning up “Angela divines the right numbers that will translate Vladimir into light.”

A radio documentary from Poland was another important source for MacGregor’s texturing of his libretto. Constructed from the diaries of cosmonauts, it detailed the banalities of life in outer space, the physical decay and the endless exercise cycling, as if pedalling around the planet. Visions were not uncommon—reports that they had seen Gagarin’s capsule float past, or they’d heard him whistling. There was a sense of the cosmonauts being “simultaneously in the past and the present...travelling through electronic waves of media, through Gaston Bachelard’s ‘logosphere’.” Consequently MacGregor’s proposals for the sound design of Cosmonaut suggested not only the sounds of the historical moment of Viktor’s plight in 1991 but also the crowds of 1989 in Berlin and earlier in Prague, Belgrade and elsewhere. The opening ‘aria’, he says, is a setting of Monica Attard’s report for the ABC of crowds pulling down statues of Lenin and Stalin in Red Square.

MacGregor is resolute that his “magical sci-fi” libretto is not a love story: Angela and the cosmonaut are 2 very different people. Vladimir would prefer to be on the street, in the crowd; while radio contact is probably the only kind that Angela can sustain. But they do connect, far away from the power of crowds and the motion of history, and are transformed, perhaps flowing into history itself. As MacGregor says, if you want to tell this kind of story, how else but through opera. Curiously this Australian work with its Russian sources makes one mindful of the long line of Russian fantasists—including the Futurists, Bulgakov, the Strugatsky Brothers, Pelevin—and the Poles Bruno Schulz and cyberneticist Stanislav Lem (just the kind of writer who might turn out a story like MacGregor’s). The absence of their kind of magic in much writing here suggests that Cosmonaut offers new promise for Australian opera.

Cosmonaut, Oct 20-23; Melbourne International Festival of the Arts,

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 47

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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