A critical analysis of the storylines of new Australian opera over the past quarter century: conclusions drawn therefrom.

Approx 5775 words

All Rights Reserved Copyright (C) Derek Strahan 2002


This article is not a vehicle for homophobic prejudice. Being myself a person who seeks to encompass and transcend sexual difference, a person who would categorise himself as being neither entirely heterosexual, nor entirely homosexual and, regrettably, denied by gender the opportunity to be a practicing lesbian, I have had to resort to neologism to describe my own sexual preference: I would describe myself as omnisexual, in preference to describing myself as bisexual. There are practical reasons for my taking this stance, and the main one has to do with a dislike of tribalism of any kind, and I perceive that the world of sexuality is characterised by warring tribes. None of the adherents of any of the forms of sexuality named above are particularly tolerant of each other although, for reasons of political convenience, male gays and lesbians have been and still are allies in the struggle to achieve social, philosophical and economic parity with straights, and to end the centuries long discrimination against them entrenched in religious doctrine and in criminal law. This struggle, which began in earnest in the 1960s, is analogous to the struggle for female emancipation, which began in earnest in the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and was spearheaded by the suffragette movement.

It is inevitable that tribes are formed in the process of political struggle: indeed it would be correct to say that a political party assumes all the significant characteristics of a tribe. Tribal association is the way humans get things done. There is nothing wrong with this process, in my view, so long as each tribe agrees to subject itself to the democratic process, and to the laws of whatever country it resides in, and does not advocate any assumption of superiority over others. When the latter happens the process of tribalism becomes pernicious, and leads to perverse forms of association such as racism. For an analysis of this process, may I refer you to my article titled "Variations On A Racist Theme"? You will find it on this website by clicking on the title.

Perhaps it is gratuitous but, at this point, I feel I should add an autobiographical note, to flesh out the above observations, in particular, the opening remarks where I seek to categorise myself. No male who has experienced an adolesence largely spent at boarding school in Britain could possibly remain in ignorance of homosexual practises, nor avoid forming proto-gay friendships. These establishments also attract gay men to the teaching staff, where they feel comfortable in a quasi-monastic all male society. My experience as a boarder for six years at one of Northern Ireland's most prominent educational establishments bore out these observations. From this period I learned that it is quite natural for males to "fall in love" with each other. It is as natural as the process of a male "falling in love" with a woman, which I was to experience after I emerged from those insulated cloisters and met a variety of people in the wider world.

This article is therefore not to be construed in any way as homophobic; but it is certainly critical of a particular aspect of gay tribalism as it has been expressed in one area of the creative arts. Let me sum up my thesis to begin with, before seeking to illustrate it by example. Gay love, in English literary tradition, has been called "the love that dares not speak its name". The reason why it "dared not" was because, in English law, until recently, it was illegal to practise male homosexuality. The most notorious victim of this law was, of course, Oscar Wilde.

In the politics of opera, it has been a natural reaction, perhaps, for gays in positions of executive power, to express resentment of the dominance in opera plots, of heterosexual romance; but the appropriate method of redress would surely be to encourage the writing and production of "gay" opera plots, which openly "speak the name". It seems to me that, instead, there has been a tendency to prevent any "speaking of the name" of heterosexual romance in new operas accepted for production. I have not invented this thesis and then tried to find evidence to support it. The thesis has emerged slowly as a result of observation over the years. As Sherlock Holmes said to Dr. Watson (or words to this effect): "When you have eliminated all possibilities except the incredible, then the incredible must be accepted as the explanation."

Critical comment in the following article is restricted to analysis of plot lines of operas mentioned. No comment is offered on music other than to bestow praise, sometimes in the context of works whose appeal has been perhaps diminished by perceived shortcomings in dramatic structure and content - a situation frequently encountered, alas, in the annals of opera.

Please now read on



Donizetti's opera "The Siege of Calais" was a "politically correct" opera written to appeal to French patriotism and to secure for the composer a performance in Paris in 1836. Despite magnificent music it failed because of the static nature of its story of passive resistance to the English siege of Calais in 1347. A "family at war" sub-plot added only limp drama thus depriving the opera of an exciting final act. Lacking an available tenor, Donizetti was obliged to write the leading male role as a "music" (a male-hero role sung by a female contralto). The opera thus incorporated three weaknesses. It lacked individual dramatic conflict (social or military conflict are useful only as a backdrop to a central drama). There was an aesthetic imbalance in the types of voices used. Such love interest as it had (family love) was relegated to a sub-plot. To allow one of these weaknesses is foolhardy; two, dangerous; and three, fatal!

One would have thought that composers and librettists, in selecting subjects for new Australian opera, would have heeded the lessons of history and given priority to avoiding these three structural flaws. However, there is something else which opera creators have avoided with greater determination during the current era which I date from 1972, the year of Peter Sculthorpe's sole venture in writing for music theatre, "Rites of Passage". This was a work, described at the time as "being concerned with rituals associated with man's life crises".

The "something else" to which I refer is heterosexual love.

It is possible that the era under discussion here has come to an end with the creation and production of an opera based on Ray Lawler's play "The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll", to a libretto by Peter Goldsworthy and music by Richard Mills, since this play certainly deals with heterosexual relationships. However, it may equally be that this work is the exception which proves the rule, and that its primary appeal as an opera was its status as the best known and most successful of all Australian plays.

Apart from "The Doll", then, it is astonishing but true that over the last quarter century no new Australian opera has been given a major production which has been about a heterosexual love relationship ( although, as we shall see, there have been operas dealing with heterosexual non-relationships). This is a curious omission since the constant theme of opera since its genesis, the theme which has inspired the greatest operatic music, and for which audiences have displayed an insatiable appetite, has been heterosexual romance; and, as the Donizetti example suggests, theatrical entrepreneurs ignore the evidence of public preference at their peril. "The Siege of Calais" did not repeat the success of the opera which Donizetti wrote the previous year. Based on a romantic novel by Sir Walter Scott, that work was "Lucia di Lammermoor".

Such a dearth of opposite-sex love stories tempts one to infer that the creative process by which operas come into being in Australia has, for some reason, been influenced by an all-pervasive tendency to base a new work on anything but a heterosexual romance.

Such a dearth of opposite-sex love stories tempts one to infer that the creative process by which operas come into being in Australia has, for some reason, been influenced by an all-pervasive tendency to base a new work on anything but a heterosexual romance. "Oh, not another boring old love story! " must surely have been the constant refrain inhibiting composer and librettist from risking cliche. Why has heterophobia persisted for so long in the creation of new Australian opera? Australian literature, painting, theatre and cinema display a plurality that seems rich by comparison. Surely the aversion cannot have come from opera management. The benefits of staging dramas of heterosexual passion are twofold. Firstly, they are known to be universally popular. Secondly, in opera, this theme allows for musical dialogue between lead male and female singers with a resulting balance in vocal quality which is aesthetically pleasing. Thirdly, and most importantly, a love story involving a woman affords the opportunity to write a plangent role for a diva. And yet a survey of new Australian operas produced since 1983 shows that creators have had to struggle to provide significant roles for the female voice in the subjects chosen for development.

A survey follows which offers structural analysis of several opera story lines. Writing an opera is an arduous task, and each opera mentioned has, individually, been rightly applauded. The sole purpose of the survey is to explore if a "trend" has emerged overall in the nature of the stories chosen for development.

In 1983 Stephen Berkoff adapted the Franz Kafka novella "Metamorphosis" to provide a libretto for composer Brian Howard. The chief protagonist is a male, a Father who turns into a beetle, to the dismay and disgust of his family of six, only two of which are female. As we will see, this is the first of at least four monsters to occupy centre stage in new Australian operas, three male and one female.

In 1988 Brian Howard composed another opera, "Whitsunday", this one based on a libretto by Louis Nowra, in which two pairs of heterosexual adolescents are shown in the context of a family picnic off the coast of North Queensland. However, these are immature relationships. The opera's main concern is to present visitation by spirits, and to show the independent reactions of the male and female adolescents to the mystic apparitions.

In 1986 Richard Meale composed the music to David Malouf's libretto based on Patrick White's novel "Voss". This presents male and female protagonists, the explorer, Voss, and Laura, niece of the expedition's backer. The relationship of Voss and Laura is static, mystical, conducted at a distance and is not troubled by any contact of the flesh.

The follow-up opera by the Meale-Malouf partnership, in 1992, was "Mer de Glace". The work derived its subject matter from the true-life sojourn of poets Shelley and Byron with Mary Shelley and Clair Clairemont near Geneva, an episode of sexual chaos and creative turbulence which took place in the summer of 1816 and which profoundly affected each of them. In cinema this event produced the surprisingly reserved U.S. feature "Haunted Summer", and the unsurprisingly unreserved British production "Gothic" directed by Ken Russell. Each of these had the merit of being actually about the relationships between the two poets and their companions.

Cinema has also celebrated the other product of that summer, Mary Shelley's novel "Frankenstein", and this unique literary work has generated at least one music theatre piece, H.K.Gruber's "Frankenstein." "Mer de Glace", however, was not entirely about the free-thinking poets nor was it entirely about Dr. Frankenstein's creation. In trying to be about both it ended up being about neither; but it did give new Australian opera another monster.

In "Lawrence Hargrave Flying Alone", composer Nigel Butterly and librettist James McDonald created a work on the theme of transcendence. Hargrave pursued many interests as inventor, explorer and scientist, but he is chiefly remembered for his designs for flying machines. In the opera the concept of "flying" is given both a material/scientific meaning and a spiritual/symbolic meaning. In Hargrave's thinking the two meanings are shown as complementary and integral to his vision. As a socialised male, Hargrave is married with children. His wife, Margaret, is described as "inexorably dragged to earth" by "the burden, the boredom of motherhood". She is portrayed as being "dismissive of Hargrave's dreams (of flight)". The opera is conceived as a "kind of miracle play", as the "dramatisation of the life of a saint"

Saints, generally, in order to attract canonisation, have been required to foreswear the pleasures of the flesh. This is a well-known condition of achieving holiness in most religions. It is clear that, in this opera, Hargrave's heterosexual relationship with his wife exists only, and reluctantly, on the material plane. In the spiritual plane Hargrave "flies alone": he is spiritually celibate. As in the opera "Voss", the protagonist here is again an Australian male who, despite being in contact with a female, remains psychologically and, in essence, remote from her.

"The Eighth Wonder", a relatively recent Australian opera, enjoys a lively setting by composer Alan John who co-wrote the libretto with Dennis Watkins. It also eschews a central love theme of a romantic kind. The principal love object is the "eighth wonder" itself, an iconic structure, the Sydney Opera House. The opera does skilfully provide an important female role for a singer as a singer, who is involved in a difficult heterosexual relationship; but this is a sub-plot which occurs in the context of the well-known conflict between Architect and Politician in the building of the Sydney Opera House. The dynamic of the story, thus told, is similar to that of the standard "back-stage musical", in which the drama centres around "putting on a show" despite all obstacles. In "The Eighth Wonder", it is the building of a building in which to "put on a show" which provides the dynamic thrust so familiar in half a century of music theatre pieces and film musicals of this genre. The film musical which introduced this generic story (and which is now also a stage musical) is the Warner Brother's depression era hit of 1933, "42nd Street", which has no central love story except that between the producer (memorably played by Warner Baxter) and his own show. A related sub-plot involves the emergency casting of an unknown (Ruby Keeler) as a replacement leading lady to enable the show to go on, after the original leading lady (Bebe Daniels) literally "breaks a leg" (or rather, sprains an ankle.) In that movie, as in "The Eighth Wonder", the drama concerning the career of a female artist is, as I have shown, a sub-plot.

There have, to my knowledge, been three new Australian operas with a heterosexual reference in them in recent years, but in two of these the principal focus is on the character and predicament of a mother, and, on the relationship between mother and child, and in the third, the central theme is gender confusion, leading to the ultimate repudiation of heterosexuality.

In 1987 Opera Mode presented "The Abandonment", a one-act opera, libretto by Rosemary Friend, music by Graham Major which was loosely based on the pre-Olympian myth of Demeter and Persephone. In this drama about an arranged marriage, the mother, Demeter, disagrees with the choice of the father, Zeus, of a husband, Hades, for her daughter, Persephone. All the heterosexual relationships in this story are completely disastrous.

Also based on Greek myth, and also depicting the fallout from a failed heterosexual relationship is "Medea", libretto by Justine McDonnell after Seneca, music by Gordon Kerry, staged in 1993. Primarily a drama about infanticide, it portrays a woman murdering her own children to avenge rejection of her by their father. Staging "Medea" presents the spectacle of woman denatured, and provides this survey with its third monster.

"Iphis", premiered in Sydney in 1997 is another work based on a classical work, in this case a passage from Ovid's "Metamorphoses" . It both illustrates the theme of this article and also marks a healthy change of style and a pointer for the future. This is a comic opera about gender confusion, about a girl, Iphis, who is raised as a boy, who falls in love with a girl, Ianthe, who, ultimately, is not deterred in her passion by the discovery that Iphis is, in reality, female too. The music score by Elena Kats-Chernin is ingenious and emotive, and takes full advantage of a literate and witty libretto by Richard Toop. The work has qualities reminiscent of music theatre of pre-Nazi Germany, in which elements of social comment, musical pastiche and a kind of poignant and savage pathos prevail. It is also open about sexuality, places it in a discursive behavioural context and, above all, the opera succeeds in combining a sense of the absurd with a determination to allow the audience to have some fun in return for their admission fee. The opera was produced in a small music theatre setting at The Wharf in Walsh's Bay. It has not yet been taken up by mainstream theatre.

The work has qualities reminiscent of music theatre of pre-Nazi Germany, in which elements of social comment, musical pastiche and a kind of poignant and savage pathos prevail.
Larry Sitsky's "The Golem", produced by the Australian Opera in 1993, does not really belong in this discussion, since it has a distinction and authenticity of its own, and since the relationship between a female and the Golem is acknowledged and is of an ersatz heterosexual nature. Mr. Sitsky would perhaps allow that, coincidentally, his opera provides us with our fourth monster of this survey.

Writing as the year 2001 ends, we look forward with interest to world premier performances of Moya Henderson's long-awaited opera "Lindy", to be presented by Opera Australia in October-November 2002 in association with the cultural festival of Gay Games IV in Sydney. According to published synopses, the focus of the true-life story on which this work is based is the husband and wife relationship of Lindy and Michael Chamberlain, and how they coped with the loss of their baby Azaria near Uluru. The Chamberlain's story that the baby was taken by a dingo was questioned at the trial of Lindy Chamberlain. Her imprisonment and the treatment of her by the Australian press, her subsequent exoneration and release, and the breakup of the Chamberlaine's marriage are well-known throughout the world through having been portrayed in the film starring Meryl Streep, and it is greatly to be hoped that the operatic version of this iconic Australian story will be well received.

Apart from Opera Mode's presentation of "The Abandonment" I have omitted one-act operas from this survey, as they do not figure in commissions made for composing operas for production by mainstream opera companies in Australia.

I invite correction in the following statement but, to my knowledge, approximately thirty years have now elapsed without a single full-length opera on a frankly sexual theme having been produced in mainstream theatre in this country (except for "The Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll"). Have there been any since Eugene Goosens conducted his own opera "Judith" , in 1949, at the Sydney Conservatorium with the title role taken by a young singer, then working as a stenographer, Joan Sutherland? Australia's record in discouraging sexual content in original work may now approach that of Nazi Germany in its successful suppression of what the Third Reich termed "degenerate music" ("entartete musik")!

The world music community owes Decca records a debt of gratitude for its current program of recording and releasing performances of music which Adolf Hitler and his ideologues so effectively banned that it is only now being rediscovered. As Decca explains, "the propogators of Nazi ideology adopted the term "degenerate" to defame atonal music, jazz arrangements and, above all, works by Jewish composers". It so happens that two of the most brilliant operas of the inter-war period were by Jewish composers Franz Shreker (1878-1934), and Erwin Schulhoff (1894-1942), both of whose careers were tragically cut short by government intervention. . In both works, especially that of Schulhoff, there are elements of jazz subsumed in vast orchestral textures which combine sweeping melodic beauty with advanced harmonic complexity. In both operas we find the same erotic elements explored by Alban Berg (in "Lulu"), Richard Strauss (in "Salome") and Bela Bartok (in the one act opera "Bluebeard's Castle" and in the ballet "The Miraculous Mandarin").

Schreker 's "Die Gezeichneten" (The Branded) was premiered in 1918 and received over two dozen productions before it was banned in 1933, condemned as sexually aberrant. Set in sixteenth century Genoa it concerns an artificial island paradise built by a deformed young nobleman to express his sensual and artistic longings, but used by his peers as a secret rendez-vous in which to celebrate orgies with young women abducted from prominent Genoa's families. Social and political intrigue abounds. Conspiracies unravel. Love is set in conflict with lust. Schuloff's even more impressive (and later) "Flammen" ("Flames") is a surrealist re-working of the Don Juan legend, and is a work of extraordinary voca1 and orchestral beauty, equal in musical interest and dramatic power to the operas of Alban Berg. It received only one performance in Prague in 1932 before Hitler came to power. It was then banned.

We should reflect that (excepting his opera seria and "The Magic Flute") every popular opera by Mozart is written to a libretto based on a plot line dominated by aberrant sexuality.
We should reflect that (excepting his opera seria and "The Magic Flute") every popular opera by Mozart is written to a libretto based on a plot line dominated by aberrant sexuality. "The Abduction from the Seraglio", set as it is in a harem, derives its dramatic tension from the ever present threat of ravishment directed at the leading female characters. "Don Giovanni" deals with a severe case of satyriosis, and portrays rape and seduction on stage. "Cosi fan Tutti" ("All Women Are Like That"), explores the very modern subject of partner-swapping. "The Marriage of Figaro" deals with the notorious feudal 'droit de seigneur', the right of the lord of the manor to deflower every maiden in his domain on her wedding night. The latter two works were considered so scandalous (and in the case of "Figaro", so politically subversive) that special permission to stage them had to be sought from the Emperor, Joseph II. None of these plot lines would have attracted funding in Australia from Music Committees of the Australia Council, because they would all rightly have been regarded as politically incorrect. Had these operas been written in the early years of the 20th century they would all have been banned by the Nazis both for their subject matter, and because the libretti (for all but "The Abduction from the Seraglio") were written by a Jew, Lorenzo da Ponte. The Nazis conveniently ignored the race of the librettist so that the music of Mozart could be performed to the glory of Aryan civilisation. But, as we have seen, they certainly banned operas written on similar or identical subject matter (Don Juan) if they were written by Jews during the inter-war years. (for more on this topic go to my "Variations On A Racist Theme").

Without Nazi suppression of so much of the art work of the early 1920s and 30s, the history of twentieth century music might have been quite different. We are the legatees of that vandalism. I grew up searching for music that I thought should have been written, but had not yet been written. I now find that it existed all the time. Without political fascism and its suppression of natural logic in artistic evolution, we might have been spared the austere musical puritanism of the post-war years and the prohibitions which it set in place, and which, no doubt unwittingly, were built on and reinforced by the proscriptions of the crypto-art-fascists who followed. I refer specifically to a generation of post-modern music ideologues who infused academic instruction with their dogmas, who effectively banned composers from dealing in the currency of human passion by dissuading them from frankly employing melodic and rhythmic utterance of a kind which seduces with individual feeling. These prohibitions were enforced for the best of political motives: to stop composers writing "popular" art music, lest they be seduced by the glittering rewards attendant on the capitalist exploitation of their product. The prohibitions didn't work in the art market, where modernism in painting became fashionable; but they certainly did work in modern music which remained immune to siren call of public acclaim (mainly because a work of music is not an artifact which can be "owned" as a painting can). It was left to popular music to pursue such deplorable nuances as composing for profit, and, outside the hit parade, such sellouts were more successfully accomplished by "film composers", who were long derided by academia. Nevertheless, during the 20th century, a number of composers ignored the constraints which purists sought to impose, and operated successfully as serious and commercially successful composers. A random short list of the impure (who wrote frivolous music as well as "concert" music) could include William Walton, Arthur Bliss, Darius Milhaud, Maurice Ravel (who wrote pop songs under a pseudonym), George Gershwin, Duke Ellington, Leonard Bernstein, Andre Previn and Johnny Dankworth.

In anthropological terms a tribe may be defined as a pack lead by an alpha dominant male, and it is arguable that, in music education, it is music ideologues who have played the alpha dominant role. Their all important consideration has been, and still is, to stake out a territory and defend it.
There has been, in the final decades of the twentieth century, some reaction from young composers to constraints on their creativity imposed by their teachers, resulting in "pluralism" - that is, freedom to compose in a wide range of styles. It must be emphasised that the hegemony exercised by music ideologues (intent on enforcing their own philosophy of post-modernism in music) was just another form of tribalism. In anthropological terms a tribe may be defined as a pack lead by an alpha dominant male, and it is arguable that, in music education, it is music ideologues who have played the alpha dominant role. Their all important consideration has been, and still is, to stake out a territory and defend it. That the "territory" is one of the mind, a set of conceptual dogmas, does not makes their behaviour any different to that of an old man kangaroo, staking out real estate and reserving for himself all sexual rights, and seeking to implant his DNA in all progeny. In the case of a music ideologue, the progeny are his students, and the DNA is his own special "music philosophy". Quite who the wives are in this analogy can remain a matter for discussion. Perhaps there are none, which explains why all his progeny are perforce adopted, and why the musical philosophies of post-modernism have been so puritanical in their constraints.

Set against the tribalism of academia, which is pernicious, the tribalism of sexual preference is, by comparison, benign. Its existence within the art world, called variously a "mafia" or a "lobby", is a perfectly natural phenomenon, the by-product of mutual association and shared creative enthusiasms. Its influence in creation, production and performance produces wonderful entertainment, and, outside of gender specific events such as the Gay Mardi-Gras, there is always interaction between straight and gay worlds. Segregation is entirely appropriate in the Gay Mardi Gras which is, primarily, a platform for the expression of a political struggle. However, in music and in theatre generally, there is no place for segregation of any kind, or for the policies of segregation. In music and in theatre everyone is a gypsy. The primary consideration should always be: what is best for the show?

This article has explored the proposition that, in new Australian opera, there has been some degree of segregation in the choice of subject matter for new Australian opera. Is it possible that there has been an alliance of convenience operating between two unrelated forces in music over the past half century? On the one hand, has there been a resistance by the gay lobby to embracing new Australian operas dealing with heterosexual passion? Has this resistance inadvertently worked in conjunction with elements of post-modern puritanism in contemporary music, enforced by academia, to discourage the portrayal, on stage of those extremes of personal emotion on which opera thrives?

It now behoves the Australian musical community to purge itself of any vestiges of neo-fascism masquerading as musical puritanism and to allow and encourage composers to incorporate in their psyche and in their work the truly remarkable developments initiated by composers of the late romantic and avant garde period, which I would view as encompassing the period from the 1890s through to the artistic diaspora of the 1930's. As detailed above, many of the composers of that diaspora died in concentration camps (because they could not escape to exile in time) and their work is currently being re-discovered. Others dispersed and continued to work in a fractured world. As a result there are many unsung works in existence, particularly operas, which either had only one or a few performances, or were never performed at all.

The creative output of the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries contains many surprises as yet not fully explored. Some have come to light through dedicated effort in the recording industry and can be heard on recordings, two of which were briefly described above. Let two more examples suffice: the Spanish composer Isaac Albeniz, best known for his hispanic piano repertoire, was primarily interested in writing opera, and, was a committed Wagnerian: to the extent of conceiving an opera cycle based on the King Arthur legends. Only one of the proposed cycle of three operas was completed, "Merlin" and it has been re-constructed from scattered sources, by Spanish conductor Jose de Eusebio, and released on Decca records, 467 096-2. The English libretto by banker and patron Francis Burdett Money Coutts contains interesting esoteric elements, consistent with preoccupations of the pre-Raphaelite period; and the score contains music of profound originality and power, especially in the final act, where magical elements dominate. The completed cycle would have explored one of the most celebrated heterosexual romances of legend: that of the betrayal of Arthur by Guinevere and Launcelot. Albeniz wrote around 30 works for music theatre, a neglected resource.

The bizarre performance history of "Merlin" underlines the vagaries of fate and, doubtless, will be echoed in the background of many other "lost" operas which come to light as the archives of the 20th century are mined. Albeniz died in 1909, and, during the composer's lifetime, there was one complete run through of the opera in Brussels at a private home, with Albeniz at the piano, to a French translation: preparation for a staging which never took place. In 1950 an abridged Spanish language version was staged in Barcelona in a production by the Club de Futbol Junior at the Teatro-Cinema Tivoli where, for one night, a screening of Vincente Minelli's 'Father Of the Bride' starring Elizabeth Taylor and Spencer Tracey was postponed. On June 20 1998 a concert version premiere took place in Madrid.

In 1934, the renowned Italian conductor Tullio Serafin conducted the premiere performance for the Metropolitan Opera, New York, of "Merry Mount", an opera by American composer Howard Hanson, set in 17th century New England, which depicts the conflict between a Puritan (Roundhead) community and visiting company (of Cavaliers) from England, who wish to conduct a Maypole celebration - which the Puritans view as a work of the Devil. Set against this historical event is the obsessive sexual compulsion of Wrestling Bradford, a Puritan preacher, for Marigold Sandys, the beautiful wife of the Cavalier leader. In an astonishing scene representing Bradford's dream, he sees Marigold as the Babylonian goddess Astoreth, in league with Lucifer, and signs the devil's book in order to possess her. The Devil's mark which then appears on his brow, remains there when he wakes, and is seen by all in the ensuing climax, which involves an attack on the village by a party of Indians seeking to avenge an earlier insult to their leader committed by one of the Puritans.

The opera depicts a clash between three social systems, and conflicting beliefs reflected in a doomed romance. It has three set pieces, the Maypole Dance, and Bradford's Dream, both with ballet episodes, and a final chaotic scene of social dissolution. The music is melodic, and of a timeless modernity, the opera is scored for large orchestra, the vocal component is riveting; in short, this work has all the qualities needed to enthrall a modern audience. The only available recording is from a live broadcast of the Met production, taken from 78 acetates and metal recordings from the personal collection of singer Lawrence Tibbett, who played Bradford in the 1934 premier. The limitations of technology and ravages of time have wrought havoc on the technical quality of the recording, but you can hear this magnificent work on a Naxos Historical 2CD set, 8.110024-25.

These are but two neglected operas from the last 110 years, chosen to represent an epic quality in opera which, when combined with personal romance, still draws audiences to live theatre, but is only "allowed" on stage in the form of earlier repertoire, when the excesses can be excused as "museum art". Such indulgences have been largely eschewed by composers over the past 50 years; at least by those composers intent on successfully second-guessing what kinds of opera will get funded for composition and subsequent staging. The creative agenda here has been dominated by considerations of social merit; and such an agenda is rarely compatible with dramatic effectiveness, since stories which have wide audience appeal rarely deal in the lives of people whose behaviour is morally impeccable.

Despite the baleful effect of half a century of rule by committee, the quixotic impulse in creativity could not be entirely repressed and works of grandeur and individual passion have been written, and await discovery. Let us hope that a realistic assessment of the damage done in the past may give rise to new policies for the present.

Let us make a small gesture in this direction by allowing individual passion in opera to take centre stage, as distinct from disassociated social "statement". It is especially important that this kind of content should be "allowed" in opera. Most importantly, let there be equal opportunity in the matter of exploring sexual pathology. If (in addition to rule by committee) there have been bias and sexual tribalism in the artistic microcosm (affecting creative agendas), let us acknowledge that these are a reflection of conflicts in the wider social macrocosm, and accept that art is better served by deconstructing these conflicts than by replicating them. This requires acknowledgment of the existence of no less than four modes of sexual preferences: heterosexuality, male homosexuality, female homosexuality and bisexuality; and it requires awareness that each of these has been politicised, and that each of these is at war with the other three! Over the past millennia each form of sexuality has, in different centuries and under different regimes, attracted distinct degrees of moral restraint. Given the obduracy of human passion, it comes as no surprise whatsoever to realise that all such restraints have, in the end, proved to be totally futile!

It is now time to allow opera to explore the entire human condition at least as freely as other art forms do. Let no artist, gurucrat or judgemental peer of whatever political or sexual persuasion attempt to promote any kind of political or sexual tribalism to the exclusion of others or seek to impose any political, sexual and therefore artistic agenda on others.

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