American arias

At the 1986 Adelaide Festival, during a forum which followed the premiere of Richard Meale’s opera, Voss, David Malouf (the librettist) was asked, ‘Will it travel?’ He gave a profound answer, not simply about that opera but for all art. ‘You write for the tribe’, he said. ‘If others overhear and like what they’ve heard, that’s great.’ But the tribe is the real audience and that insight provoked my first and persistent question about John Haddock’s new opera, Madeline Lee.

War and its political penumbra are common elements of opera. The suppression of memory and its consequences are, perhaps surprisingly, less common themes since we are all affected by traumatic memories, especially those involved in wartime horror, and there is no evading the truth that our fickleness in the face of serious challenge and how we subsequently account for it, are enduring aspects of the human story. So I have to be willing to concede that this new opera—despite the fact that it is almost overwhelmed by American cultural references—has something to say to Australia that is independent of our cultural symbiosis with the USA. Yet my scepticism persists: do the composer and his co-librettist (Michael Campbell, who also directed the recent premiere at the Sydney Opera House) have an eye just too obviously on an American market, to an extent that it compromises their work?

The setting is the Libyan Desert in 1962 where we strikingly see a portion of a crashed Flying Fortress, its vast starboard wing angling upward towards us. Four men are playing a dream-like game of baseball and we quickly recognise (rather faster, indeed, than the composer and librettist realise that we will) that they are the restless ghosts of that plane’s crew—or almost all of them. Eventually (to be frank, about 30 minutes too late), the drama tightens with the arrival of a quartet of contemporary US military officers to examine this wreckage which, apparently, has just been discovered. All art tends to rely on coincidence, but here plausibility is over-stretched as we discover that the senior member of this group, the Major, was the captain of this very aircraft when it was shot down by German fighters in 1943. He had then instructed his crew to stay with the plane but had, himself, bailed out and ever since has been deluding himself that they also survived to return to serene, quotidian lives in suburban America.

The drama of the piece is, essentially, his coming to terms with his cowardice and duplicity. To the extent that we all do or avoid things which subsequently shame us—but eschew the uncomfortable and obligatory examination of conscience—this story does have a universality. The relevant question is: does this version survive as an opera? It certainly succeeds as heatre—eventually—largely through the intensity and conviction of Michael Lewis’s performance as the investigating Major in what is, arguably, the performance of his career. He has done many really splendid things before but, surely, this achievement shows that it is the art of our own time which has the greatest capacity to speak to us and to draw the most potent responses from us as participants or audience. (Could not the same case have been made for what Marlon Brando did in On the Waterfront?)

The score by John Haddock (who is a member of the music staff of Opera Australia, none of whose previous work has, to my knowledge, been heard in Sydney) is eclectic and merely ancillary, like a film soundtrack. Haddock, obviously, has a good memory rather than a strong imagination—there are more than echoes of Britten, Korngold and Puccini. It is hardly surprising, then, that the concluding Quartet for the dead airmen is altogether too Panglossian and romantically pat. In the main, the music eschews serious conflict and desperately needs greater toughness—integrity, to be blunt. It leaves its emotional confrontation to be, almost entirely, the responsibility of the text, the striking design (Brian Thomson), the expressionist lighting (Stephen Wickham) and the highly committed acting of the eight ideally cast men. Nevertheless, it did make a significant impact on its audiences: that must be a commendable—and no small—achievement for any new opera. Plainly, it did say something to the tribe.

John Carmody is a Sydney medical scientist and opera and music critic



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