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Brett Dean: interview about new operatic Bliss

Brett Dean discusses his new opera, opening in Sydney in March with a further production in Hamburg in September.

How did you first discover Peter Carey’s Bliss?

I first read Bliss as a student when it was still quite new, in the early eighties. It was a book that I remember struck a chord with not only myself, but also many of my contemporaries, especially fellow music students. The novel heralded a bold, new direction in Australian literature. It woke us out of a period-drama type slumber and threw us into a hellish world that drew from the challenges of our own time.

What made you think it could provide the basis for an opera?

The initial stimulus for an operatic realisation of Bliss came through its combination of personal journey/discovery/redemption, its abundance of colourful, and in some cases, extreme characters, and the book’s fascination with social issues of significance. As the project evolved, however, I realised that its greatest operatic potential lay even more in the strong emotional landscape that lies at the heart of Carey’s tale (in essence, it’s a love story!), and in the book’s structure, with its strong sense of dramatic shape, including scenes of extreme tension, energy, resolution, etc., much like in a piece of music.

Do you view it as a distinctively Australian tale?

Part of the impact the book had on my generation was certainly its local flavour, humour and relevance. But in many ways the central character Harry Joy is an Everyman figure, an innocent in extraordinary circumstances. He stands as symbol for a modern, and not infrequent Western dilemma: at what point does one sell out one’s integrity, health and relationships in favour of commercial expectation, desire and success? Or, in Harry’s case, how do you find your way back…?

How did you collaborate with librettist Amanda Holden on adapting the book into three operatic acts.

From the outset, Amanda and I were very much of the same opinion that, both structurally and emotionally, the pivotal scene of the story occurs in a hotel room, when Harry Joy meets the “pantheist, healer and whore”, Honey Barbara. It followed logically that this would be at the centre of our telling of the story as well, as a stand-alone second act. Hence, the first act concentrates on Harry’s journey from his initial, dramatic heart attack, towards that particular point of spiritual and emotional awakening. The third act, whilst still handling points along Harry’s continuing path towards bliss, also confronts the contrasting downwards spiral experienced by his estranged wife, Betty. These opposing trajectories pull the third act ever more outwards, resulting in an explosive climax.

How does your music set about capturing the nightmarish, surrealist aspects?

I arrived at an important first station five years ago when I wrote the orchestral suite, Moments of Bliss (for Markus Stenz and the Melbourne Symphony). Whilst not straight orchestral interludes in the manner of, say, the Peter Grimes Sea Interludes, the Moments were an attempt to capture four aspects of the story in purely instrumental sound, using a fairly large orchestra including MIDI sounds, electric guitar and extensive percussion section. This provided vital source material for the opera, though I had to reduce the orchestration for the size-challenged pit of the Sydney Opera House!

Being the story of an advertising agent in a highly commercial world in the eighties, Bliss provides plenty of opportunity for sonic colour and reference. So an important part of this earlier project was the opportunity to establish the electronic soundworld I was wanting to create for the final work. Throw in Carey’s further discourses on the nature of heaven and hell, madness, love and death, and all sorts of possibilities await, from an off-stage Dies Irae chorus to a bizarre on-stage restaurant band, complete with a bunch of mad circus artistes getting in on the act. What more could a composer wish for?!

How do you bring Harry’s dysfunctional family and business colleagues to the lyric stage?

As my first opera, it’s been a steep learning curve but I received a lot of guidance and advice on the world of singers and voice types from the late, and much-missed Richard Hickox, who was to conduct the premiere. Getting to know the wonderful singers of Opera Australia over his last few seasons was a joy, and it taught me much. For example, the three main female roles are all sopranos, yet they couldn’t be more different as characters, from the neurotic, dramatic and ultimately tragic Betty Joy, to the reckless naivety yet idealistic concern of her daughter, Lucy, to the ethereal, suggestive beauty of Honey Barbara. Whilst being aware of the extremes of the many colourful characters, it’s been crucial to never lose sight of their humanity and potential, to get to the heart of each of them as much as possible.

What have you discovered about the challenge of achieving comedy in opera?

I’d have to say that if the libretto is strong, the rest follows. Amanda’s libretto terrifically captures Carey’s dark, at times black, humour. And it was great for both of us to consult on local aspects of language with that great man of Australian theatre, Neil Armfield, who will direct the premiere production. In Bliss, the orchestra plays a significant role in the telling of the tale; at times it takes even comic turns. But I guess it’s knowing when to musically take the upper hand, and when to sit back and let it unfold: that is the key to realising both comedy and drama in the opera theatre.

How do you interpret the final line of the opera, that “a life in Hell can still aspire to Bliss”?

There was something intensely autobiographic and deeply personal in the conception of Peter Carey’s novel all those years ago. Having already spent much of his own life in advertising, Carey joined an alternative community called Starlight in a beautiful rainforest area of the Sunshine Coast hinterland, north of Brisbane, in the late ’70s. He had a divorce behind him, was struggling to find his way as a writer, and I think it’s just possible that he was exorcising his own demons in searching for another way to live his life, to find a bliss of his own.

Interviewed by David Allenby

Brett Dean
Opera in three acts
Libretto by Amanda Holden,
after the novel by Peter Carey

Australian Opera (world premiere)
Elgar Howarth Conductor
Neil Armfield Director

Sydney Opera House
12/17/20/25/27/30 March

Melbourne Arts Centre
20/23/27 April / 1 May

Hamburg Staatsoper (new production)
Simone Young Conductor
Ramin Gray Director
12/15/19/21/25 September / 2 October

>  Further information on Work: Bliss

Photo: Mark Coulsen

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