I was alerted to this student production of ENGLISH ECCENTRICS, an opera from 1964, by Australian Composer, Malcolm Williamson and made my way to the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on the recent sunny Saturday afternoon. The irritating and ebullient Michael Cathcart, of Radio National BOOKS AND ARTS, has been on-air on a, sometimes, hyper-ventilated mission to find the new Australian Opera. So, I hope he caught this - for it is a find, indeed, although, since I have not heard any heady grasps for breath on this subject from MC on RN this week, I have supposed not - he is a Melbournian, afterall.
Edith Sitwell in 1933 published a book that confirmed that truth is stranger than fiction called ENGLISH ECCENTICS - she, herself, and brother Osbert, inheriting, perhaps, a family trait, could have easily included themselves in the volume. Their Father, Sir George Sitwell having a sign made and hung outside the family home:
I must ask anyone entering the house never to contradict me or differ from me in any way, as it interferes with the functioning of my gastric juices and prevents my sleeping at night.utterly suggesting it.
From this book Malcolm Williamson found inspiration to write in 1964, on commission from the Aldeburgh Festival what was requested to be an 'anti-opera'.
From the Notes in the program by Stephen Mould, Chair of Opera Production at the Conservatorium, and Musical Director of this performance:
Much of the opera of ENGLISH ECCENTRICS presents a pageant of [...] characters, many little more than thumbnail sketches of eccentric attributes and behaviours. However there are several scenes where characters are presented in stark detail, revealing layers of behavioural complexity and exploring the limits of eccentricity where what have been regarded as quaint, harmless, even creative attributes arrive at insanity. [...] The libretto was adapted by Geoffrey Dunn and preserves much of Sitwell's rich and musical prose verbatim. This poses a challenge in performing the work, as the richness and complexity of the text alongside the atmospheric music can compete for the attentions of the audience. [...] The musical language of ENGLISH ECCENTRICS draws upon the pastiche and not infrequent parody of a multiplicity of musical styles, summed up by Denis Hennig : ' perhaps in Williamson you are reminded of flashes of Stravinsky, Bartok, and Messiaen particularly but also Britten, Richard Rogers, Hindemith, Sibelius, Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Honegger. Or perhaps all these various attributes get into what we do not yet recognise as an Australian voice.'The Australian Opera Voice!
The work was premiered to great acclaim, but is not in the published collections of Williamson's work, and hence, not as often seen as it could, should be. I, a neophyte of this form found the score and the libretto wonderfully charming and engrossing. Musically, pleasantly provocative and arresting. It was a very easy performance to absorb and indulge. For some reason I kept thinking back to Benjamin Britten's ALBERT HERRING (1947) and rather preferring this work. ALBERT HERRING, usually bores me to almost death. Here, is an Australian work that Opera Australia should be looking at, as part of our repertoire. The singing roles are impressive and the content moving, amusingly eccentric.
In this Sydney Conservatorium performance I found the young artists managed it all extremely confidently and competently under the care of Stephen Mould. It is a small orchestra of Violin, Cello, Double Bass, Clarinet, Bassoon, Trumpet, Percussion and Piano.
The clarity of the performance owed much to the extremely simple solutions of the Designer and Director, Kate Gaul. Within a black curtained surround, a plethora of chairs and a minimum of props, but some detailed costume offers, the performers were staged and directed to allow the music, the singing, to primarily realise the potential of the characters revelations. No Director's conceit going on here. Indeed, Ms Gaul's production was a model of simple, uncluttered and intelligent theatricality that brought the strengths of the composition and the young artists to promising bloom for the audience.
Mr Mould has written:
... (from Malcolm Williamson there) was an abiding interest in opera, producing at least 10 major works in that genre, (including one based on 'Our Man in Havanna') along with numerous 'cassations' - small scale works often as short as seven minutes in length ..."Is there a treasure trove to be found in Malcolm Williamson's output for the Australian repertoire? Considering my hearing of ENGLISH ECCENTRICS, I am thinking, Mr Cathcart, Mr Terracinni, there probably is. Get with it, to it.
P.S. George Palmer has written that his Australian Opera based on the Tim Winton novel, CLOUDSTREET***, will be presented by the State Opera of South Australia, next May. The work has been in development for several years under the guidance and inspiration of the Internationally acclaimed Artist, Gale Edwards. Has Mr Teracinni any original plans for Opera Australia and the musical Australian voice?