If gender imbalance thrives in classical music generally, it’s particularly true of opera, explains Jack Symonds – artistic director of the Sydney Chamber Opera, which collaborated with the Con on the unique project.
“At the SCO, we achieve gender parity in terms of composers,” Symonds says. “But we work mostly with new music so there’s no excuse. No other opera company in Australia would come close.”
We’re now used to the global debate about how women – Madame Butterly, Carmen, Aida – end up in opera’s popular canon, too often murdered, raped or otherwise abused. Yet contemporary women composers also suffer, according to Symonds.
Though half of the hopeful, talented students who enrol on composition courses in Australia are female, the proportion who see their works professionally performed is minuscule compared with male students. Hence the Composing Women program, now headed by composer Liza Lim.
For two years, the quartet were mentored by Lim plus other experts – including Clemence Williams and Danielle Mass, each woman directing two of the 25-minute mini-operas.
At last they’re ready to be performed – with sets, costumes and the backing of the SCO – in a world premiere, Breaking Glass. Each mini-opera uses, in rotation, three of the vocal talents of Jane Sheldon, Jessica O’Donoghue, Mitchell Riley and Simon Lobelson.
Polias’s Commute is a retelling of Homer’s Iliad, with Odysseus’s decade-long journey back home from the Trojan war transformed into the heightened unease any woman now feels walking home late at night. The tragic life and words of poet Sylvia Plath inspired Scott’s Her Dark Marauder where a woman battles for her individuality and sanity in a masculine-dominated world.
As for Macken, The Tent references Margaret Atwood’s 2006 book of short stories and essays using haunting electronics and the human voice to explore a technological dystopia.
“I would never have dreamt these (subjects) could inspire operas,” Symonds confesses. “They offer a different future for opera as an art form.”
But how does the Night Parrot fit in? For decades, van Reyk explains, the small, ground-nesting bird endemic to the harsh spinifex badlands of outback Australia was considered extinct. With no sightings between 1912 and 1979, surely it – like Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue – had “ceased to be”?
Then, in 1990, the beautiful plumage of a Night Parrot, the victim of road kill, was discovered by scientists. Van Reyk loved the irony that it took a dead bird to prove a species was still alive. She saw parallels between the “invisible” bird and the way both aboriginal culture and “women as creators of art and music” had survived unappreciated, undetected for so many decades.
“Until a couple of years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to name more than a dozen female composers myself,” van Reyk admits. “I had no idea there have been thousands over the years.”
Best known as a percussionist and dance composer, van Reyk never expected to write an opera, confessing she’s not a fan of “classical, overblown, grandiose opera”.
“But there’s none of that in Breaking Glass,” she promises.“Each work is so different, it’s going to be very exciting – especially for those people who think they don’t like opera.”
*Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the world premiere of Breaking Glass will be a “closed opening night” on March 25. The performance will be filmed without a live audience and, after editing, be released online.