Bliss in Sydney

Gramophone11th Mar 2010
Composer Brett Dean’s opera opens tomorrow (photo: Intermusica)Composer Brett Dean’s opera opens tomorrow (photo: Intermusica)

Opera Australia will give the world premiere of Bliss, a new opera with music by Brett Dean and words by Amanda Holden, tomorrow (Friday) evening.

Adapted from the award-winning first novel of Australian writer Peter Carey, Bliss tells the story of Harry Joy, an advertising executive, who has a near death experience during a heart attack. When he regains consciousness, his entire view of the world has changed. From Carey’s darkly comic fable Brett Dean and Amanda Holden have created a three-hour opera for chorus, ten principals and large orchestra.

Conductor Simone Young originally commissioned Dean to compose an opera over ten years ago, while she was in the position of music director at Opera Australia. Dean was at the time a permanent member of the Berlin Philharmonic, but a string of successes, including a win at the International Rostrum of Composers for his clarinet concerto Ariel’s Music led to his return to Australia to concentrate on composing.

The opera project stalled with Young’s move to Hamburg in 2003, but the new music director, Richard Hickox, who joined Opera Australia in 2005, quickly become a champion for the enterprise. During his time with the company, progress was swift. Distinguished British writer and translator Amanda Holden was appointed to write the libretto and in 2008, just three months before Hickox’s untimely death of a heart attack, Sir Simon Rattle conducted the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in the premiere of three arias from the opera, called “Songs of Joy”, with baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, who plays the central figure Harry Joy in this week’s world premiere, as soloist.

Richard Morrison, writing in The Times, said of the performance: “Dean's songs – eerily atmospheric or punchily sardonic in Kurt Weill style – strike me as the best things he has written. Setting pungent lyrics by Amanda Holden (based on Peter Carey's novel), and superbly sung by the baritone Peter Coleman-Wright, they made me eager to hear the whole opera when it has its premiere in 2010.”

The day has finally come when Bliss premieres at Sydney Opera House. It is a significant milestone, not just for first-time opera composer Brett Dean, but also for Opera Australia. In the last five years Australia’s national opera company has endured a veritable roller-coaster ride: first, the management and board have had to weather criticism of the company, with a singer describing it as “an abyss of mediocrity”. Then, just as the public relations crisis was fading in November 2008, the company was rocked by Richard Hickox’s death. This tragic loss was compounded by the challenges of the global financial downturn. Like many opera companies around the world, Opera Australia has had to respond to new trading conditions by reducing its programme and postponing one of its new productions.

In the case of Bliss, however, the show will definitely go on, and with the full support of newly-appointed artistic director Lyndon Terracini. The production is directed by Neil Armfield with choreography by Kate Champion and UK conductor Elgar Howarth takes the place of Hickox. Bliss will play for six performances in Sydney and four in Melbourne before travelling to Edinburgh for this year’s Festival. And while dates are yet to be announced, Hamburg State Opera will also present Bliss in their own production, under the baton of Simone Young, later this year. 

Harriet Cunningham

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