Genesis to revelation

As the latest fruits of the Genesis prize come to the Almeida Theatre, in London, Nick Kimberley discovers how chamber opera can embrace such wide-ranging themes as sci-fi and Schubert
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For most of us, Australian opera is terra incognita, a continent waiting to be discovered. That voyage of discovery may begin later this week with the premiere of The Eternity Man, composed by Jonathan Mills to a libretto by Dorothy Porter, one of three new chamber operas premiered this month that owe their existence to the Genesis Prizes for Opera, set up in 2001 under the auspices of the Genesis Foundation.

Sirius on Earth, by the Canadian composer Paul Frehner and the librettist Angela Murphy, is set in a city of the future, which is fuelled by a slavish devotion to the drug Amberosia (and devoid of crime and violence). In the satire Thwaite, the Irish composer Jürgen Simpson and the librettist Simon Doyle tell the tale of seven survivors of a catastrophe and their murderous search for a saviour.

As with everything else the foundation does, these prizes rely on the philanthropy of John Studzinski, who for many years was managing director of Morgan Stanley Dean Witters. Then, in April this year, he was poached by HSBC to be its new co-head of investment banking. Unlike many such high-flyers, Studzinski retains an almost Victorian sense of philanthropy. In 2001, Pope John Paul II made him a Knight of the Order of St Gregory in recognition of his work for the homeless, while Tony Blair appointed him a trustee of the Tate Gallery in 1998.

He set up the Genesis Foundation (originally the John Studzinski Foundation) in 1996, with the specific aim of helping young artists of all kinds. Its activities include supporting the work of directors at the Young Vic theatre and boosting the career of young singers through a series of concerts at St John's, Smith Square, but the Genesis Prizes for Opera represent its most visible work so far. The first trawl for entrants netted applications from 39 countries; the second, begun in April and due to unveil its fruits in 2005, yielded work from 35 countries. The winners were chosen by a panel of operaphiles and experts, chaired by Studzinski and including director David Pountney, novelist Vikram Seth and Genista Mackintosh, former head of the Royal Opera House.

From the beginning, Studzinski wanted to create new works - not for the opera house, but for smaller venues which might attract new audiences as well as new ideas. In Studzinski's view, "the economic model of traditional opera is big orchestra, big sets, big casts, all expensive to put on. Chamber opera allows you to focus on a smaller group of musicians and singers, on opera that could possibly be put on for many different audiences. One of the things I find puzzling is that opera houses don't collaborate on new work. There seems to be an element of competition to the point of creative paranoia, and I think that's counterproductive."

So, instead of forging a relationship with any of our national opera companies, Studzinski has teamed up with Almeida Opera, an annual showcase for new work that has introduced British audiences to such challenging and original music-theatre works as Thomas Adès's Powder her Face (1995). The hope is that the three new works, not least Mills and Porter's The Eternity Man, will have an equally active life after the premiere run. This is their second collaboration, after The Ghost Wife, premiered in Melbourne in 1999 and staged at London's Barbican Theatre last year. Based on a story written in 1902 by Barbara Baynton, it proved to be an intense, brutally short drama about the rape and murder of a woman in a hut miles from anywhere in the Australian bush.

Part of its power derived from the tautness of Porter's libretto. One of Australia's leading poets, she is best known for her verse novels, including The Monkey's Mask, an idiosyncratic take on the detective story. For Porter, the switch from crime fiction in verse to opera makes complete sense: "My novels have been published in Italy, where they've been described as 'operatic', which I find interesting. Working with Jonathan, I'm conscious that my libretto is the skeleton, for which his music provides the flesh, and I've tried to make my words simple, yet with an emotional load which the music can respond to and carry further. There are moments in all our lives when we are, as Yeats said, in 'passionate speech'. In opera, it's all like that. I think that's one reason Jonathan approached me: my poetry is often carried through the voices of the characters; the situations I write about are intense and passionate, and so is my poetry. It's not cerebral or tepid, and in that sense I feel well-suited to writing an opera libretto; but I try not to be precious about my text: a stubborn librettist is not helpful."

As for Mills, he does not, as an Australian composer, feel constrained by European notions of theatrical propriety: "My musical projects are all pretty Aussie. They attempt to come to terms with not only the psychological dimensions of the country, but also a particular notion of place. What Australia offers is a completely different idea of light and space, so that a whole set of presumptions [about physical boundaries] don't work for us. With The Ghost Wife, the starting point was the image of the woman's hut: in the middle of unending space, she creates a prison out of this tiny structure."

That piece already gave evidence of a bold theatrical imagination, not least in its treatment of the hut itself: as the woman's life unravelled in catastrophic violence, the instrumental ensemble's two players clambered all over the wooden structure, "playing" it as a fully integrated percussion instrument, while simultaneously ripping it to pieces. Mills's new opera, The Eternity Man, is no less Australian; it tells the story of Arthur Stace, a homeless religious fanatic who, from the 1930s to the 1960s, wandered through Sydney, scribbling the single word "Eternity" wherever he went.

As Mills suggests, "At one level, Stace is the Wanderer from Schubert's Winterreise, but he is also a quintessential Sydney figure - a vagabond, reformed alcoholic, petty criminal ratbag who carries with him the fire and brimstone, the eccentricity of a former penal colony turned into a paradise. What attracted me were the ephemeral implications of the single word 'eternity' that he scrawled half a million times through his lifetime. He was nearly illiterate, but he believed in this word, and attacked the places where he wrote it with a kind of zeal. But for us the opera is less a biographical portrait of him, than an almost mnemonic charting of the city's secret soul."

It is apparent that Mills finds the Genesis Prizes' insistence on chamber-scale opera no barrier to his compositional ambitions: "There is so much one can do with the form. There are chamber opera ideas, and there are big house ideas, and composers have to stop being naïve about trying to fit a big idea into a little space, or expanding a little idea to fill a big space.

"What has come out of the Genesis project so far shows what can be achieved on budgets that are not vast. Shouldn't we do a productivity study on that, and relate it to some of the things that aren't happening in mainstream opera companies?"

'The Eternity Man': 23, 25 & 26 July; 'Sirius on Earth': 24 & 27 July, Almeida Theatre, Almeida Street, London N1 (020-7359 4404); 'Thwaite': 22 & 26 July, Robin Howard Dance Theatre, the Place, 17 Duke's Road, London WC1 (020-7387 0031); 'Sirius on Earth': 1 August; 'Thwaite': 27 September, Snape Maltings Concert Hall, Snape (01728 687110)