Time will tell whether making a landmark WA opera about a teenager who can’t sing because she is mute will be a stroke of genius or madness. Perhaps the deaf, dumb and blind kid Tommy, who played a mean pinball in the Who’s 1970s rock opera, or Procne, whose tongue was cut out by her jealous husband in Richard Mills’ The Love of the Nightingale, guided the thinking of composers David Pye and Lee Buddle and librettist Phil Thomson in creating their new chamber opera Into the Shimmer Heat.
Or, perhaps not.
“It really comes out of the story-line,” says Pye of the central character, Nina, who will be played by a dancer. This production, which will have its world premiere in Perth late next year, has been brewing for 16 years. Into the Shimmer Heat has finally been given its chance to bubble into life through a large injection of cash from the State Government’s now-defunct Major Production Fund.
When it opens in the new Heath Ledger Theatre in October next year, 16-year-old Nina, rendered silent and sullen by the grief of her father’s death, will soar with her mother in a hot-air balloon above the heads of the audience. It will be a striking start to an opera about love, loss, life and the struggle of non-indigenous people to come to grips with Australia’s vast landscape.
Flying across the desert, Nina is glued to her iPod as her mother sings of her love for the huge, empty land below. But a storm strikes and her mother plummets to her death, leaving Nina trudging through the desert and hallucinating into existence a camel as her companion. Her mother’s ghost comes across a waterhole inhabited by other spirits.
Nina later arrives at the oasis but it is reserved for those who embraced the land before they died. She is cast out by spirits but rescued by her mother and father, who return her to health and encourage her to leave for good to live out the rest of her life
Nova Ensemble, the fine-music group led by Pye and Buddle, has received $390,000 from the MPF for Into the Shimmer Heat, which involves some of WA’s leading independent performing artists across music, theatre, dance, puppetry and design. Also on board is Opera Australia artistic director Lyndon Terracini in a mentoring role.
The two-year fund concluded last year after dispensing $2.1 million between six projects. They include Marrugeku’s 2009 Burning Daylight national tour, Yirra Yaakin’s Aboriginal musical Waltzing the Willara for the 2011 Perth International Arts Festival and a Thin Ice/WA Opera’s co-production of Richard Strauss’ Elektra in 2012.
Pye says the development and production costs for Into the Simmer Heat will be about $800,000, so half will need to come through sponsors, philanthropists and the box-office during its likely two-week season.
The announcement of the MPF in late 2007 came like drought-breaking rain for Pye, Buddle and Thomson after years of perseverance but diminishing expectations that the opera would be anything more than presented in concert version.
“I think it is an awesome, heaven-sent opportunity to make a bit of a splash and create something on a grander scale because there is the money to do something properly,” Pye says. “The whole concept of putting together a pot of money that the smaller companies can access to realise their vision is extraordinary.”
The project began in 1995 with a chat between Pye and Spare Parts Puppet founder Peter Wilson about the junk opera Shockheaded Peter. “We were just having a discussion about puppet operas generally and the lack thereof,” says Pye, who commissioned Thomson to write the libretto.
A series of music and puppetry workshops followed. “We came to the conclusion that we had a good opera but that singing puppets wasn’t the way to go,” Pye says. “They are very impersonal and tended to make people laugh rather than address the serious emotional message behind the opera.”
What they settled on were some small marionettes to alter the scale of characters walking across a distant sand dune and Philippe Genty-style manipulation of objects such as wicker, sticks and fabric from the wrecked balloon morphing into the hallucinatory camel.
Pye says the opera is intended to ask questions about how outsiders find a place in the ancient Australian landscape. “We all feel very strong that it is very important that non-indigenous people also find a relationship with the landscape . . . because a lot of people feel quite dislocated and many people in the city are afraid to go out into the bush. I think if we are truly going to look after the country we live in, we are going to have to find a way to form a relationship with the land.”
A young WA dancer, who is yet to be named, will play Nina with the other roles taken by soprano Sara Macliver, mezzo-sopranos Xiaojia Zhang and Fiona Campbell and baritone Robert Hofmann. The Nova Ensemble will perform in the pit, from which the spirits will rise up on to the stage aided by designer Alan Murphy, choreographer Danielle Micich and puppeteers Ian Tregonning and Joanne Foley.
“There are spectacular visual scenes, high emotion, love arias, death and so on and so forth,” Pye says. “We tried very deliberately to make it very approachable for the average person. We are not writing for ivory-tower listeners and we are certainly not aiming for just the opera public. We are trying to present a 21st century version of opera which tells stories that are relevant to us today as West Australians.”
‘A lot of people feel quite dislocated and many people in the city are afraid to go out into the bush.’
The Nova Ensemble will hold more workshops in the new Heath Ledger Theatre in December to test technical aspects of the venue.