BWW REVIEW: Incredibly Moving, Contemporary Opera PECAN SUMMER Brings Australian History To The Sydney Opera House
Monday 12th September 2016, 8pm, Concert Hall, Sydney Opera House
Deborah Cheetham's (Music and Libretto) moving contemporary Australian Opera PECAN SUMMER blends classical stylings with the heartwrenching truth of a not too distant past. The ground breaking work, Australia's first Indigenous opera, which premiered in 2010, makes it's Sydney debut under the iconic sails of the Sydney Opera House.
The open space of the Concert Hall plays host to the latest staging of PECAN SUMMER, allowing for a gigantic screen to be suspended behind the stage, masking the choir stalls. Director Cameron Menzies has drawn on the talents of VIVID Sydney favourite, Ample Projects, to transform the space into an immersive experience; projecting images high into the vaulted ceiling, giving the impression of rainfall falling over the stage, a shanty home in bushland, a church with stain glassed windows and an interpretation of Melbourne's Federation Square. With the wonderful projections and emotional performance, Menzies has opted to keep the set, designed by Hugh Colman, simple with a minimalist set that, when paired with the images, asks the audience to fill in the gaps to imagine places like the Cummeragunja Mission and the riverbank at Shepparton Flats. Utilising the full stage for the performance, Menzies has had the first rows of the stalls removed for the 27 piece orchestra, under the baton of Dr David Kram, giving the audience a view of the orchestra not usually as visible for other opera performances.
PECAN SUMMER is a deeply moving work, founded in history and personal stories, of the 1939 walk-off of 200 people from the Yorta Yorta nation from the Cummeragunja Mission in protest of the harsh and inhumane conditions. The event was the culmination of the Aboriginal Protection Board, a state run institution that regulated the lives of indigenous Australians and played a pivitol role in the Stolen Generations, taking control of the Cummeragunja Mission and imposing conditions on The Farm that isolated its residents and denied them sufficient food and supplies and access to medical care.
Presented as Old Alice's (Shauntai Batzke) memory as she deals with the prejudice of contemporary young people as she works at a Soup Kitchen in Melbourne in 2006, the audience is drawn back to the 1930's as Alice and her parents are part of the group the decide to leave the mission. The story weaves its way through the challenges of squatting along the banks of the Kiela (Gouldburn River) in Shepparton Flats, Victoria, at a time when any paid work was scarce to the day that the children, led by 11 year old Alice (Jessica Hitchcock), venture into town to go to the movies, a trip she never returns from. The opera exposes the lengths that the 'do-gooder' white people would go too to normalise aboriginal children that were taken from their families. Returning to the 21st Century, the landmark Apology by former Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, to the Stolen Generations and the interviewing of Old Alice and an unnamed young woman sees a degree of resolution for this important issue.
Cheetham starts the work with a prelude that draws on a Dreamtime story to reinforce the longevity of the culture that underpins the story. She has blended the original language and tones with a classical expression to draw parallels between the indigenous beliefs and mythology and the European focus on churches. The dance presented by Jennifer Williams and Sermsah Bin Saad, supported by the choir and projections, is mesmerising before the story turns to the more tangible present and past. For the body of the work, Cheetham has opted to present the opera in English making it accessible but given the operatic stylings and sound balances competing with the orchestra there were moments when surtitles would have been beneficial to fully capture her lyrics.
With a number of performers reprising their roles from previous seasons of PECAN SUMMER, Menzies and original director Cheetham, have ensured that the opera showcases the community it represents with indigenous performers filling the appropriate roles, something rarely done by mainstream opera companies, proving that there is a wide community of professional performers from indigenous backgrounds. As Old Alice, soprano Shauntai Batzke expresses a warmth and maturity of having lived through being taken from her family at a young age and growing up in a society where she was looked down upon despite her position in the community as a leader.
As young Alice, Jessica Hitchcock has a youthful innocence and childlike cheekiness along with a more natural sound which both makes it easier to understand her lyrics and differentiates her from the adults which are presented with a more formal operatic expression. Similarly, her brother Jimmy is presented with an honesty but a touch more maturity by Marcus Corowa. As mother Ella, Deborah Cheetham infuses the role with the concern, care and desperation. It was interesting to hear a role like Ella written as a soprano piece, an intriguing deviation from the classical opera conventions that would normally have a maternal character pitched lower.
PECAN SUMMER is an incredibly moving work that exposes this dark moment in Australia's history in a new way. A contemporary story with still current issues, presented to blend in modern technology contemporary art forms, this is a wonderful work for all audiences. Whilst the Sydney Opera House engagement was a sole night, hopefully the standing ovation reception will be enough to encourage Menzies and Short Black Opera to restage it in Sydney soon.
Short Black Opera