By way of discussing the writing of this book I have reproduced here the remarks made in my introduction:
This is my sixth collection of librettos, and brings my total written in this form which began with Love in the Age of Wings & other operas (2003) to a little over ninety. What started as a quirky, perhaps fringe, activity, has become central to my life and writing. I wrote a novel last year and hope to produce a variety of work in time to come but libretto-writing, it seems, is what I do most easily these days.
How did this come about? I trace it back to the achievement of unity of vision in my novel Wainwrights’ Mountain. Readers of that novel may recall Giles Wainwright’s obsession with looking down on the world; from his mountain he saw the world as one. Two other characters achieve the same eminence, but only as the book ends, and after considerable tribulation. But what to do with unity of vision, once it has been achieved?
I suppose the answer offered in my libretto writing is that once the world has been unified inside the observing mind, anything can be looked at in almost any way. Hence, perhaps, the range of subject matter and treatment in the librettos presented here. They roam far and wide. The book opens with a clash between European missionaries and the landscape of Western Australia: faith mocked by a mob of galahs. The indigenous people may appear to have been defeated but as long as galahs are shrieking they’ve still got something on their side. This first libretto ends with an apology of sorts from one of the departing brothers for what he and his fellows have been doing.
The resurgence of the black people is also seen in ‘In The Ute’, which begins in Sydney and ends near Uluru. Those who have been looked at are now capable of looking at those who look at them. Vision has been equalised, and this is a big step towards a new balance of the peoples.
My next step forward also had an earlier base. In ‘The Linden Tree’ (The Sun King & other operas) I introduced Beethoven’s most famous melody as a rallying cry running through the years since the 1820s. My only misgiving about doing this was a strange one; I’ve long felt displeased by the disparity between the public’s awareness of the 9th Symphony as compared with their ignorance of the Missa Solemnis. Written at the same time, it’s as radical as the symphony because it goes a long way towards locating divinity on earth, as opposed to the heaven where ‘He’ is supposed to belong. Hence ‘Voices In The Night’, which is also my answer to the scorn felt by many artists and writers of my own generation for suburban life.
‘Voices In The Night’ works by juxtaposing three voices – the drunks outside, struggling home after a party; a suburban couple, becoming aware of those in the street; and the thoughts of Beethoven about the state of blessedness surrounding us all, if our awareness is well enough tuned. I seem to have found something liberating in this clash-by-proximity of different logics.
Logic, in all its variety and possibilities is, I think, the binding thread of the collection. ‘Four Across and Ten Down’ is the first step in a new development in this line of librettos. What is it about? I find this hard to answer. It shows someone doing a crossword puzzle, and presents a sonnet by Shakespeare. Itself using words, its subject would appear to be what you can do with words. As the speeches of Hitler, Churchill and thousands of others could show us, you can do almost anything with words. Words are the tools of the mind, and the mind’s purposes are almost infinite. Does this tell us anything we didn’t know? No, but if we can enjoy those things that words can do for us, we are reminded to be wary of them too.
Shakespeare reappears in the following libretto, ‘To Be Or Not To Be’, where Hamlet’s words are contrasted with happenings outside a big store having a sale. Quaintly enough, it takes a lady with Alzheimer’s disease to make us see any sense in events which those taking part in them find pretty mindless. A later libretto, ‘No More Than This?’, uses an unexpected and mysterious question mark – I have such things on my wall at home – to raise the question of when people are at the mercy of events they can’t understand and when they are sufficiently in control to believe they understand what’s happening to them.
One way of making – or accepting – sense is to take on board without much questioning whatever the media presents to us. Two of the librettos, ‘The Evening News’ and ‘In The Earth’ play with the value or otherwise of accepting media reports. In contrast, the libretto ‘Mountains To The North’ invites its audience to muse on those things that operate in the thinking of ordinary people who trust their own thoughts, when, as we see, the springs that release these thoughts are far from certain.
‘An Overture’ is, in its way, a testing of what I’ve said thus far in this introduction. It’s based on the part most loved by me of what is pretty close to my most-loved book: The Leopard, by Giuseppe Di Lampedusa. I associate ever so many memories with this book, beginning with the first time I read it. When it came out, I read reviews, and bought a copy. I made several starts and none of them worked. I got myself about sixty pages in, didn’t think much of it, and decided to give it one last try. At home one evening, I lit a fire, put work aside, and drew up a chair. I started again at Page 1, and read it in one swoop. I loved it. I was a changed man when I left my chair. I went for a walk. I talked to the two or three people who were out walking as I was. I came home eventually, glanced at the dying fire, and got into bed. The next day was a working day, and I would enter it, changed. That was almost fifty years ago, and my love for the book continues. I decided to make an opera out of it. Italy was one of opera’s homes; this would be my homage to the land of singing. As I said at the start of this introduction, I’ve now written ninety-odd librettos, and irreverent as many may seem, and different as they may be from their predecessors, they are operas still, librettos still. I want them sung, and their implications considered, if this can be made to happen.
‘Time Travel’ is both as mad as it looks, and as reverent as the remarks of the previous paragraph. It’s about the tenses of verbs, something which seems both more important, and more fascinating, as I grow older. We all need language, we’re helpless without it, yet few of us have considered it closely enough to have any idea of what it is doing to us while we are using it. I don’t know that anyone’s made any the wiser by ‘Time Travel’ but it was fun to write.
Lastly, we have three connected pieces, three acts of the same opera, perhaps. It would appear that all three are about marriage, but society’s focus on this age-old institution has changed so that formulaic statements about the meaning of, need for, or functional characteristics of marriage no longer satisfy. We judge marriage, these days, by what we see of it in action, and that means examining every single case. I give myself three cases, with two add-ons – Mrs Branchthorn and the Brazilian Entrada, who never speaks. I give myself locales halfway to the sky and down on the ground. I slip in a reference to the bushfires my state experienced in 2009, and this last is done (as is the reference to mining disasters in ‘In The Earth’) by way of making a side-on (I nearly said ‘snide’) comment on the media which are continually describing the world to us in less than satisfactory terms. Marriage: two living the joined life of a social unit which is made of two but also functions as one. It takes the pressure off the individual, and it adds to it. What a puzzling thing! I don’t pretend for a moment to have said a last, or even a late, word on the matter, but a contribution has been made, and one can do no more.
I have it in mind to go straight on and do another fifteen librettos, but what they will be about and how they will relate to each other remains to be seen. The current batch is out of the oven now, on the table, waiting to be devoured.
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