Tuning in to Opera 2021

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A course exploring, enjoying and discussing opera at U3A Nillumbik, Melbourne, conducted by Lyn and Tom Richards

Welcome to Tuning in to Opera. Our group meets on Fridays in U3A terms in the Girl Guide Hall, Eltham. This blog offers information about the operas and composers we study - and links to lots more materials about them including live performances. Contact U3A Nillumbik to join the course.

This course has run since 2016: see this website for its first years and this blog for 2019-20.


For the white explorers, it was the ultimate defeat - there was no inland sea. For modern day tourists, especially twitcher tourists, it's the ultimate destination - when the water comes, from a thousand miles away, to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre, the birds arrive. Watch the drama in this AWC video.

You can see it from space. Lake Eyre is the white, dry, salt spot at the heart of our continent. And you can watch it change as water comes, in 'the ancient rhythms of our red centre': Follow the flood from space in the moving portrait ABC put together here.

But you see this amazing place differently in Terrain, a 2012 production by Bangarra Dance. Terrain transports us to Kati Thanda-Lake Eyre not from above but from within.

In the words of their website, Terrain explores 'the fundamental connection between Aboriginal people and land - how our land looks after us, how we connect with its spirit, and how we regard its future.'

Bangarra takes its educational role seriously, and the Teacher's Notes on the website provide a simple statement of their goals with this production. 'Terrain is an homage to Country, inspired by the power of natural forces and the vulnerability of ecosystems within a landscape that has existed and evolved over many millennia. Terrain illustrates the fundamental connection between People and Land – how we treat our land, how we understand its spirit, and how we regard its future. Terrain presents the vastness and the diversity of a landscape like no other. It’s about the power of natural forces and the vulnerability of ecosystems within a landscape that has existed and evolved as long as the Earth itself – a landscape from which human beings draw life and express meaning to that life.'

How this is done involves artistry of costume, lighting, scenery as well as dance movement. The work has nine parts, described vividly in this review. Find more and read detailed notes on each aspect of the production here.

There are nine sections in the production. We'll screen the whole, pausing between sections.

Red Brick - Looking beyond urban-scape to hear an ancestral Calling to Country Shields - Reflecting on the struggle for Land Rights and Recognition that continue to affect Indigenous people today Reborn - Land is passed down through the lineage, along with knowledge and customs Spinifex - Inspired by the trees in and around Lake Eyre that resemble the gatherings of spirit women waiting, suspended in time Salt - Beyond the white salt vastness lies an abstract landscape that resonates with an ancient power Scar - The impact of man's actions scar and disrupt the delicate balance between people and environment Landform - Through each evolution, the land regenerates and heals, awakening the cultural ties that connect people to place Reflect - Traversing the horizon to glimpse the sacred realm where earth and sky meet Deluge - Waters begin their journey towards Lake Eyre bringing with it transformation and ensuring the life cycle continues

'When our dancers take to the stage they embody the story and take the audience to Country.

They understand the visceral connection Indigenous people have to Country no matter if you live in the City or elsewhere. It’s our second skin and our Belonging.' Interview with Terrain's

choreographer, Frances Rings.


Woollarawarre Bennelong (Bennilong, Baneelon) (c1764-1813), was a Wangul man of the Eora nation. Today, his name is on the peninsula carrying Sydney Opera House, and its restaurant, 'a truly unique event venue; a pinnacle of Sydney's premier dining experiences'. according to its website. Hardly the lived experience of its namesake, who happened to be in the Port Jackson area at the time of the first British settlement and became a symbol of the meeting of the cultures..

A 'career-defining central performance of enormous strength and grace from Beau Dean Riley Smith'

When Bangarra Dance told the story of Bennelong at the Opera House in 2017, it was a milestone in Australian drama. 'Bennelong is an extraordinarily powerful work, a benchmark in Australian dance creativity,' wrote the SMH reviewer. 'It sums up yesterday, today and perhaps tomorrow in a swirling series of storytelling episodes that explore Indigenous lives in an Australia colonised by Europeans... Bangarra Dance Theatre has gone beyond the broad-brush recall of these events to invest them with Indigenous cultural context and emotions – above all, to link them with Indigenous life in Australia today and how it might be in the future.' Limelight went further. 'Dauntingly iconic, profoundly sad, Bennelong is beautifully realised by a sensitive and experienced creative team, a phalanx of dancers at the top of their game, and features a career-defining central performance of enormous strength and grace from Beau Dean Riley Smith.'

It wasn't a new story. History books had drawn on a heap of primary source material, including notebooks and diaries of first fleet officers. (Details in Wikipedia here.)

Taking of Colebee and Bennelong 1789 by William Bradley (WIkipedia)

More recently, historians have revisited and reworked the accounts of Bennelong's capture - first physically and then culturally - by the invading British, and his noble role in bringing the cultures together and then disintegration and demise. That story persisted over two centuries, first emphasizing his disintegration, later his heroic sacrifice. Thus celebrated and mythologised he became a symbol in our account of the treatment of First Nations people.

Now, it's less clear, as Paul Daley recounts in this fascinating essay. And you can read this careful account of the issues by one of the historian participants in the debate.

The inscription on this 1789 image reads: 'Portrait of Bennilong a native of New Holland, who after experiencing for two years the Luxuries of England, returned to his own Country and resumed all his savage Habits c1800s'

Bangarra's dance drama has revived only one part of the debate, and if you wish to explore this version, the company's own resource pages provide rich materials including a detailed account of Bennelong's history and also of the making of this dance drama.

And the making of this story.

For those watching the performance this week, check out the Limelight review for a picture of the shape of this piece and the interplay of music, movement, costume, light and drama. And it's worth reading this review for a description of the ways Bangarra has presented the man's history. It describes the use of imagery and sound as well as movement, to tell a life not so much in episodes as in reflections.

'Was Bennelong a victim? A collaborator? A realist? Looking back centuries later, it is impossible to guess his motives and feelings. What is certain is that Bennelong navigated a cultural clash that few, if any, Aboriginal men of his era had ever had to confront. Danced with dignity, strength, and self-possession by Beau Dean Riley Smith, Bennelong is shown as a man who is, above all, conflicted.'

'Riley Smith doesn’t just dance Bennelong, he is Bennelong' - Limelight


It doesn't have to be opera. Other arts combine music and drama in storytelling.

The tranquil opening of Bennelong - before the First Fleet arrived.

Our term turned to the use of dance drama in Indigenous culture and the 30 years of the Bangarra Dance Troup. (More on Bangarra to come when we'll view the full production of Bennelong later in the term.)

Bran Nue Dae

Meanwhile, in total contrast, we're assessing the story-telling in the 'classic' 'feel-good' musical, Bran Nue Dae. Created by Jimmy Chi, it's been a stage production, a highly successful film, and again a stage musical. That's a record of getting the message out that can't be matched by any opera! Here's the Wiki entry on the film, with details about the plot and characters.

So what's the message? The Independent Critic declares of the film: 'Bran Nue Dae is the best Aboriginal musical ever released in the United States....Okay, so that's not exactly saying much….Most likely to be embraced by those capable of surrendering wholly to the cinematic experience without a thought given to rhyme nor reason, Bran Nue Dae may not leave a lasting thought in your head but it sure will leave a smile on your face.'

'There's nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine...' they all sing

Well, was that the goal? Or was an intended message too hidden? The next line of the lyrics has the bite - but most people didn't seem to hear it. Listen to the first rendition of the song by the cheerfully rebelling schoolboys, proposing to rebuild the convict ships and sail the white oppressors on the tide.

You get a different picture if you turn to materials prepared for schools. Here's the Perth Festival outline for schools. 'Bran Nue Dae is a cultural, groundbreaking Aboriginal musical ... places our Indigenous community front and centre stage. It tackles dark and sensitive issues with humour and although it first premiered 30 years ago in 1990, it is perhaps even more relevant today, as noted by Naomi Pigram, Associate Director: “We’re touching on issues like having some of the worst suicide rates in the world and this play gave me pride and a sense of ownership in terms of our story.” Here's what Germaine Greer had to say. 'Bran Nue Dae has been called a "feelgood movie". For anyone who is across the issues it is a feelbad movie.'

So is it not a worthy way of telling Australian stories? Read this account by a critic familiar with the creation of the musical.

'THE 2010 FILM adaptation of Bran Nue Dae was a risky venture for Rachel Perkins, despite her being a major Aboriginal filmmaker. She was tinkering with the much loved and awarded original stage musical by Broome musician Jimmy Chi, which revolutionised Australian theatre in the 1990s. It also marked a major creative shift from her previous dark and challenging works, ... As Perkins explained in an interview with Margaret Pomeranz, the film was to be enjoyed ‘for being light, for it being entertaining, for it being joyous and celebratory, and a little bit silly and mad…not to teach about Aboriginal history, or Indigenous politics or culture’.

Perkins’ gamble paid off. The film was hugely popular, showing to large audiences in city and suburban theatres around Australia and breaking $7 million at the box office. Thousands of Australians of all ages and backgrounds were introduced to this vital Aboriginal musical. However, the reviews in Australia and internationally were mixed.'

And here are a few more of those reviews in the US:

From NPR

From Hollywood Reporter

From Roger Ebert

The movie critic for Toronto Star headlined their review, 'Tie me dancing fool down, sport'. 'One hesitates to cock an eyebrow too archly towards Bran Nue Dae, a wacky Australian musical that makes light of that country’s long history of mistreatment of its Aboriginal people.

It follows the maxim that satire defeats racism. There is merit in this, as Lenny Bruce argued much more persuasively decades ago. Intentions are good.

At the same time, you have to wonder about the film’s almost complete portrayal of Aborigines as dim-witted dunderers, dancing fools, thieves and drunks. Whites fare no better. Does the film explode stereotypes, or reinforce them? '

Parenthood sorted - as in all great opera plots, improbable.

Years pass - and the revival in 2020, for Sydney Festival, was greeted with more smiles. The Guardian enthused: 'great Australian musical with vibrant cast resonates at Sydney festival.'

But did it tell the underlying story - or just the tale of the road trip of Willie to discover the improbable story (shades of Marriage of Figaro!) of his parentage? The Conversation raised questions about such storytelling: 'Exceptional singing and music obscure the political heart of this classic Australian musical.'