Program notes

Black River, opus 37 (1988)

Black River is a one act opera of about fifty-five minutes duration and scored for a cast of five singers and an instrumental ensemble of thirteen players. The libretto is by the composer’s sister, the journalist and author, Julianne Schultz and is a fictional story based on events in a small outback Australian country town during a flood. The five characters (a visiting judge heading a commission of enquiry into race relations in the town, a scared city journalist, the care-worn local policeman, a black woman in mourning and the town’s cynical drunk) are unwillingly thrown together as they are forced to seek refuge from the rising river in the town’s claustrophobic and primitive police lock-up – the highest point in town and the scene of undisclosed sinister events. The intensity of the relationships that form is compounded by an overwhelming fear of the gorged river and the oppressive sound of rain. The story is dramatic, political and intense yet not didactic and the music conjures a natural world of unrelenting force and an inner world of emotions scraped to the bone.

Black River‘s first performance in November 1998 was as a co-production of the Sydney Metropolitan Opera, the Seymour Group and the Australian content department of the Elizabethan Theatre Trust. The work was commissioned as the result of an open competition organised by the Australian Music Centre with funding support from both the Literature and Performing Arts Boards of the Australia Council. Some of Australia’s leading names in opera were involved in the premiere production in Sydney with producer John Wregg, musical director Roland Peelman, and a cast including John Pringle, Clive Birch and Maroochy Barambah. Subsequently the opera has had seasons including in Arts Centre in Melbourne and the Sydney Opera House. The opera has also been made into an award winning film directed by Kevin Lukas.


Maroochy Barambah, in the role of Miriam, on the set of the film version of Black River (Sydney, Lukas Productions, 1991).

©  Andrew Schultz, 1988


Read the Sounds Australian journal, from 1991 (edited by Andrew Schultz), that covers some of the issues concerning indigenous and settler musical culture in Australia which were raised by the opera Black River and which are often still a source of lively debate: Appropriation – Tradition – Borrowing – Theft.