Black River (1988)

“There are moments in Black River, . . . which for a comfortable white audience are among the most shattering one could come across in the opera theatre.” [Peter McCallum, Sydney Morning Herald]

“There is a skilful interweaving of dramatic statements and reflective interludes and the urgent, percussive rhythms propel the drama to an undecided conclusion. As in life, the story continues.” [“Black River,” Jill Sykes, Vogue Australia]

“A landmark in culture.” [“Black River”, Michael Hutak, Sydney Morning Herald]

“The powerful metaphors of the libretto by Julianne Schultz are matched in music of taut intensity by her brother, Andrew Schultz. The insistent rhythmic propulsion and shattering dissonances provide musical images that illustrate the deluge, both literal and metaphoric, as ideas and emotions come into harsh conflict….Particularly assured is the way the composer handles the architecture of the piece, able to find balance between solo writing and extended ensemble passages: able, too, to capture the distinctive voice of each figure…the strength of Black River lies, with its compelling subject and riveting score, in its ability to question and provoke.” [“Festival of the Dreaming,” David Vance, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 October 1997]

“The award of the prestigious Grande Prix Opera Screen 93 Prize to the Australian production, Black River, is not just an accolade for professionalism, but a recognition of a new and mature element in our culture.  Black River found its inspiration in an unlikely subject for opera – the 1987 Human Rights Commission inquiry into race relations on the NSW-Queensland border.  Its focus was black deaths in custody, and in Paris it scooped the pool of 140 other screen versions of operas from around the world.

Needless to say, the issue of such deaths was a viable topic in Australian terms, yet at first sight perhaps too social a message for opera.  Opera is an art form usually wedded to the farcical or the highly melodramatic, with leading roles for more predictable theatrical stereotypes.

But Black River provides a new cultural reference in giving suffering blacks both a tragic and human status.  It has a message for the whole of Australian society, yet the Paris award takes matters further by recognising its universal appeal.

The plot is an intimate tale of an Aboriginal woman whose son has died in custody.  Seeking shelter from a flood, she finds herself in the very place where he had been imprisoned.  The theme might seem common enough but for the fact that the opera straddles three generations of the family, and encompasses the continuous conflict between black and white Australians.

Of course Aborigines have appeared on film in Australia on many occasions, though usually in subsidiary roles: sentimentally, as in Jedda, at other times characterised as unattractive, even vengeful.  The Chant of Jimmy Blacksmith offered a confused impression of the rights and wrongs meted out to Australian blacks.  But this opera presents, unashamedly, a problem that faces all minorities, addressing as it does questions of human dignity and the right to just treatment.

As a medium, opera combines drama and music in a wonderful amalgam.  When it becomes a film as well, it reaches an expanded audience and has as magnified an influence.

The response in Paris augurs well for Black River‘s appearance in Australian cinemas in October.  As a vehicle for social and cultural change, it owes its inspiration to writer-director Kevin Lucas, and has an exciting musical score by Andrew Schultz.  Both men might accept, however, that its most powerful impulse was a healthy, professional co-operation between Aborigines and non-Aborigines.  That would entrench it as a landmark in Australia’s cultural development.”

[Editorial, “Tragic Toomalah inspires opera,” The Australian, 31 August 1993, p. 10]