The Children’s Bach (2008)
“Music assumes an integral role in Helen Garner’s The Children’s Bach. Each character finds solace in its embrace, none more than the unlikely adultress, whose stiff, unfeeling rendition of Bach preludes provokes the memorable line: “If only those birds sang – that sang the best – how silent the woods would be.” It’s Garner’s gift to have an ear for the lyricism and complex drama of life’s second-rate warblers, and to weave them, with the lightest of touches, into elaborate harmonies.
Athena (Kathryn Grey) and Dexter (Andrea Carcassi) are happily married, their lives tinged with sadness by a profoundly autistic son, Billy (James Christensen). By contrast, Elizabeth (Dimity Shepherd) and Philip (James Egglestone) are loose-living bohemians. When the couples converge, Athena and Philip embark on a mad fling that cannot last.
Schultz and Perry’s opera faithfully recreates the novel’s inner- suburban world and its central romantic collision. The score plays on the book’s musical references while remaining utterly original. It employs everything from jazz-inspired riffs to fugal structure to accompany the progression of romantic entanglements. A wild arrangement for marimba evokes the disorienting jungle of Billy’s mind. In a striking scene straight from the book, Elizabeth’s sister Vicki (Tess Duddy) sings the Skye Boat Song while Billy hums wordlessly along. And the novel’s conclusion is sung, effectively, as a rising, speculative duet…
The production is imaginatively staged…and succeeds in creating the sort of intricate interiority (a difficult thing to do in opera) that ultimately does justice to the book.” [Cameron Woodhead, The Age, 23 June 2008]
“For those unfamiliar with Helen Garner’s novella, this review shall not spoil the details of the story as retold in this operatic adaptation. Not that plot is so much a driving force in this tale, but the developments of the fragile relationships depicted are an essential part of its dramatic strength. In essence, it is a tale about emotional isolation in suburbia, the loneliness and disappointments within relationships, and the escape and damage of seeking solace or excitement outside of them.
As Dexter (Andrea Carcassi), one of the main characters, keeps pondering, is this “modern life”? Is this all it amounts to? What kind of abstraction is love in the face of seemingly far more potent pain and disaffection? Needless to say, this is not a particularly cheerful piece, but whether it is actively depressing or alienating depends very much on the temperament (and experiences) of the audience members themselves. Mercifully avoiding high angst, The Children’s Bach is a slow-burn exploration of some of the less dramatic or glamorous facets of “modern life”.
The score is certainly quite beautiful, powerful and oftentimes even rather haunting. A rich, surprising and complex piece of composition, the music alone is worth the price of admission, and Andrew Schultz is to be congratulated. Librettist Glenn Perry has taken on the challenging task of adapting Garner’s often quite prosaic words into something compatible with the operatic voice, while never betraying the essential flavour of the suburban doldrums. All this may seem “a bit too modern” for more traditionalist opera patrons, and any of those still suffering from a bit of Cultural Cringe may have trouble accepting such fine singers passionately intoning lines about Hills Hoists and Video Hits.
The cast is uniformly of a high standard, as much a well-rehearsed ensemble as the excellent musicians who back them. Although each of the performers got some shining moments, the most cumulatively prominent role was that of Athena, powerfully portrayed by Kathryn Grey. An engaging performer, Grey was both powerful and understated, emoting a range from disaffection to despair while never seeming for a moment to be extravagant. Indeed, for a character who could come across as fairly unsympathetic, Grey, rather than attempt to make the role more likable, has the confidence to simply be compelling enough that any such judgmental perceptions quickly slide away.
One aspect of this production that particularly stood out was the set design, with no walls or boundaries in the large empty space afforded it in the Merlyn Theatre, but rather… islands. Islands of furniture, little set-pieces (literally) as though individual rooms reduced to their barest essentials of function. A television and a couch. A dining table. A bed and wardrobe. A rabbit cage. All these little nuggets of naturalistic living spaces plopped down in the dark, featureless landscape of the theatre made them seem almost as though suspended in space and time. It served as a tremendously effective visual metaphor, perhaps, for the isolation and emotional distance between the characters, and even the compartmentalisation of different parts of each individual’s life. Many have used a similar approach to set design before, but have rarely achieved it so evocatively. If anything, it seemed that the sprawling set was under-utilised, but perhaps the extra “settings” that were not really used provided a visual purpose as much as a practical one, as though to suggest that this isolation spreads on forever.
While it has the potential to leave some viewers cold, others may well find this new opera to be a very compelling and moving experience. The Children’s Bach might be exploring the seemingly mundane, but in many respects it is within reaching distance of the sublime.” [Jack Tiewes, Australian Stage Online, 27 June 2008]
“Schultz’s songs however often catch the ear, almost at times like a musical, … as when Philip sings to Poppy about his beloved Paradise Bar, or Dexter about ‘lerv.’ While the score is not accessible in the manner of Glass or Adams or, more conventionally, Golijov, nor is it the jagged modernism of an earlier Schultz opera, Black River (1989, film 1993). The composer’s score is lyrical and pervasively melancholic, save a joyous, dancing, unsung passage and the opera’s baroqu-ish duet coda. Not surprisingly it’s the Bach-ian texturing and pulsing of the score that gives the work warmth and drive. Each of Poppy’s readings from her ‘Children’s Bach’ seem to trigger the requisite realisation of the theory from the orchestra, driving the opera on but also adding to the sense of moment, a certain thoughtfulness, a musical reflectiveness. Schultz’s score sings, muses and dances and is superbly realised by the onstage conductor (Nicholas Carter alternating with music director Brett Kelly) and fine instrumentalists on piano, cello, clarinet, double bass, marimba, vibraphone and violin.” [Keith Gallasch, Real Time Arts, 2008]
Garner’s poetic and elusive book “translated very effectively into a lightly –scored and evocative chamber opera which took the central metaphor of the fugue from the novel. This became a meditation on the messiness and complexity of human relationships, one given a sense of structure by music.” [Michael Halliwell, “Fly Away Peter: when Australian literature goes to the opera,” The Conversation, 1 May 2015]