Opera Australia brings Bliss to Edinburgh
An opera set in 1980s Australia explores a middle-aged ad-man’s mid-life crisis, explains Carol Main
Bliss. What is it? Perfect happiness? And who achieves it? Maybe not as many people as think they do. Sometimes a life that seems blissful may be far from it and the search has to start again. Enter Harry Joy, the main character in Australian author Peter Carey’s 1981 novel, Bliss, which provides the basis for a new opera by Brett Dean and Amanda Holden first seen in Sydney earlier this year.
Joy – bliss by another name – feels that he has a good life. That is, until he has a heart attack on his front lawn and wakes up thinking he is in hell. His wife is having an affair, his son is a drug dealer, his daughter a prostitute who extends sexual favours to her brother, and the advertising company Joy works for is promoting products that are responsible for cancer. ‘In some ways,’ says the opera’s composer, Brett Dean, ‘the novel is autobiographical, which is not that uncommon in a first novel. Carey already had a career in advertising behind him and had moved from Sydney to live the good life in the country in rural Queensland.’
He hadn’t entirely given up the commercial world, but it was time to take stock. ‘It was the 80s,’ says Dean, ‘and “greed is good” was the culture of the time. When Harry comes back to life after his heart attack, he is in a kind of living hell and becomes completely dissatisfied with the trials and tribulations of modern living.’ At this point, he takes up with Honey Barbara, a prostitute and soulmate in the search for nirvana. ‘They are trying to discover together what it is to be good, so Bliss is both a love story and a critique on coming to terms with the world around us,’ says Dean. ‘It was the Thatcher years, but there is an aptness and timelessness to Carey’s book which makes Bliss still topical in 2010, especially as things have now come the full circle with the banking crisis and environmental degradation.’
The germ of the idea for Bliss was planted by Opera Australia ten years ago and Dean worked on the score, his first opera, for three years. In adapting the story for the libretto, writer Amanda Holden has chosen to concentrate on Joy’s wife, Betty, so that the opera is not only about Harry’s striving for bliss, but her downward projectory at the same time, producing a pull in two directions. ‘The libretto is very strong,’ says Dean, ‘and gave me an inspirational road map.’ Structurally, the shape it gives follows that of traditional opera. What is quite different, however, is the sound design. ‘There are modernist aspects to it,’ says Dean, ‘and I am keen on exploring orchestral colour, but not at the expense of the singers. The music must allow them to shine. But the orchestra includes electric guitar and drum-kit, so it’s definitely a different world from what you hear in The Marriage of Figaro. It’s the world of sound as we know it now. For instance, all of a sudden there’s a disco-like hi-hat or riffs on guitar.’
On stage and in the use of language (‘Hey, drongo’), director Neil Armfield has given the production the look and feel of Australia in the 80s period of the novel. There are chunky video games and magical lighting effects controlled by software called Pandora’s Box, which does everything it says on the tin. Heading the cast is Peter Coleman-Wright, the Australian-born baritone who is on stage for most of the opera. ‘He really captures Harry,’ says Dean. ‘He is humane, endearing, struggling and confused, so not an easy character to take on. Honey B is a wonderful young soprano and Merlyn Quaife as Betty is neurotic, fragile and sad.’
Bliss has been a major investment for Opera Australia, who have been criticised in the past for not including new Australian work in their repertoire. A second, very different, production of the opera is about to open in Hamburg and the piece has met huge success with the home audience. So far, bliss all round, and, indeed, even for Harry. ‘He finds it,’ says Dean, ‘but it comes at a price.’
Opera Australia, Festival Theatre, 473 2000, Thu 2 & Sat 4 Sept, 7.15pm, £14–£64.