L-R: Liam Budge, Michelle Nicolle and Leisa Keen. Photo: Peter Hislop
From A Black Sky: A Dramatic Chamber Opera Set In The Maelstrom Of The Canberra Bushfires
Saturday, September 20, 2013
The Street Theatre
Sandra France, with librettist Helen Nourse, have created a monumental musical work, which translates the events of the 2003 Canberra bushfires into an exploration, on many levels, of the tragic elements leading to personal and civic destruction and loss. It is a brave creation, engaging directly with the community through interviews with the bushfire survivors, to weave these painful memories into a libretto and score that conveys the shock of a seemingly invulnerable suburban normality disappearing suddenly in an event of violent natural destruction.
Nourse’s libretto is economical and relevant in its vocabulary, enabling the music to support and communicate emotion. France’s score is complex, both melodically and rhythmically, in keeping with the conflicting forces at play; and the orchestration is a tour de force, pioneering a new model for operatic
Judith Dodsworth, rear, as Sophie and Rachael Duncan as Amelia in From a Black Sky. Photo: Lorna Sim
Soloists Judith Dodsworth, Don Bemrose, Rachael Duncan and David Rogers-Smith gave their all to voice the narrative.
France and Nourse pose powerful questions about the deceptions perpetuated on a private and a civic level to maintain the veneer of stable, comfortable life in the nation’s capital. It takes the catastrophe of the bushfire to expose these duplicities.
Two married couples – Sophie and Tony, Amelia and David – are the focus of the dramatic action, but it is quickly obvious that hidden emotional secrets are undermining the superficial harmony of these relationships. At the public level, the rituals of Saturday morning in a pleasant suburban shopping-centre are endangered by the bureaucratic agendas to save money by cutting jobs and the unfolding confusion within the chains of command of emergency services responsible for fighting the approaching fires. As the weather deteriorates, the relationships unravel, and as the maelstrom reaches its climax, the cruelty of the emotional interactions push David to his death.
Placing the orchestra within the centre of the action worked well, although there was difficulty at times hearing the vocalists over the orchestra. David Kram conducted with heart and soul to anchor the performance, supported by really fine playing from the chamber orchestra.
From a Black Sky will be remembered as one of the great highlights of Canberra’s centenary year.
18 November 2019
Who would have thought that a jazz song cycle inspired by the invention of the Black Box Flight Recorder would have made for an evening of absorbing theatre – not only absorbing, but thrilling?
Commissioned by The Street Theatre to shine a spotlight on the remarkable achievement of Australian scientist, David Warren, who invented the Black Box Flight Recorder, Flight Memory, is not biographical, although it does have a narrative. In her program notes, librettist, Alana Valentine is at pains to point out that the aim of the work was not to tell a biographical story, but rather to respond to it.
Three accomplished jazz singers, Michelle Nicolle, Leisa Keen and Liam Budge, form of modern Greek chorus, singing solo, duet and in trio, to embody the voice of David Warren. Sometimes they are the voices in his head, the naysaying voices in the world, narrators, pilots and journalists. Sometimes all three sing in unison as a collective voice of David and the Aeronautical Research Laboratories team.
Alana Valentine’s libretto is intelligent, witty, and at times laugh-out-loud, but from its very opening moments when Leisa Keen’s air hostess instructs the audience in flight protocol, it engages the audience’s curiosity and emotions. Key influences in Warren’s life are noted.
His father’s gift of a crystal set radio receiver, his father’s death in one of Australia’s first aircraft disasters, how the loss of children in a plane crash off Mackay sparked the progress in air safety, of his response to the crushing indifference to his invention by aviation authorities until an English Air Vice Marshall recognises its potential.
Moments of drama and exposition are cleverly balanced with the cheeky, wry humour of The Family Jewels which comments on the dangers inherent in unfortunate placement of a recording device prototype in a Dutch built Fokker aircraft.
Although not all the lyrics were served well by the blurred articulation and jazz inflected vocalising, the three singers coped brilliantly, committing the entire score to memory, to often mesmerising effect. Leisa Keen’s impeccably delivered narrations were particularly impressive.
To accompany the singers, composer, Sandra France has assembled, and leads from the piano, a band of top-flight Canberra musicians, Brendan Clarke, Tom Fell, Gary France, Jess Green and Ben Marston. Her ten songs, which make up the cycle, embrace an intriguing mixture of musical styles.
Traces of baroque, classical, minimalism, blues, swing and even hip hop, tantalise the astute listener. Multiple key changes, time signatures add excitement. Luscious melodies soothe, only to be interrupted by dissonant chords.
A chill ran through the audience as France plucked frantically at the piano strings while the instruments wailed in cacophony at the revelation of children lost in a plane crash off Mackay. Her writing is assured and masterly, and despite its complexity, also melodic and approachable.
Directing with her usual panache, Caroline Stacey, took full advantage of Imogen Keen’s abstract shiny metal geometric setting, suggestive perhaps of the approach to an airfield, or the inside of an aircraft cockpit, and the brilliantly atmospheric lighting of Niklas Pajanti, to create a continual stream of eye-pleasing stage pictures.
Given the importance of the lyrics to the enjoyment of this work, Kimmo Vennonen’s mostly excellent sound design would benefit from adjustment to favour the singers, particularly in those sections when the band is in full flight.
Flight Memory is a stunning achievement, highlighting an important scientific achievement in an unusual but highly effective stage presentation. On opening night, Kenneth Fraser, who worked beside David Warren on the development of the flight recorder, and Jenny Warren, David’s daughter, were in the audience. Hopefully audiences beyond Canberra will be given the opportunity to share this remarkable creation.
A narrative song cycle about the Australian scientist who invented the Black Box Flight Recorder is thoroughly captivating.
The Street Theatre, Canberra | Reviewed on 15 November, 2019
By Clinton White on 16 November, 2019
The program notes describe Flight Memory as a “narrative song cycle”, but while experiencing this brilliant production, I thought it more a kind of “documusical”; it is much more than a song cycle.
As is the whole production, the story is out of left field. Who would have dreamed up the concept of a theatre piece based on the work of David Warren, the Australian scientist who invented the Black Box Flight Recorder, much less do it in jazz?
But, when you look at the stories behind Warren’s invention, the frustrations, belittlements, naysayers and the ultimate triumph certainly are compelling themes destined for the stage.
Commissioned by The Street Theatre and directed by its Artistic Director and CEO, Caroline Stacey, Flight Memory features a minimalist, but very effective set by Imogen Keen that not only extends into the audience but gives the stage the perception of endless depth. That, and truly creative and effective lighting by Niklas Pjanti, enhanced the drama and emotion in the work overall. On sound was Kimmo Vennonen, who expertly twiddled knobs to ensure flawless balance and highlights, including creating effects such as a very authentic-sounding exchange between the control tower, the flight deck and emergency services.
It was obvious that librettist, Alana Valentine, and composer, Sandra France, worked closely, for the results speak for themselves. The libretto and spoken narration (there was no dialogue) went hand-in-hand with the music so perfectly, one could not imagine one without the other. France, playing the piano and keyboard, was consummate in leading her band, Red Eggs, through a superb score that encompassed many jazz and blues styles all the way from New York-style jazz to minimalist jazz to Hip-Hop, with nods to classical and baroque influences along the way.
An interesting twist to this tale is that the cast of three – singers Liam Budge, Leisa Keen and Michelle Nicolle – didn’t have defined roles. They did not so much as “act”, but become the voices of the many who were involved in the often-harrowing story of Warren’s invention, even the ones in Warren’s head.
There were two really striking features of their performances. Their stage “choreography” was impeccable, including lugging their corded microphone stands around, confidently moving in an often very dimly lit environment, but always ending up in exactly the right spot for the extraordinary lighting. And, in song, their ability and exceptional versatility to cover every style (and voice) thrown at them by the composer and librettist kept a seamless continuity along the storyline.
Flight Memory is a truly brilliant work, which offers outstanding innovation. It is highly intellectual and thoroughly captivating. It surely must tour widely, especially given every plane in the air carries a Black Box Flight Recorder.
By Judith Crispin – CityNews
September 22, 2013
SANDRA France’s new chamber opera “From a Black Sky”, with libretto by Helen Nourse, presents an ordinary marriage break-down against a backdrop of devastating fires and a secret lesbian tryst.
What begins as light operetta blossoms, by act two, into full-blooded opera seria. In her dramatic tale of love and betrayal, Sandra France reveals a mature and unified palette of orchestral colours, unashamedly lyrical but never succumbing to popular devices.
The custom chamber orchestra, expertly led by David Kram, tackled an often challenging, freely atonal score. With glissandi slides (senza vibrato) and extended string techniques, France’s opera features kaleidoscopic Lutoslawski-like sonorities and clever rhythmic modulations. Faustian imagery permeates the entire work, including church bell motifs (often accompanied by foreboding tremolo strings), arpeggiated piano figures reminiscent of Gounod’s Faust, and galloping rhythms (as in Berlioz’s Faust).
These diabolical musical devices, echoed visually by fire and smoke, are contrasted by recurring bird song – a motif perhaps symbolising hope just as Messiaen used birdsong to herald the end of suffering. Indeed, France’s opera presents the passage from darkness into light, beginning with the first hints of the coming inferno and ending in the dawn of a new day.
From act one, throughout the opera, radio transmissions document the worsening crisis. Soprano Rachel Duncan (Amelia) brought grace and elegance to the opening of act one, and maintained strong performances throughout.
Don Bemrose, a foremost Aboriginal baritone, was compelling as the best friend of Amelia’s jilted husband (tenor David Rogers-Smith) while Mezzo-soprano Judith Dodsworth’s rich tonal colours were often expertly combined with sul ponticello strings.
The first act culminated with the image of a secret lesbian affair unfolding inside a house surrounded by fire – an extended duet between Duncan and Dodsworth.
Act two was some of the strongest opera writing I have heard from an Australian composer. Echoes of Stravinsky’s “Rite” eclipsed by a cacophonous and spectacular climax. Clashing corrugated iron and tutti orchestra signalled the arrival of the fire front – a sustained roar that overpowered the audience and seemed to draw smoke and flames from the ceiling (assisted by red fluorescent lights).
This act was dominated by wonderful writing for mezzo and tenor roles. Perhaps the strongest image of the opera was that of Rogers-Smith giving an absolutely sublime performance while standing in a burning house, surrounded by flames. Accompanied by Faustian arpeggios and diabolical strings, Dodsworth is diabolically vengeful, shaming David (Rogers-Smith) into remaining in the house where he will die. Rogers-Smith is simply breathtaking in his response – his bel canto tenor voice unsupported but for haunting slides in the strings.
Through the ashes, first light appears and France’s opera ended to tumultuous applause. Those of us who’ve been around Canberra music circles for a while couldn’t help but smile to see percussionist Gary France in the orchestra looking so very proud of his composer wife – and who could blame him? We’re all a little proud of her.
NOVEMBER 19 2019 – 4:00AM
Flight Memory an unusual and striking piece
Flight Memory. Music by Sandra France. Text by Alana Valentine. Music Director Sandra France. Directed by Caroline Stacey. The Street Theatre. Ended November 17.
Billed as “A Narrative Song Cycle about Australian Genius” and commissioned and developed by The Street Theatre, Flight Memory is neither quite opera nor play, but somewhere happily in between.
It helps if you know something of the story of David Warren and his invention of the black box flight recorder in the 1950s. And how that invention was not taken up in Australia but was seized upon by the British.
Liam Budge, left, Michelle Nicolle and Leisa Keen in Flight Memory at the Street Theatre.
Alana Valentine’s spare words outline key events. Young David is given a crystal set by his father. His father dies in a plane crash in Bass Strait and the plane is never found. He becomes a scientist and, despite opposition that is hard to believe in retrospect, comes up with the invention that has allowed a deeper understanding of the causes of plane crashes.
Three singers with impressive jazz credentials (Liam Budge, Leisa Keen and Michelle Nicolle) sketch in the story, moving their mic stands from place to place. Keen becomes the crisp voice of air travel, instructing the audience on safety during the flight of the show. Nicolle’s rich voice is increasingly joined with Keen’s as they probe Warren’s story, while Budge, despite his very un-1950s long hair, captures the quiet passion of the man at the centre.
Imogen Keen’s starkly striking set with its converging lines is both suggestive of a black box and a runway at night. Those lines also disquietingly vanish into nothing. The set is well supported by Niklas Pajanti’s appropriately imaginative lighting.
But the driving force of the piece is Sandra France’s music, moody, grand and moving, with many influences but especially the freedom afforded by jazz. Despite the often serious content there’s a lovely sense of the on-stage composer/conductor and musicians having fun.
You would not think the subject matter would give rise to humour but it’s there. One objection to flight recorders was that they might pick up inappropriate language. The jaunty number The Family Jewels reflects the situation of male pilots having problems protecting themselves when they are flying Fokkers designed to be flown by taller Dutchmen. But it also reflects the success of the trial in that every word from the cockpit is successfully recorded, inappropriate or not.
Stones For Bread, on the other hand, is a hymn to Warren’s determination to see the device succeed. Here Budge’s Warren is beautifully focused on a desire to rise above opposition.
The piece has a majestic and magnificent finale, Voices of the Dead, where the reality is someone dusting off the ash from a black box and listening to those voices in order to find a clue to a crash. The recorder survives, the speakers do not. The word “Why?” lingers.
It would be good, perhaps, to see themes pulled together a little earlier in the script. Toward the end Red Tape Rag seems to be scrambling to explain and connect Warren’s treatment and the cultural cringe. It’s a valid thesis that might deserve more time.
But this is a new piece, unusual and striking, that should go on to have a life. Good on The Street for its commitment to developing new works.
How extraordinarily poignant is the black box? Unable to save the people it records, it holds the last moments of people’s lives in the hope of preventing future deaths. For families of crash victims, it provides the most meagre of solaces: the answer to the question “why”. Based on a biography of David Warren, the Australian inventor of the black box, Alana Valentine’s latest project Flight Memory is a tale of sadness, persistence, guts, loss and triumph, underpinned by that poignancy. The Street’s production presents the material as a song cycle, a kind of bare-bones musical. The lines and structure of the set (designed by Imogen Keen) are deceptively simple, evoking both engineering drawings and the lights down the centre of a plane. Carolyn Stacey’s direction gives the blocking a vibrancy, painting scenes with the movement.
Sandra France’s modern jazz score is Bruce Rowland film music meets Dave Brubeck, with hints of smoky bar jazz, Andrews Sisters and 60s scat. With complex rhythms and rapidly changing tempos, it’s clever without ever becoming too discordant or inaccessible. The three performers are excellent. There are two rich, top notch jazz vocalists in Michelle Nicolle and Leisa Keen, which contrast with the mellow, textured sound of Liam Budge, who voices protagonist David Warren.
The song Crystal Set beautifully evokes the eerie, nostalgic crackles and whines of tuning an early radio. Like many of the songs, it’s suffused with sadness: in this case, the radio in question was a gift to Warren by his father soon before his father died in plane crash into the Tasman Sea. Fatal Fog and Voices of the Dead are deeply sad, full of ghostly echoes. There’s a strange rhythm and repetition to the words, a kind of choppy awkwardness that might have come with embodying the engineer Warren’s voice, which perhaps some will find off-putting. These contrast with the humour of The Family Jewels and the joyful 60s jazz of Red Tap Reg.
The show opens with a non-specific threat to theatrical critics (noted), so I will take my life into my hands and mention that I felt the number Corner of Hell did not work. The song combines aspects of spoken word poetry and preaching (a very clever reference to Warren’s preacher father), but it comes across as almost rap, and unfortunately almost rap is inevitably bad rap. Perhaps what would rescue it would be to make it much more recognisable as beat poetry and emphasise the preaching – even there, Liam Budge is working against his own laid-back style which was undercutting the power of the piece.
That niggle aside, Flight Memory is a challenging and moving work.
Photographer: Peter Hislop
A personal tale about the Canberra bushfires: David Rogers-Smith and Rachael Duncan on stage.
CREDIT: MELISSA ADAMS
From a Black Sky cast members David Rogers-Smith and Rachael Duncan.
CREDIT: MELISSA ADAMS
The iconic Mount Stromlo observatory burns during the Canberra bushfires.
“And birds fell dead upon our neat back lawn
from poisoned skies, while dogs sought unsure refuge
behind our hosed down walls.”
– From The Enemy Comes to the Gates Bearing Fire by David Nourse.
Among the millions of words written about the Canberra bushfires of January 2003, it’s the personal stories that are the most enduring.
But there are also those stories that we’ll never know about: stories of people’s lives that were progressing – either happily, humdrum or in chaos – and the effect caused by the events of that unthinkable day.
This idea of the Canberra bushfires as a crucible is at the heart of the opera From a Black Sky, which opens at the Street Theatre on September 20. Composed by Sandra France, with a libretto by Helen Nourse, the work is supported by the Centenary of Canberra, and is directed by Caroline Stacey.
”In the same way that metal is forged through fire, individual and community character can be forged through catastrophe,” Stacey says. ”It’s only when we’re tested that we know who we are.”
Both composer and librettist were determined that the opera not be a documentary-style work. ”We didn’t just want to write an opera about the Canberra bushfires,” Nourse says. ”That narrative had already been well and truly told over the years. Instead, we wanted to use the fires as a setting in which to place four characters, each with their own personal dramas, in the midst of those two days.”
The story of From a Black Sky begins on the morning of January 18, 2003, in Canberra’s Weston Creek. We meet David (played by tenor David Rogers-Smith) and Amelia (soprano Rachael Duncan) whose marriage is under severe strain from financial worries and infidelity.
Then there is the scheming Sophie (mezzo-soprano Judith Dodsworth) who makes no attempt to hide lustful feelings for her friend Amelia. Meanwhile Tony (baritone Dom Bemrose) carries a guilty secret about the way he has treated his good mate David. By the time the bushfires reach their suburb in the afternoon, their complicated lives are laid bare.
The work began life some five years ago when France, a music teacher at Erindale College, invited colleague and friend Nourse to write the libretto for an opera she was developing. Both agreed that the 2003 bushfires would make a suitably dramatic setting.
They also knew that audiences are sometimes wary of contemporary opera, so they were determined to make the work as engaging as possible.
It’s a stunning score but fiendishly difficult to learn. But our conductor, David Kram, is very skilled in making sure that the language is heard.
France was awarded an ACT Creative Arts Fellowship to develop the opera. The Street Theatre, through its Hive development program, later provided assistance with the libretto, including the services of leading dramaturg Peter Matheson.
Much of the libretto was written first, no mean feat for Nourse, an opera lover but – by her own admission – totally inexperienced in writing for the form. To this, France would add her score then discussion would ensue with lyrics being refined, repeated or rearranged. The result is a libretto which is spare and poetic.
“I wanted to be economical so as to give the music time to wrap itself around the words,” Nourse says.
”When the music is added to the libretto, the whole work comes alive.”
‘Many modern operas lack the melody and sense of recognition that you hear in more traditional operas,” France says. ”So, by focusing on a strong sense of melody and harmony, I wanted to address any expectation that the work would be inaccessible.” And she has offset this lyrical approach with passages of minimalism, especially during the scenes of mounting tension as the bushfires approach and the lives of the four self-absorbed characters begin to unravel.
‘It’s a stunning score but fiendishly difficult to learn,” admits Duncan, who has enjoyed an impressive operatic career in Europe. ”But our conductor, David Kram, is very skilled in making sure that the language is heard. It’s not a matter of hammering out every word in a sentence – that’s not what we do when we speak. It’s about paying attention to the rhythms of the verse and stressing the correct words.”
The production features an ensemble of 12 musicians, including two percussionists and a quintet of strings matched with some wind and brass, who are situated in the centre of the stage.
”The action takes place around them, reflecting the fact that the music is central to the production,” Stacey says. ”Designer Christiane Nowak’s set is impressionistic. It can represent, at different times, a shopping centre, a house or an office.”
From a Black Sky has also had the advantage of several creative developments, including small-scale performances, in Canberra and Melbourne in its journey over the past three years. The opera has been refined as a result and now includes a chorus, comprising a vocal ensemble from Erindale College and Arrawang Primary School chorus.
”This is the only locally written opera that is part of the Canberra Centenary program,” Stacey says. ”It’s what the Street Theatre is about: exploring our milieu, listening to what audiences are asking for and responding to them.
”Staging a modern opera in Australia these days is a considerable achievement in itself. It’s thrilling to put a contemporary new work on the stage. And even more so when it is by a composer and a librettist who are from Canberra and which showcases a large number of local creative artists who are working in this form.”
One of these artists is librettist Nourse’s husband David, a local poet, part of whose poem The Enemy Comes to the Gates Bearing Fire provides a gentle coda at the end of Act II:
” … We stayed, like them,
and gambled that the fire would pass us by –
the Lord be thanked for looking after fools.”