Oh, opera, you're such a good influence on me. Generally speaking, my literary tastes don't extend much past 1960 — but with the world première of Brett Dean's Bliss edging ever closer and usual avenues of preparation unavailable, what else was a girl to do but to read the novel?
Yes, if you're Australian, you probably don't need that incentive, because you've probably already read it, and/or have a definite opinion about Peter Carey. But I'm not Australian, and despite literally growing up in a bookshop, I'd never heard of Bliss until I heard about the opera. (I had heard of Peter Carey, though. I'm not a total philistine, honest.) I've also not seen the film, though I suppose I really must sometime between now and next March. Not that I necessarily think either book or film is absolutely vital to appreciating the opera — it ought to function as a work of art on its own terms, and I'm sure it will. In my case, though, I feel I'd like to replicate as far as I'm able the sort of popular consciousness of Bliss which so many Australians seem by definition to possess and which I, until recently did not.
Would I ever have read Bliss otherwise? Perhaps one day, but quite possibly not. Am I pleased I've read it? You could say that. All I asked was to be prepared (fore-armed?) for the opera, and lo and behold, I found — let's not say bliss — true delight. I liked the humour, the complexity and sheer imagination of it. I liked Carey's ability to take you one way with a character, lull you into what seemed like understanding, then veer unexpectedly into pyschological territory you never saw coming. I liked those sudden switches from past to present to future, unheralded, and populated by pronouns not immediately explained, so that you're just lost enough to enjoy the tangle before it's pulled straight again. I liked the tree scene and the subsequent curse (now there's an aria straight from Verdi). I don't want to live in a commune, but I'm glad Harry did. I liked Harry, even though that first page description of his oversized moustache had me preparing to feel the opposite. And above all, I liked the style of Carey's prose. Novels live or die for me on the strength of their writing; the most riveting plot in the world can't hold me if the writing is unreadable. But I love the way Bliss is written; I find Carey's wry, rambling, chatty — then swiftly poetic — style incredibly engaging.
What we can expect from Amanda Holden's libretto, I've no idea. What will be changed, removed, added, rearranged and rethought, only time will tell. (At least for those of us not privy to the years of development and workshopping this opera has gone through.) If it captures just a fraction of the lyricism and insanity and (I'm going to say it) sheer joy of the novel, though, then I'd say it's going to be at least a little bit special. Not to mention that all this bliss will be in the hands of Neil Armfield, with whom I suspect many of us are still smitten, post-Grimes.
With regards to the music, I'm even more in the dark. All I have is my imagination and Boosey & Hawkes, whose website holds a few tantalising hints. Like the entry for Dean's 2004 work Moments of Bliss, "a suite of four purely orchestral movements which will form the basis for several orchestral interludes throughout the opera". The composer's program notes on that page give a few intriguing, if fleeting, insights into the opera itself; then again, I'd imagine a lot can change in five years. The other highlight of this entry is the scoring of the suite, which is entertainment enough in itself:
Lions and gongs and whirly tubes, oh my!
4(IV=picc).3(III=corA).4(II=Ebcl,III=bcl,IV=dbcl).3(II=whirly tube,III=dbn)-184.108.40.206-timp.perc(4):I=vib/SD/sizzle cym/tgl/3gongs/7cowbells; II=lg tam-t/5tom-t/3bongos/5susp.cym(incl.1sizzle cym)/whip/marimba(shared with IV)/glass chimes/tamb/tuned gong/whirly tube; III=sm tam-t/xyl/glsp/SD/lion's roar/4t.bells/tuned gong; IV=BD/marimba/full drum kit/glsp/2tgl/1crot/tuned gong-2harp-elec.git-pft(=cel).MIDI kbd(using Ableton LIVE via Mac computer)-strings(220.127.116.11.8; pincipal 1st vln=elec.vln; 2vln/vla/vlc=whirly tube; 1 female 2nd vln="Wheel of Fortune"; all vlc/db require a medium soft timpani stick)
Then there's the song cycle Songs of Joy, which was premiered last year by Peter Coleman-Wright with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic under Sir Simon Rattle. According to one of the linked articles:
In the first song, Harry's Vision, the protagonist describes his journey through Heaven and Hell. The energetic Ballad of Little Titch is a tall story which Harry tells on his first time out after his convalescence. The final Sonnet is a serenade to the new love in Harry's life, after he abandons job and home to settle in the rainforest.
Strange to think all those Liverpudlians have heard these songs and we still haven't. My anticipation grows. I also note that one of the articles says that Peter "will take the lead role of the adman Harry Joy on stage in Australia, Germany and the UK" — we already know it's slated for the Edinburgh Festival, but Germany too? This bodes well. Our opera seems to have legs; and Peter can become to Harry Joy what Gerald Finley has to J. Robert Oppenheimer.
Finally, there is the entry for the opera itself. A few hints, although nothing especially revelatory. A couple of characters have had names slightly changed: Joel has become Johnny, Adrian has become Nigel. The small chorus of "Managing directors" sounds like something out of G&S, don't you think? The synopsis is pretty straightforward and — warning — contains spoilers. Knowing the cast, I couldn't help but read the novel with those singers in my mind's eye — even though doing so led to a few traumatic moments — and while some were a bit hard to square with their characters, others seemed immediately like perfect casting. Barry Otto notwithstanding, Peter Coleman-Wright just is Harry Joy for me now, before I've even heard or seen him in even a fragment of the role. I'll even accept the oversized moustache, if I must.
122 days and counting until opening night. Perhaps I'll start a countdown clock in the sidebar. I really can't wait.