MERCURY EDITORIAL – January 22, 2013 12.00am

Island of creativity

THOSE who experienced Tasmanian composer Dylan Sheridan’s chamber opera Starchild at the Peacock Theatre at the weekend witnessed first-hand why MONA FOMA is so valuable to Tasmania.

The audience in the intimate space of the tiny theatre at Salamanca was spellbound by Sheridan’s lyrical operatic creation. Soprano Allison Farrow cast a spell over the audience with a captivating performance, superbly supported by saxophone, electronics, flute, found objects, and hand-made acoustic instruments.

To the conservative listener more used to the predictable harmony and melody of radio-station pop songs, Starchild was a brave new world of aural possibilities. But, judging from the warm applause, few in the audience thought it anything less than enticingly musical. The haunting melodies and harmonies were based on the sound of a squeaky wheelbarrow but never became grating, rather they hinted at a delightful, if somewhat haunting, tonal prettiness. Do not be surprised to find Sheridan going on to bigger and better things.

In the context of MONA FOMA, Starchild found an audience quite willing to take the journey into less travelled musical concepts. That’s one of the most valuable aspects of the festival — it provides a platform for our most creative talents who previously were much more subterranean and far less supported by audiences.

Most of those who go to the festival are expecting the “unexpected”, they are ready for the “different” and prepared for the “odd” but, perhaps more surprisingly, many found they were less often shocked than enchanted by the performances, because most of the performers were striving desperately for musicality. Many, such as Japanese-Australian cellist Benjamin Skepper, are overwhelmingly schooled on their instruments but choose a different route on their creative journey.

MONA FOMA curator Brian Ritchie has pulled together a bizarre mix of avant garde, experimental and daring acts from around the world. Many of the “big acts” who performed at the eclectic festival over the past week were imports from distant lands, but there were some standout Tasmanian performers such as Tania Bosak who showed they are more than comfortable sharing the bill with the likes of Indian percussionist Bickram Ghosh and the French fanfare that is the Orchestre National de Jazz.

This will perhaps be the lasting legacy of festival underwriter David Walsh’s overwhelming largesse — long after the final cymbal has been struck and the last cello string plucked, the creative juices will continue to flow through local musicians, composers and performers.


If I had the power of Orpheus, O Father, to bewitch the rocks to dance with me by my song… Iphigenia in Aulis 1212 – Euripides

After seeing some MONA FOMA performances at the Princess Wharf I waddled my self over to the Peacock Theatre to see a chamber opera ‘starchild’ by Tasmanian composer Dylan Sheridan. Even though I knew next to nothing of the composer or of the piece I had high hopes for this work. In many ways it is best to know very little about the artist. Like the rest of us, artists are selfish little jerks in the main, and to know too much about them only opens a series of doors into rooms of doubt, fear and envy. I am glad to say that I was not disappointed.

The Peacock Theatre was a very different venue from the Princess Wharf. The Peacock Theatre is small, Princess Wharf is huge. The Peacock is intimate, the Wharf is one of those spaces that makes one think of old 1950’s tropes of the post Atomic Age, the lonely battlefield and the individual lost in the crowd. Coming into the cosy space from the late afternoon angle of natural street sunlight, it took a few moments for my vision to settle into the gloom of the theatre. As I adjusted to the dim artificial light the stage and the many details came into view. This was a small simple piece, with only four musicians plus some electronics controlled by the composer. One singer and a child who sings a song at the end of the opera.

I was interested to see how this could be done. The conceptual idea of the opera is in the idea of the ‘far-off song’ carried on the wind. The endless song of crying far off, unable to be touched or to even be heard properly. Is there a better way to think about this? Is there a better way to discuss the ephemeral and the ineffable, than by using the structure of the dream?

Three loud claps, a drum beat, a woman’s scream. And here recalling Finnegans Wake we fall; not however into shame and disgrace, but into a dream.

As in a certain class of dreams the scene was sparse, alien, with few objects and interactions. The small space of the theatre was used to maximum effect. The musicians were integrated into the set design. Obvious when one looked, but with a turned head the musicians seemed to fade away to became Satie’s famous furniture, or like the Silence in recent episodes of Doctor Who.

Opera is in many ways the greatest of all art forms, in that it uses all other art forms. Music, dance, gesture, speech, painting and more. This is not to attempt to rank types of art, but merely to point out the unifying aspect of opera. In this production the scenery was sparse, but effective in all ways. A small table, a floor of artificial grass, the netted and muted coverts for the musicians to play. All of this slotted together and supported the dream state nature of the work. With a small, empty arena for performing the action, it is important for the lighting to ‘do more work.’ In this case the lighting was able to texture the simplicity of the set design, revealing and concealing in turn, imparting a dream quality to the commonplace. A thin aerosol filled the stage so the lights could fall like solid cubist rays of pure fiery light onto the beautiful dancing place. This misty, obscuring light did much to reveal the mental state of the singer and to add solidity to the nebulous world of the interpretation of a dream.

Like a dream emotions moved quickly, from lighthearted confusion to moments of terror and panic. Internal questions unknowable spilled across the dream story. External stimuli imposed themselves on and were incorporated into the dream nature, be it the whistling wind in the background, the abrupt alarm clock, a far off laughing transforming into crying and back again into laughter, the branches tap tap tapping on the window.

And the ‘heroine’ sang of her and our confusion, like Gaugain. Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Soprano Allison Farrow used her voice to tell the story to move along from one scene to the next. Her voice became another instrument, an extra layering onto the simple yet complex music created.

After a day of listening to male bands and male artists it was a much needed break to hear a woman’s voice being brought to the fore.

This was a lovely little piece and one I would happily recommend. I can understand some not enjoying the work, but to my mind it was a success. This simple short chamber opera was enjoyed so much that the audience seemed surprised and a little disappointed when it somewhat abruptly – ended. But this seems a good thing, surely it is much better to leave the audience wanting more rather than saying you have gone on too long.

Don’t know if I should feel vindicated in my view of this opera, or should I think I am completely wrong? Seems the Mercury and I are on the same page, as it were.