”“Cloudstreet the opera was five years in the making.”Gale EdwardsDirector - Cloudstreet 2016
Cloudstreet the opera was five years in the making. I became involved way back in 2011 when George brought his first draft to me, and I found it instantly irresistible. Firstly, George’s idea of making Tim Winton’s iconic novel into an opera was brilliant. The strange mythological and epic background to the domestic story of two Aussie families struggling to survive in the late ’40s was the ideal material for the form of the Opera. But the characters in the novel were essentially working class. The thought of the Aussie vernacular, including slang, meeting the high falutin world of opera was a thrilling proposition. Could we find an intrinsically Australian ‘voice’ by combining these two seemingly disparate ideas?
Secondly, George’s music was soaring and deeply moving. It did not sound particularly like what we associate with ‘modern’ opera post-Phillip Glass, as it was extremely ‘melodic’ in style. It had a freshness and a beauty I had not heard for years in new works.
Thirdly, the story of Cloudstreet in Winton’s book seems to be the story of Australia itself, especially in the shadow aspect of the ‘ghosts’ of Aboriginal girls whose spirits are ‘stuck’ inside the walls. These are members of the Stolen Generation and have been trained (and brutalized) decades earlier by a Victorian lady in order to sell them into serving positions in colonial society. Only through the return of love and forgiveness, can they be set free.
The five-year journey began developing the piece into a form that could be staged. In new works getting the structure of the storytelling right is the prime focus and Cloudstreet is a big novel with lots of characters whose stories intertwine.
George and I set out on our own, not commissioned by any company. To spend the next two years of our lives getting it to a first (self-funded) workshop in Sydney. We knew from the reaction to that workshop that it ‘had legs.’
By 2013 State Opera adopted the development of the piece, although there was no promise of an actual production of it at the end. And so, we spent thousands of hours around a table, examining every phrase, every character, every note of the opera, dissecting and discussing it. George re-wrote and composed new music. The State Opera South Australia financed and made possible two separate workshops, a year apart, where the piece could be ‘put up on the floor’ examined, refined, analyzed.
More re-writes and finessing occurred. Characters had to be carefully balanced so as not to get lost in the complex story that travels over 20 years. It was a mammoth task, but I was committed to helping Gorge in any way we could to see the project through.
Finally, we made the decision to bring the opera to the stage. A highly experienced creative team, mainly from Adelaide, was formed and all set about bringing Cloudstreet to life in its premiere production. The set designer, image designer, costume, and lighting designers devoted their next months to realizing this work and together we sailed our ship into the unknown. New works are notoriously more difficult to do than existing pieces (for a start the score might be re-written as you go!) and this team worked tirelessly to support the evolution of the piece.
As we know, new works are risky, Arts funding is limited, and audiences are cautious. But State Opera plunged in and we set forth to bring you the show. It has continued to evolve, even though the final rehearsal process. And it will hopefully evolve further after this season. Who knows? I believe it is an extremely special piece of theatre that deserves an on-going life.
I am thrilled and grateful that, at last. Cloudstreet gets a chance to breathe and walk upon a stage, and hopefully, one day, perhaps upon the stages of the world. What better poetic metaphor for all that is Australian.