”After fifteen years, will the score still resonate with audiences?John HaddockComposer - Madeline Lee
Born in Australia, John Haddock has worked with most leading opera conductors over a wide repertoire. His opera Madeline Lee won an Australia Council development grant in 1999 and was performed for the first time at the Sydney Opera House.
Madeline Lee is about a World War II bomber abandoned in the Libyan desert and the men who set out to recover it. Haddock wrote it with Michael Campbell “It’s about men isolated and facing up to their past,” Haddock says.
John gives us a little further insight into the creation of Madeline Lee.
What was your original inspiration for turning the story of Madeline Lee into an opera?
In the early 90’s I was looking around for a suitable operatic subject, when I saw a TV film concerning the crash and subsequent discovery of a missing WWII bomber. The subject captivated me. Immediately I saw its potential for operatic treatment, but I wanted to find a different angle from the patriotic one taken by the American writers. It wasn’t until I suffered a personal trauma myself, a few years later, that I understood what to do.
What is the defining moment in the opera?
In the opera, the Major who leads the search and recovery mission, is finally made to admit that he was on board the bomber during its mission, and had bailed out. He realises this during a flashback where he and the ghosts of the crew relive the final bombing run of the Madeline Lee, the attacks by the Luftwaffe, the fatal damage to the engines, and the cries of the injured turret gunner as he dies beside his cannon. The SMH review of the original production said; “…the climactic scene is real edge-of-the-seat stuff, as only a flight on a blazing aircraft can be.”
What was your dream job growing up?
I wanted to be creative when I was growing up. I studied music out of school with my music teachers, and in school during recess. I even studied harmony and counterpoint during Economics classes (with the blessing of the Principal). But living in a small country town in Queensland, where cane growing, timber milling, and pineapple cultivation were the usual jobs, made me hate the range of practical jobs around at the time. To me they seemed pointless and uncreative and turned people into boring automatons. The moment I got accepted into the Queensland Conservatorium of Music was the realisation of my fondest dream – to get away from country Queensland.
What is it like having your opera re-developed as part of the Lost Operas of Oz and why do you think it’s important to bring back these Australian operas?
It’s a little bit daunting. After fifteen years, will the score still resonate with audiences? Will the script still work? Will the singers be able to rise to the challenge of the score? The score of the bombing run is an operatic scene never attempted before – the operatic setting of an aerial battle, with the waist gunners hard at work shooting at the Luftwaffe attackers, the pilot and co-pilot trying to hold the damaged Madeline Lee steady, and the young dying gunner in the turret position. To sing and act this scenario is a major challenge to everyone.
What was the biggest challenge you faced when writing Madeline Lee?
There were two major challenges; the script, which I wrote, needed the hands of a professional dramaturg to untangle its plot problems and identify its longueurs. This was done by Michael Campbell, who is credited for his help. Secondly was the composition of the music. I had stopped composing since University, as a reaction to a particularly demeaning tutor who had undermined my confidence, and so when I became attracted to this story, I had to learn to compose all over again. By then I was working for Opera Australia, so I had the luxury of being able to try passages out with some of Australia’s most notable singers, a major boost to my confidence. When my score received a development grant from the Australia Council in 1999, I knew the challenges had been solved and that the score was going to work.
“The climactic scene is real edge-of-the-seat stuff as only a flight on a blazing aircraft can be, but it is also more than this, drawing together psychological threads in a vivid moment of truth…. Haddock’s music is soaring, rhapsodic, intuitively reaching for a known vocabulary of expressive symbols - a soaring line, a chorale, a terse Debussian block of woodwind complexity. It maintained continuity effectively… a strange, strong statement, built on sound operatic understanding by a promising new operatic talent.”Peter McCallumSydney Morning Herald 12 October 2004
“If anyone tells you that opera is an irrelevant, obsolete art form with no place in contemporary culture, don’t waste time arguing – just send them to see MADELINE LEE. …Composer and librettist John Haddock with the help of Michael Campbell, has fashioned a compelling and haunting work about the power of memory and how it affects our lives. Haddock and Campbell’s lyrical and elegiac libretto is so good that, at times, it rises to the level of poetry. Haddock’s music is …capably written and his grasp of orchestration assured, and he colours the music with variety and imagination.Murray BlackThe Australian 15 October 2004
Madeline Lee is an important achievement in Australian Opera and deserves to become a regular feature in the operatic repertory.”
“An opera based on a little-known telemovie might not sound like it could measure up to any great artistic standards, but John Haddock’s collaboration with Michael Campbell has yielded some stunning results. Haddock’s score weaves a powerful emotional spell, using modern dissonance only when it suits the mood. He also employs soaring four-part harmonies and introduces orchestral colours evocative of the music of the 1940s. New operas are a rare thing in Australia and this riveting and powerful opera is a gem.”Troy LennonDaily Telegraph 18 October 2004
“Madeline Lee is one of those rare operas where music, drama and emotion synthesize into moments that feel incredibly immediate and real…a truly riveting piece.”Joyce ChauVibewire. Artswire reviews 19 October