Skip to main content

Madeline Lee is an opera about the tyranny of memory and the manipulation of identity.

First performed by Opera Australia in October 2004.


First performed by Opera Australia in October 2004, Madeline Lee is an opera about the tyranny of memory and the manipulation of identity. It explores how men construct their reality through the stories they tell, both to themselves and to others. It examines how men deal with their emotions and how they cope with the concepts of guilt, denial and shame.

The world of the opera is an odd landscape of loss anger and grief, of both physical and spiritual isolation played out in a complex interplay of the past and present, both real and imagined.

Ultimately, it is an opera of dreams, longing and transformation.

Madeline Lee is based, in part, on a real incident. In the early 1960’s a flying fortress was found crashed far out in the Libyan desert with no sign of the crew or any indication of what had become of them. It had been there since 1943.

The collaboration between John Haddock and Michael Campbell began at Opera Australia. After working together on a number of mainstream operas they turned their attention to the scenario for Madeline Lee which John had begun to outline 1990-91. With Michael’s experience and inspiration, the scenario was deconstructed and the collaborators then re-wrote the script together. The music for the new script was composed by the end of 1998.

In 1999 Madeline Lee was awarded an Australia Council Development Grant which, in conjunction with support from the Department of Performance Studies at the University of Sydney and some private sponsorship, enabled the opera to be workshopped in the Rex Cramphorn Studio at the University in October of that year. It was directed by Michael Campbell and conducted by Patrick Thomas assisted by Louise Welsh. The participating singers were Michael Lewis, Michael Martin, Graeme MacFarlane, David Brennan, Greg Scott, Martin Lane, Goran Jordan and David Berkelouw.

The workshop enabled the collaborators to assess the overall dramatic impact of the work, pinpoint structural problems and to identify sections which needed re-writing. The workshop ended with a semi-staged run through for an invited audience of representatives from major arts organisations, who were encouraged to give feedback. This process was invaluable in the composition of the final re-write.

In September 2001, Opera Australia included scene four from Madeline Lee in a semi-staged concert of excerpts from various works for a Centenary of Federation concert at the Sydney Opera House. Directed by Michael Campbell, scene four was conducted by Richard Mills with the Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra. It was sung by Michael Lewis, Michael Martin, Graeme MacFarlane, Richard Alexander & Greg Scott.

Of this concert performance Roger Covell, writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, highlighted the composers ‘marked ability to build climaxes and hold moods’, “sustained musical dramatic interest” of Michael Campbell’s directing, and Michael Lewis’ “tense portrayal of the remorseful commander of the B-17 flying fortress.”

The opera was finally performed in full by Opera Australia in it’s 2004 Winter Season of Opera, at the Sydney Opera House. It was conducted by Tom Woods, directed by Michael Campbell, and starred Michael Lewis, Doug McNicol and Christopher Lincoln.

“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.
Madeline Lee is an important achievement in Australian Opera and deserves to become a regular feature in the operatic repertory.”

Murray BlackThe Australian 15 October 2004

“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