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"The music is a form of language used to tell the story and express the feelings of the characters.”

Richard MillsComposer - Summer of the Seventeenth Doll

Opera is a complex metaphor for life — not realistic but in that unrealistic frame essentially more real than real because of its capacity to explore states of being and feeling outside the framework of natural time. Time itself, in life as on the stage or in music, is a relative quantity We can all remember situations about which we would say ‘I saw her for two minutes but it was worth it’ or ‘he spoke for a few minutes but it seemed endless’. Opera essentially deals with the landscape of emotions, the greater ‘reality’ behind any given set of plot circumstances — rather than with the mechanics of the circumstances themselves. That is why many opera plots are absurd, but equally, why many improbable and quite silly stories are frequently transformed by the transcendental power of music into believable and, sometimes, great art.

My problem in setting Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was to find a way of distilling the important naturalistic essences — the careful plotting, the rich character, the abundant narrative detail — into forms which explore the realities of the characters’ implicit emotional states, not articulated but inferred from Lawler’s dramatic text. These forms allow a composer to render the joys and sorrows of the inarticulate hearts of these characters in music, without sacrificing the play’s most powerful attraction for me. The dramatic process is perfectly designed and shows the disintegration of the world of seventeen summers which is plotted like a master chess-game with an economy of purpose that recalls Greek tragedy.

As is the way with opera, the composer’s problems generally become the librettist’s problems and, thanks to the craft and inspiration of Peter Goldsworthy, all dilemmas were gradually solved by his skill as a poet. I’ll always remember that particular thrill of recognition of something beautiful when reading Emma’s first monologue, Olive’s Act I aria and the New Year’s Eve quartet for the first time. I must also pay tribute to his constant goodwill in the rewrites and re-drafting that occurred over the time we worked together. I must also thank Ray Lawler —whose great wisdom has guided this enterprise — and Richard Wherrett, whose input has helped immeasurably in establishing the final form of the piece.

The music for Summer of the Seventeenth Doll is on one hand much simpler than my orchestral music, but it is driven by omnipresent processes — both harmonic and melodic which form a language to tell the story and express the feelings of the characters. This language has its roots in the chord changes of popular songs of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, the music of Berg, Weil, Korngold, Richard Strauss, Broadway musicals and the great composers of Hollywood as well as in harmonic procedures that I suppose could be called Wagnerian. Every composer comes from somewhere: what finally matters is that the piece speaks to an audience and has its own interior structural integrity and sense of rightness of proportions. True originality is achieved by organic process — not self-conscious posture.

My goal as a composer has always been to write, firstly, for my fellow Australians; to entertain, to delight and to uplift their spirits; to be useful in making art which speaks directly and in which people may participate; and which is not bereft of content or process because it is popular, comprehensible and communicative, while still striving to achieve something of the marvellous.

The opera is tinged with nostalgia for the ’50s — my childhood years — my memories of my parents and their friends in their younger years, and the voice of Emma as an echo of my grandmother and of my mother, now in her eighties. It is nostalgic for what we now perceive as a simpler Australia more innocent, perhaps. The opera is also informed by my affection for Melbourne, which over the years (a bit like Roo and Barney) has become my home. The city, its musi­cians, artists and citizens have always been generous and welcoming — this piece is one way of saying thank you.

Although the opera was written fairly quickly (and orchestrated even more quickly!) it has been under discussion for at least five years — in fact, when the idea was first put to me by Ken Mackenzie-Forbes, I rejected it. The late Stuart Challender said to me, “Don’t be silly — you’ll never be able to make an opera out of that.” Well maybe just this once — he may have been wrong.


Richard Mills
Composer – Summer of the Seventeenth Doll