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27 September 2010

Stuart Greenbaum and The Parrot Factory

Stuart Greenbaum and The Parrot Factory

Stuart Greenbaum talks about his new opera The Parrot Factory, composed to the libretto by Ross Baglin. The world premiere of this opera, written for a young cast of 16-25-year-olds, will take place in Melbourne on 1 October.

How did you come to work on this opera?

Richard Gill (Victorian Opera) first floated the idea by me around three or four years ago at the refreshments served after a Melbourne University graduation ceremony where he gave the guest lecture. This proves beyond doubt that one should always attend the after-party. My first opera, Nelson, took 10 years to write, and this one took about 18 months. I had worked with Richard over the years on a number of orchestral works, notably for the SSO Sinfonia, and I was thrilled that he asked for this new piece, commissioned by Frederick and Mary Davidson for Victorian Opera.

Why do you think it's important that new operas, especially youth operas, are performed?

Opera is often viewed as an old-fashioned art form but it can be as modern as the creators and producers wish it to be. Opera is also a very particular art form in that it allows for heightened and complex psychological and emotional journeys that the words and music separately don't necessarily convey. But put the music and the words together in the right combinations, and they can take us to places that other art forms don't. It's unique and potentially very powerful. If opera as an artform is to survive, it must also be replenished from the well of contemporary art and artists, and this also calls for engagement by young performers and young audiences. They are tomorrow's adults and our future.

What were the specific challenges of writing a children's opera?

It is ostensibly a children's opera, but we always wanted to write a piece that operated on more than one level and could engage an adult audience at the same time. The result was a fantastical world of hidden diamonds, hot air balloons and talking birds, which also dramatised adult concerns such as freedom and control, emotional honesty, and the compromises we must negotiate between respect for the environment and the role of money in our lives. [For a synopsis of the opera, see further down.]

Additionally, because the piece is written for a young cast (16-25-year-olds) and an even younger chorus (dressed up as parrots), the score needed to be vocally practical and memorable to learn. I never felt that this was a limitation any more than if I were to write for a 3-octave vibraphone rather than a 4-octave instrument. Once you set your radar (or compass) to the variables at hand, you then set about making art with what you have.

People sometimes ask what comes first, the words or the music? We usually start with a story and the characters that drive it. The words are always first, though, as we get deeper into a work, the music increasingly suggests additional (or more commonly, fewer) words. It's a collaborative artistic tango which results in a true 'musical drama' - an opera.

Which aspect of working on this piece did you most enjoy?

Working with the librettist (Ross Baglin) in Den Haag for ten days in January 2009. And then getting on the train to Berlin and spending the next six hours writing Gina's aria on my laptop while looking at the German landscape floating by outside the window. Secondly, writing the final bars at my computer in my study in Coburg and imagining the singers' faces fading from view to blackout on the words 'set you free'. Finally, hearing real musicians singing and playing, bringing the piece to life in rehearsal.

Event details

The Parrot Factory by Stuart Greenbaum and Ross Baglin
Victorian Youth Opera
1-3 October 2010
Merlyn Theatre, CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, VIC
Performance details: Victorian Opera website

Further links

Stuart Greenbaum - AMC profile
Victorian Opera - The Parrot Factory

The Parrot Factory - synopsis

scene 1: that's why your parrot was stolen
Morning. Filbert and Elizabeth are pasting posters in the street from opposite sides. His posters seek the owner of a parrot called Cherubino, while hers seek the same parrot, which she believes stolen. They collide and Filbert - a veterinary detective - relates that her parrot was owned by an old widow called Lady Fossett, who taught it (with three others) the location of valuable jewels. All four Fossett parrots have now been stolen.

scene 2: there's money in birds
Reception desk at the Fossett carpet factory. Tranh, a courier, arrives and makes Gina curious about recent events. Her boyfriend Jimmy arrives and Gina confronts him about the accounts. Jimmy reveals that they are struggling to pay debts on the factory, and that he can make money from trading birds he keeps out back. He unveils a 'valuable' parrot, Cherubino, and slides him into the aviary, which lights up. A chorus of parrots sing a deluded dirge about being happy in the parrot factory. Jimmy pledges to the unconvinced Gina that he needs two more nights to finish a deal, and can then cease trading.

scene 3: I've got a balloon to catch
Night. Tranh is taking down the 'wanted' posters. He is fond of Jimmy, who helped him after his immigration, and he's surmised that Jimmy is out of his depth. He hides as Gina enters and sees Elizabeth's posters. She also hides as Filbert and Elizabeth enter. Elizabeth reveals that the thief left $200 behind. Tranh and Gina separately overhear this. Filbert says he can get her parrot back. Elizabeth asks about his balloon and the two ponder what they would see if looking at the ground from above. Filbert leaves and Gina reveals herself to Elizabeth. She says that she can get Cherubino for her. Elizabeth is suspicious but they arrange to meet the next night.

scene 4: a cage of debt
The next day. Jimmy calls a 'Mr. Vogelfang' to exchange Cherubino for two very rare glaucous macaws. Gina interrupts and again questions his dealings. Jimmy reveals his poor childhood and fear of poverty. Cherubino "mocks" Jimmy inadvertently with memorised phrases and he chases the 'stupid bird' out of sight. As Cherubino runs back onstage ahead of Jimmy, Gina switches him for a stuffed bird from the reception area. Gina exits and Jimmy, thinking he is alone in the reception room, whistles a short tune to unlock a wall safe. As he leaves, Cherubino, in the birdcage, repeats the code.

scene 5: diamonds!!
Night. Elizabeth is waiting for Gina. She arrives but without Cherubino and Elizabeth is angry. Gina queries Elizabeth about what Cherubino 'says' and, realising the connection with diamonds, she excitedly rushes with Elizabeth to the Fossett factory to quiz Cherubino further.

scene 6: sing through the bars
Filbert, on a hill overlooking the town, is despondent about Elizabeth's disappearance and his inability to find the stolen bird. Meanwhile, Gina lets Elizabeth into the factory but hurries her out the back as she thinks Jimmy is coming. Elizabeth takes a wrong turn and becomes trapped in the aviary, where she teaches the birds a song about freedom in place of their dirge. Gina, outside and unaware of Elizabeth's situation, reveals her fears for Jimmy and their relationship, then leaves. Elizabeth remembers the balloons Filbert gave her, and flies them through a vent in the aviary. Filbert sees this signal from afar and makes a dash for the Fossett factory.

scene 7: I must choose
Cherubino whistles the code for the safe lock and Gina finds it open with a lot of money inside. Tranh has also discovered a rare bird in a packing crate, and together they confront Jimmy, who realises he must choose between Gina and financial security. As he appears ready to leave Gina, Jimmy suddenly throws open the aviary gate and sweeps the birds to freedom. The parrots sing a final freedom chorus and they all depart leaving Filbert, Cherubino and Elizabeth. Filbert decodes Cherubino's clue but finds, to his consternation, that the diamonds are not there. Elizabeth reveals them, having found them earlier when releasing the balloons through the vent. She asks that some diamonds be sent to Jimmy to pay off the factory.

Subjects discussed by this article:

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