12 August 2021
The Story of Voss
[Updated October 2021] 2021 was to be an important year for Australian opera, with Richard Meale and David Malouf's iconic Australian opera Voss - based on Patrick White's classic novel - getting a much-awaited reappearance in two states this spring. As with so many other landmark events, Voss fell victim to COVID-19, with two Melbourne performances of the co-production, by Victorian Opera and the State Opera of South Australia, cancelled in August. The last remaining date in September, when Voss was scheduled to be performed in Adelaide, has now been postponed to 7 May 2022. Vincent Plush explains the background of this seminal work - this article is published on Resonate courtesy of Victorian Opera.
In a sense, Voss is a classic love-story - older man meets younger woman, man leaves town, the couple keep in touch but never meet again. Except that Voss could hardly be called a conventional love story. Nonetheless, like many operas, it merits a double-barrelled title: it really should be called Voss and Laura.
In 1845 the German explorer, Johann Ulrich Voss, arrives in Sydney with the intent of crossing the continent largely unknown to Europeans, to find the rumoured inland sea. He meets Laura Trevelyan, the niece of his sponsor, and a kind of link, more psychological than romantic, is forged between them. As Voss and his expeditionary party roam the desert, he and Laura maintain 'a mystical communion' by means of telepathy, or ESP. This endures to the very moment of Voss's gruesome death in the desert.
Voss is a full-length, two-act opera, commissioned by the Australian Opera around 1978 from the composer Richard Meale, to a libretto by David Malouf. It is based on the novel by Patrick White, first published in 1957. The full opera opened the Adelaide Festival in March 1986 and was immediately hailed as 'the great Australian opera'. It then had seasons in Sydney and Melbourne and another in Sydney, until the production was dismantled in 1991. A complete recording with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra was released commercially. Aside of that, Voss all but disappeared from view. Despite many suggestions and several attempts, Voss would not again appear until this co-production between Victorian Opera and State Opera of South Australia.
The origins of Voss can be found not in the Australian Outback but in the desert of North Africa. In 1941 Flight Lieutenant Patrick Martindale Victor White, on leave from his post as an Intelligence Officer in Egypt, met a cultivated Greek-Egyptian at a gentlemen's party in Alexandria. The relationship of the two 29-year-old men was largely propelled by ESP, in which White was a firm believer. After several years living together in Cairo and Greece, Patrick White moved his new partner Manoly Lascaris to the outskirts of Sydney. They were together for nearly 50 years and became the best-known gay couple in Australia until White's death in Sydney on 30th September 1990.
White had been searching for ideas 'for a novel about a megalomaniac explorer'. During the Blitz on London, he read the journals of Edward John Eyre and other explorers. Later, at the Mitchell Library in Sydney, he read the journals of Ludwig Leichhardt. The Prussian botanist (1813-1848) had led three expeditions into the Outback. On the third of these, Leichhardt and his party vanished. Great stuff for a novel, surely, but White didn't want to write a historical novel - that would be 'too difficult and boring', besides he was 'far too unscholarly for that'. In the end, he concocted the character of Johann Ulrich Voss from a brew comprising Leichhardt and other explorers, the 'arch-megalomaniac of the day' Adolf Hitler, while admitting that Voss - his 'most unpleasant character'- contained 'more of my own character than anybody else's'.
Voss was first published by Eyre and Spottiswoode, London, in 1957. White had invited Sidney Nolan, then living in London, to create the dust-jacket for his new novel, the fifth of the twelve novels to be published in his lifetime. Thus began a long and creative friendship, ending, like so many other White associations, in bitter acrimony. In 1957, Voss won the first Miles Franklin Award for best Australian novel and continued to garner plaudits and notice for White, even after the award of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1973, 'for an epic and psychological narrative art which has introduced a new continent into literature', the Nobel citation read. Coincidentally but, surely, momentously, the Nobel was announced in the same week as the opening of the Sydney Opera House.
It seemed that Voss would be forever associated with opera, albeit obliquely. In 1977, the British impresario Peter Hemmings became General Manager of the Australian Opera. Excited by the novel, Hemmings approached Richard Meale to create an opera. Initially, Meale resisted: Voss, he reasoned, already contained 'so much music [that] it couldn't be done'.
In the meantime, Hemmings had approached the writer and opera buff David Malouf to create a libretto. Despite his own intense interest in opera, White, then 68 and in poor health, felt he was too old and ill equipped to create the libretto himself. Moreover, he had been badly burned by the failure of three attempts to create a film version of his novel. Eventually, at the urging of the young director Jim Sharman, White relented and allowed Malouf to proceed.
From his writing retreat in Tuscany, Malouf worked quickly to transform White's sprawling novel into a workable libretto. When Malouf's pages arrived, Meale changed his mind: an opera based on Voss could indeed be done. But the composer was notoriously slow. Sharman's attempt to schedule it at his 1982 Adelaide Festival had to be re-considered, with 'the Garden Scene' offered as a 12-minute teaser-preview.
In the next few years, enormous pressure was put on Meale to produce the opera which became the centrepiece of the 1986 Adelaide Festival, the fifth to be directed by Anthony Steel. Jim Sharman directed, and Stuart Challender conducted the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra in the pit of the Adelaide Festival Theatre. The cast was led by baritone Geoffrey Chard, returning from a brilliant career in London to re-settle, and soprano Marilyn Richardson, long-time associate of the composer, and preeminent Australian exponent of contemporary music.
In their opera, Meale and Malouf had created a collage of styles. The lyricism of bel canto placed alongside colonial keyboard Quadrilles, echoes of German lied alongside angular passages derived from contemporary European music, sometimes juxtaposed or superimposed. They chose not to imitate the sound of the First Nations peoples, whose culture provides the backbone of the mythology and dramaturgy of White's novel.
The reception to the Adelaide premiere was extremely positive. In the Sydney Morning Herald, Roger Covell wrote, 'Beyond all doubt, Voss is an opera of lyrical idealism, intensely personal in its dramatic method, moving in its human relationships, transfiguring reality with music and words of mistakably nobility'.
In the opinion of many, 'the great Australian opera' - so long sought after but ever-elusive - had arrived. Now, thirty years after its disappearance from the opera stage, Voss returns, enabling us to see if that characterisation has endured over the decades.
© Australian Music Centre (2021) — Permission must be obtained from the AMC if you wish to reproduce this article either online or in print.
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