Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet heads to the stage with State Opera of SA


The Australian. 

Gale Edwards, cradling her beloved pooch Tosca on her lap, fixes a gimlet eye on a quartet of young singers. They stand in front of her, shifting uneasily like schoolgirls at a recital as she takes them through their parts as perky, dimwitted telephone switch girls in a 1950s department store.

“Over-articulate the ‘p’, please — ‘hello, can I help you?’ ” she calls out. They try, singing in unison. All but one stumbles. Edwards immediately zooms in, a pin to a butterfly. “Try that again.” The young ­singer does. It’s not good enough, if Edwards’s pursed lips are any guide. “Again.” It will feel strange at first but do try, she implores the group.

In this big rehearsal space in the Adelaide suburb of Netley, Edwards’s directorial eye is all-seeing. Eighteen performers have gathered here for the first week of rehearsals for the State Opera of South Australia’s new million-dollar opera Cloudstreet, based on the bestselling 1991 novel by Australian author Tim Winton. We’re in the middle of scene 38 on day five of a 23-day rehearsal period, and the air is jangly with nerves as the cast navigates the continually evolving 60-scene libretto by Sydney composer and opera newbie George Palmer.

An invisible clock ticks loudly. Opening night for the country’s biggest new opera is a mere three weeks away.

Everywhere, there is veteran stage director Edwards (The Boy from Oz, La Boheme, Jesus ChristSuperstar). Silver bows glittering in her hair, she shines a spotlight on everyone in the room, forensically dissecting motive and movement as the story moves from the dynamics of bad marriages and maternal dysfunction to lost sons and damaged masculinity. She is sharp, surgically precise and relentless. “But why are you saying that?” she demands of a singer. “Don’t signpost,” she warns sternly when ­another two over-emote an aria. “To be or not to be — the greatest Hamlets recite that line without the audience knowing it’s coming.”

It’s a masterclass in dramaturgy; in a nearby music room, indigenous baritone Don Bemrose, who is gamely trying to unlearn, as he puts it, 25 years of classical training to sing in a Queensland Aboriginal “Cherbourg mission” accent for his role as Bob Crabb, says simply: “Gale is a perfectionist, that’s just how she is.”

Edwards concurs. “I love getting the scalpel out, I love that detective work, the psychological work.” The challenge for these singers is that not many know how to act, she says, stabbing a fork impatiently into a caesar salad over lunch. “And that’s where I come in; I’m a storyteller.”

For Edwards, this project — cumbersome, risky, sprawling, “hugely time-consuming” and involving five years of largely unpaid effort around her kitchen table, crowd-funding drives, deep generosity from peers in the arts and law, and three two-week workshops — has been perhaps one of the most satisfying of her professional life, matched only by the four-year gestation of The Boy From Oz, for which she was the original director.

It’s a rare treat to build something new and grand out of raw clay, she says — and “I have a commitment to new Australian work, whether it’s The Boy from Oz or Miracle City or Eureka. I was intrigued by this, and that’s basically what you do in this country — you just work and work with the hope that one day it will get up.”

A new Australian opera is a singular beast ­indeed and there’s plenty of industry interest in how Cloudstreet will fare, particularly given the lukewarm commercial returns for such works; witness the disappointing box office for Opera Australia’s $2 million Bliss, based on Peter Carey’s novel, in 2010, that has left the country’s opera flagship gun-shy, some critics claim, about pricey new full-length operas.

Perched on a stool in the rehearsal room, Timothy Sexton, chief executive and artistic director of State Opera and musical director and conductor for this work, quips: “We’re guinea pigs; everyone is watching to see how we fare. But yes, it’s a big gamble, certainly.”

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Winton’s fat, sprawling tale of the lives and fortunes of the Pickles and Lamb families in working-class Perth across a 20-year period is a modern Australian classic, having lent itself to a radio drama series, a celebrated play — Belvoir St Theatre’s epic production directed by Neil Armfield — and a television miniseries. But will it work as an opera?

To Palmer, a genial, energetic 60-something who nurtured a career composing contemporary instrumental and vocal music alongside a career as a Queen’s Counsel and NSW Supreme Court judge, it’s a no-brainer.

Speaking to Review a day earlier in his home in Sydney’s leafy Paddington, he says Winton’s fifth novel ticked all the boxes: from being “quintessentially Australian, and it was impor­tant to me that we have voices in opera that are Australian”, to its focus on identity, indigenous suffering and displacement. He also highlights the book’s status as a cultural icon (it has sold more than 500,000 copies), which would help breach continuing audience resistance to new operas (Winton says he is happy for Palmer to use his novel to do “the heavy lifting”), and its narrative richness and mythological scale.

Is Cloudstreet’s robust vernacular more ­suited to musical theatre? In his view, no — opera alone, he believes, would do justice to its epic nature. “It is one of the greatest books written by an Australian in the 20th century and possibly for all time; it is a monumental work.”

For Winton, however, the idea took some getting used to. Speaking to Review from Perth, he initially was bemused by the idea, he says, ­because “opera is so far from my background that it’s pretty foreign territory, really”. The salty, demotic language of the book — think “ning-nong” and “dill” — being warbled in high Gs? He wasn’t quite sure, he says.

Palmer says this was his key fear, that Winton would dismiss the idea out of hand not just out of Cloudstreet fatigue — “it must be hard for an author for people to be constantly harking back to a book written 25 years ago as if that’s his only big hit”— but “out of alarm that it would be a very intellectualised style of opera when my style is harmonic, melodic”. Winton was reassured after watching a workshop DVD: “What struck me was how warm it was … he seemed to have caught the spirit of the book.”

In a sense, says Winton, whose novel The Riders was adapted as an opera, music, unlike “this lumpen concrete thing” that is writing, is perfect for the sprawling Cloudstreet (“there’s a lot in that book, as I realised when I reread it; it’s also much funnier, much darker”). “Language lumbers, where music just soars, weightless, leaping fences. It’s something to envy — you can spend all day trying to get someone to rush from the left side of the page to the right side of the page.”

Getting the rights to the work wasn’t easy, however. Palmer’s first approach to Winton’s agent met with deafening silence. Undeterred, he set out to recruit a heavyweight director to boost his credentials and allay concerns “that I was just another crackpot”. Enter Edwards, whom he was introduced to through a mutual friend, former National Institute of Dramatic Art general manager Elizabeth Butcher. Edwards says she was immediately struck by Palmer’s “fantastic music. I thought George’s opera composition was terrific, moving, strangely melodic.”

The pair started working around her kitchen table on his “very rough” act one draft. It was immediately clear, she says, that Palmer, who had been composing since he was a teenager but who had never written an opera, needed dramaturgical guidance. A lot of tough decisions needed to be made, she says, as the embryonic first act was wrestled into life, ­including which characters to underpin the central spine of the tale.

Palmer then decided to record a few arias for a demo to send to Winton’s agent. He recruited some heavy-hitting musical mates, opera ­singers Cheryl Barker and Peter Coleman-Wright (“they were so wonderfully generous”), and off they trotted to a recording studio in Sydney’s Petersham.

This time, they nabbed the rights. Winton says he was intrigued when told of Palmer and his grand idea. “I thought, hmmmm, I guess he has nothing to lose, he’s obviously doing it for passion, not for money because he’s a retired judge — he’s probably all right financially,” he says. “But maybe I’m making preposterous presumptions. I’ve still never met George.”

The enterprising Palmer’s next step was to have an industry workshop, which he recorded as a DVD, in 2012. Costing $60,000, it was half-funded through crowd-funding vehicle Pozible, with the rest coming from his generous lawyer mates. Did his opera buddies chip in anything? He grins. “No, they’re all poor as church mice. The law has the money.” He put in a small amount of his own money “to make up the difference but I took the view from the ­beginning that if I fund it all myself, it will be too easily and correctly branded a rich person’s folly”.

The workshop, however, sparked little interest. Opera Australia was invited but no representatives came. Palmer says he understands why: after Bliss disappointed at the box office, he thinks OA director Lyndon Terracini has been a little wary of pricey new operas. (Last year Terracini said “the days of us spending $2 million on any production are long gone”, adding that Opera Australia audiences “haven’t liked a number of contemporary operas”, making it “difficult to convince them to return”.) Palmer says that while he can understand Terracini’s concerns “looking at the box office, I am intending this not to be a financial disaster”.

Fighting words, indeed; and typical of Palmer’s seemingly depthless belief in this grand labour of love. Following the workshop, he sent out a DVD to all the country’s opera companies — only Sexton of State Opera responded. Was Sexton surprised he was the only taker? “Yes because I thought this ­material was fantastic … just beautifully written music which sits comfortably in that middle ­territory between contemporary musical theatre and opera.”

From 2013, Sexton would fly over to Sydney from Adelaide for meetings around Edwards’s kitchen table with Palmer, the trio pain­stakingly finessing the libretto, filling holes, adding and cutting music, and tweaking lines. A year later, Sexton held a workshop for act two at State Opera and, about this time, committed to taking on the work.

Asked about the cost of the production, he will say only “a million dollars plus”. It’s a big bite out of the budget, with the financial risk amplified by the fact they’re not doing it in partnership with another company, eschewing the funding model represented by works such as the new opera The Rabbits, which came out of a five-way partnership arrangement.

State Opera also is taking this on when Australian arts is neck-deep in a funding crisis. Then there’s the lukewarm commercial track record for new operas: since 1973, the Australia Council had commissioned more than 160 operas or musical theatre pieces but none had entered the repertoire, Terracini said last year. Is Sexton the bravest man in Australian arts?

He laughs. “Absolutely!” But, sobering, he says he’s well aware that it’s a big risk. So why, when other state opera companies are running scared, did he say yes? Sexton says it’s part of State Opera’s ethos — that quality new work needs to be embraced or opera will die a slow but certain death. Through the years, the company has staked its reputation on big risky opera productions from The Ring cycle to its Philip Glass trilogy. “The box office aspect is very, very ­important for us but at the same time we ­believe that part of our job is [ensuring] that writers, ­directors, creators and performers get to do [new work]. Otherwise why are we here for? I’ve always said that when you’re backed into a corner, and I think culturally in Australia we are, you have to come out fighting.”

Sexton is keenly aware of the many challenges; he cites everything from media bias against new operas to a cultural climate in Australia that “does not allow for people to fail spectacularly”. But also it’s about getting people to be braver about new opera, he says. Palmer says bluntly that audiences shouldn’t be blamed for staying away; composers simply need to ­create more accessible, commercially friendly work.

“I want Cloudstreet to be successful so that State Opera can make a buck out of it,” Palmer says. “They have invested a lot of money in this show and I hope to goodness they get it back handsomely. But it’s also so that the show gets another life; I don’t want it buried afterwards.”

Sexton, too, has high hopes for the work, which he envisions as an international export. “Of all the things I have done over the last 38 odd years, this is the one I think has the greatest potential to succeed.”

Winton, for his part, is intrigued to see what will happen. He says he has no sense of auth­orial protectiveness. “I’m just the ghost in the machine. I’ve had 25 years to regret all the things I didn’t get right with the book, and I don’t have enough space in my world to worry whether Neil Armfield or George Palmer or whoever can get it right in another form … I ­respect the fact that someone else has taken a lot of trouble and a big risk and had a crack. Good luck to them.”