One of the stand out shows at the Edinburgh Festival this year opens right at the end of the city’s festival month – the EIF’s operatic adaptation of Peter Carey’s award winning novel ‘Bliss’. We spoke to Brett Dean, the composer of this very contemporary opera.
CC: Where did the idea of transforming Peter Carey’s book into an opera come from?
BD: The idea first emerged quite some time ago, in the late nineties, around the time I was first approached by [conductor] Simone Young, who was then working for Opera Australia.
CC: Does the story lend itself to opera?
BD: Wonderfully well. Carey’s book is a story of strong themes and emotions, both personal and societal, with a compelling sense of dramatic shape that ebbs and flows, with climax points and moments of repose. I felt from the outset that it had a musical “shape”.
CC: Did you look at the film adaptation at all for inspiration?
BD: Not really. I had seen the film once when it first came out and read the screen play as early research, but [librettist] Amanda Holden chose not to see either till after opening night.
CC: Other than the obvious, for people familiar with the book or film, how will the show differ?
BD: The most obvious difference comes in the lack of flashbacks (Harry’s father’s stories, for example) and an abridged final scene (in the book the final chapter in the rainforest embraces over 20 years of time passing).
CC: For people familiar with more traditional opera, how will this compare?
BD: I think of ‘Bliss’ as being genuinely “operatic” in feel, however with contemporary language, some of it typically “Australian” in flavour, a sound design and electronic instruments in the orchestra. However it’s a three act work that features arias, vocal ensembles and chorus moments as found in works from Handel through to Alban Berg.
CC: How did the creative team behind the show come together?
BD: The late Richard Hickox assembled a wonderful team for this production, under the inspired direction of Neil Armfield. Richard also had made most of the casting decisions before his untimely death [in 2008]. The ingenious stage design, with its magic box of lights, came about through previous collaborations of Armfield, stage designer Brian Thompson and lighting designer Nigel Levings.
CC: There are some shocking elements in the book, are these kept in the show?
BD: Amanda and I were pretty clear from the outset that we had no intention of sanitising Carey’s story; at the same time we didn’t want to wallow in its excesses.
CC: The book leaves some questions unanswered about what’s going on – does this production try to answer those questions, or leave the ambiguities?
BD: Central to this uncertainty is the question as to whether any of Harry’s experience of hell is in fact real or imagined. Both our score and Neil’s direction play with this dichotomy.
CC: At the end of the book the main character is in a forest – does that remain in your show? How have you gone about staging that?
BD: It does, but to fully appreciate it you should come along and see the show for yourself!
CC: Do you think the Edinburgh Festival is a good place for staging new opera productions?
BD: I am thrilled that my first opera is to be presented at this most extraordinary international meeting point of the arts and its makers. I couldn’t think of a better place for a new opera to be seen.
‘Bliss’ was performed at the Festival Theatre during EIF 2010.