A Cunning Blog

Long words. Short words. Words that say something.

A letter from Sydney to Edinburgh

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Ah Edinburgh, my alma mater. I bet you’ve changed a bit since I strode up Dundas Street and queued up outside the all-night bakery. It’s strange to think that now so many musicians from the city I now call home are swarming over the Usher Hall and the Festival Theatre. Bliss opens tonight, and I can’t wait to hear what the festival-goers think, not least because I’m not sure anyone in Sydney was really able to judge when it premiered in March this year.

Two reasons.

First, when Bliss premiered in Sydney it was a happy ending after ten turbulent years for Australian opera. There was the stormy 2002 departure of Opera Australia’s music director Simone Young (who commissioned Bliss); a two year interregnum which resulted in bitter, grubby in-fighting and grown-ups behaving badly; and the sudden, tragic death of the new music director Richard Hickox, who had picked up the languishing Bliss commission and driven it forward with passion. As Dean says in his interview with The Guardian, it was difficult to dedicate the premiere to Hickox: the hero’s near death from a sudden and unexpected heart attack in the first scene is too close to real life. But it should have been, and I hope the Edinburgh performances will be an opportunity to remember and celebrate Hickox’s brave music instincts.

All this real life drama heightened the onstage expectations to dizzy limits. There was a palpable sense of relief when the great and the good saw the show, and deemed it good. I’m keen to see what the wider world, unencumbered by back story, get from it.

Second it’s tempting to laud Bliss as a great ‘Aussie’ drama. The accents, the lingo, the nostalgic references to 80s Australia are an indispensible part of the story. But it takes more than a sprinkling of ‘drongo’s and ‘g’day’s to make a cultural identity. I think, in my heart of hearts, that Bliss owes much more to Europe, to European literature and music and the grand operatic tradition. When I first heard Dean’s music — it was Ariel’s Music, on the radio — I found it immediately engrossing and original. I immediately wanted to hear more. But never really thought of it as Australian.

Tell me, Edinburgh Festival goers, what do you think of Mr Dean’s music?

Finally, good luck to everyone involved and, to the audience, enjoy. And if you want to know more about the response to Bliss in Australia, Sydney’s resident opera tragic, Sarah Noble, aka @primalamusica, gathered up a grand fistful of links to all the blogs and mainstream reviews. It’s well worth a look, if only to see the photos from the Bliss 80s theme night.

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Author: harryfiddler

Harriet Cunningham – aka @harryfiddler — is a freelance writer based in Sydney. Harriet wrote her first novel, about a runaway cat, at the age of 7. In the forty year gap between novel 1 and novel 2 she moved from London to Edinburgh to Sydney, ran an opera company, played violin on the opera house stage and sailed from Gove to Darwin. She is now a music critic and writer, best known as the critic who got banned by Opera Australia. She still hangs out at the Sydney Opera House, is still trying to get that novel published, and still plays the violin.

5 thoughts on “A letter from Sydney to Edinburgh

  1. Nicely written H, I am still not sure about the work but I wish Brett and it well.

    • Thanks Ken. I must confess to being very excited by Brett’s work, but I’m not sure I’ve tried and failed to write cogently about the music so I have to confess it’s all a bit kneejerk so far. Which is why I question my motives. But I stick by my statement that I love the mix of basic, age-old musical instincts and original sounds.

  2. Very interesting points regarding the baggage an Aussie judging Bliss might be carrying, Harriet.
    I must say, I did have a chuckle during Bliss, imagining a bunch of German singers having to come to terms with our colloquialisms (rather than the other way around!)… “Was ist ‘drongo’ und ‘dill'”?
    But I think you are right about it taking a little more this to make a cultural identity. Tell me, though: what do you think it would take to make a cultural identity?

    • Oh my, now you’re asking… If you want baggage, just let me look out my large box of sweeping generalisations . We spent a lot of time kicking this one around when I worked at the Australian Music Centre. Being a Brit myself (i.e. NOT one of you guys), I was painfully aware of the danger of looking for the elusive ‘cultural identity’ to the exclusion of the individual identity. Most composers — most people, in fact — don’t like to be labelled. We can have an irreverent talk about the ‘Australian school’ of composition over a beer sometime…

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