The Love of the Nightingale, Richard Mills: opera review

November 1, 2011

This post has nothing to do with viols, though Richard Mills used them in the last opera I saw of his, “Batavia”. For those interested only in viols, it’s best to turn away now.

This is not a review, merely a messy, personal response, not the ‘first draft of history’ as poor newspaper journalists are paid to create. I say “poor” because it’s a devilish job trying to assess something as complex as an opera on first hearing. Momentarily as I took in this opera – and how many operas do we go to without having listened to them or watched them on DVD before attending? – I kept wondering which aria or arias would go down in history, since it’s always the music which seems to last and not the libretto.

I’ve read the ‘official’ reviews of the opera as published in newspapers. I’ve also seen Mills’ iconoclastic call on television for more funding for opera, as wonderfully brazen as the sports industry asking the government for more money. Love it! I’ve seen interviews with the two female vocalists for whom the toll of performing such roles as the two sisters in Nightingale is so heavy. Opera singing is surely a vocation, a calling, not for mere mortals who want to live normal lives. I took in Virginia Trioli’s forum on television debating a new National Arts Policy for the country, with an appearance by Adrian Colette. Reviewing the reviews is what you’re supposed to do if you go to the opera. Opera is always such hard work. It means buying the CDs or DVDs and reading as much as possible beforehand. It means consulting the Form Guide of the singers, so you know which singer is likely to bring what quality to the production. There is also the nap in the afternoon beforehand (hell if you are coming straight from work), an additional dose of vitamin pills since the night will be long. I don’t take a packed lunch as I’ve known others to do attending the pre-concert recital or pre-concert talk). It means arriving at the Opera House at 6.45, taking in the harbour at sunset before the first bell, a limbering up meditation of sorts, and carefully organising the timing of reaching one’s seat depending on how far you are into the row. Patrons persist in entering by the wrong door but like those who no longer clap at the opera (perhaps their arms are too weak), I no longer stand to let other patrons pass by. I acknowledge the patrons sitting beside me with a polite “Good evening” but I’ve learned it never does to engage with other patrons – that way disaster lies, with wide gulfs of social background and personal politics far too close to the surface. Clothes are never a problem because you will see everything from black tie to shorts-and-sandals. I am a mess for 24 hours after the performance, best for lying down in a darkened room. A day at work after an opera is a day lost completely.

Opera and Occupy Sydney

A funny thing happened on the way to this opera. Invariably an opera performance mimics or mirrors the Sydney around me at the time. Walking through Martin Place, we almost tripped over a loose assembly of people, some sitting in consciousness-raising circles, outside the Reserve Bank of Australia. Occupy Sydney has not lost its momentum. There were no placards or signs; they were being surveilled by a single police car parked nearby, complete with four police, in case the RBA building might be stormed by the people on a balmy Saturday night. I recognised myself in the people sitting in circles, engaged in consciousness-raising. As a young person, a lifetime away, I attended marches along George Street demonstrating for the rights of women and Aborigines. Seeing what women have become and what they’ve done with feminism since makes me regret my marching. Very deeply.

But on the 1%/99% divide. Nightingale might be about myth, but it’s about reality. For many, the 1%/99% is a myth in Australia, a mirage borrowed from Occupy Wall Street or the Spanish ‘indignados’ but its manifestation is as real as Mills’ opera within the Australian opera industry or the broader Australian arts community. There is a very heavy irony in the fact that opera is entertainment for the 1% and that the 99% have The Slap, currently on television, to look forward to. Love of The Nightingale and The Slap are incredibly close in subject matter, despite the former being set up as myth and the latter as a ‘real’ depiction of John Howard’s Australia. The Slap would certainly identify with the public relations spiel put out about Nightingale: “Where does violence come from? Why women? When will the voices of victims be heard?” Everyone who takes The Slap seriously will.

I love the serendipity of the Greekness of Nightingale and Slap. Fascinating that our Australian stories are trapped like amber in the Greek experience. Those of us with fractious Macdeonians in our local neighbourhood – the sort who refuse to attend their children’s wedddings when they marry, God forbid, a Greek – identify with Mills’ Thracians. We have heard the ‘rough music’ on Saturday mornings when a traditional wedding is in the offing. A sound which is disappearing as the neighbourhood gentrifies and barbarians are at the gates: sunglassed Skip mothers with toddlers, sunglassed fathers with 4WDs.

Mills says he doesn’t provide answers to the Great Questions. Participants in Occupy Sydney and Occupy Melbourne have no answers; they further confused and confound the media commentators (themselves belonging to the 1% with fashionable North Shore addresses and salaries which contradict their earnest on-camera grimaces) by saying they had no clear agenda. In this world of social media, where everyone is shouting out their own personal messages, to not have an agenda is almost immoral. In shouting, we’ve forgotten how to listen. In being silent, we’ve forgotten how to talk. I’m not sure about Mills resolving his questions by resorting to a vocalise in the final moments of the opera, which metamorphoses into a recorded nightingale. Such a transformation reminded me instantly of Respighi. It verged (for me) on the glib to resort to Nature and the natural, the very same force which human beings were trying to overcome through ‘civilisation’, the base insticints which all the characters in the opera were seeking to rise above. But to end the opera ‘properly’ in the myth context, Mills had few options.

Of course the ‘answer’ to the question in literature is Candide’s weary homecoming to ‘cultivate his garden’. I shouldn’t be so surprised Mills provides no answers because I find no answers either in the battle of gender politics interpretations in Art that I’ve personally been confronted by lately: Anna Banti’s portrayal of Artemisia Gentileschi (the narrator caught up in the Fascist bombing of Florence while she wrestles with her principal artist-character) and all the Artemisia Gentileschi literature that attends it. The Anna Banti literature website where the word “rape” is spelled “rxxx” in order to align it to that other four-letter word. More recently, Driss Chraibi’s novel about women in Morocco (“La civilisation, ma mere!”) – the education sentimentale as the ignorant heroine comes to grip with the geniet in the radio talking to her, going to the movies for the first time, leaving the house for the first time, working things out with her husband who, through an arranged marriage, took her at age thirteen.  Woman as colonised country; male politics performed on the female body. There are no answers in any of these works of story-telling. After my mandatory opera nap yesterday afternoon, I caught snatches of a tv documentary on Singer and Sargent and their depictions of the music hall chanteuses. The age of consent then was thirteen. And don’t get me started on Degas and the hideousness of middle-aged men preying on student ballerinas. We jump up and down about other countries abusing women, but we were doing it ourselves only yesterday.

Myth as subject matter

I’m not sure about the power of telling the myth. Certainly one feels the gravity of the Greek tragedy in the opening scene of the two sisters. I thought Mills treatment of the silence/noise, silence/music dichotomy quite brilliant, tailor-made as it is for music. Just as Anni Banti’s narrator as novelist who has lost her manuscript in the midst of war is forced to re-tell the story, battered as she is by the ‘voice’ in her mind of the artist-character. I like very much the portrayal of the Athenian steretotypical woman as chatty and loquacious, the essence of the character, Philomele: the constant bane of men that women talk about their feelings and emotions.  Tereseus curiously adopts the non-male position at one point of wanting his wife to talk to him, which seemed independent of his having fallen up the spell of Aphrodite, a godly character on a stage. In re-telling the plot here, I’m struck by that same thin tiredness that I associate with early 20th century French drama portraying Greek myths. I liked the play-within-a-play of Act 1 (because it was another twist-and-turn in telling the backstory – and Mills has so much backstory to tell it almost fights against the music and loses) because it reminded me of 18thcentury France: the audience being educated as Monsieur Jourdain is in the Moliere farce, the preoccupation of French composers and dramatists with re-creating Ancient Greek in order to appease their patron Louis XIV. The Love of the Nightingale translates as L’Amour du Rossignol and I’m reminded of nightingales in musical literature: was Francois Couperin aware of the myth? What of Respighi? I’m coming to grips with the French chanson 16th-century Je suis desheritee, which in its second part, talks of the nightingale.

I’m broke, because I lost my friend. He left me, now I’m alone, full of tears and sorrow. Nightingale in the woods go immediately and tell my friend that I’m tormented for his sake. (Trans. by Dick Wursten)

Was it the soundbyte-conditioned part of me to look for key phrases in the libretto, those lines which would go down in opera history? I liked very much the business of keeping quiet and getting on with one’s lot in life. I thought the chorus of Thracian women not helping Procne very interesting. What’s the phrase? “Before women call each other sister, they’ve called each other a lot of other names beforehand.” Women both support each other in the opera and distrust and work against each other. There’s a strong contrast between the two sisters and the reception the first gets from the Thracian women. Silencing the Other. Nothing is clear cut. I thought for an instant that the words “Consume, Obey, Die” – words from the political street poster – were going to be thrown up by the yellow subtitles above our heads. Certainly “Who can resist power?” was excellent – for men it’s irresistible, can’t get enough of it; for women, it’s impossible to fight against. Was the diatribe about power – about rape in city carparks (Anita Cobby was suggested to me) among others – too obvious and explicit at the opera’s end?

A final note on the myth. Audience members behind me mumbled, at the close of the performance as they rose from their seats,  that “it was only a myth”. I’d like to think they were in denial about the relevance of the subject matter to real life and we letting each other off the hook by feeling they could dismiss the whole experience as a fable. I wonder how corporate heavies, those who support opera financially, will come to grips with this opera. Is some subversion, on the side, tolerated? Is Occupy Wall Street or St Paul’s Cathedral tolerated till the northern Winter drives them off the streets?

The Music

Musically the most thrilling moments were at the end. I was prepared for ‘better’ music in the second Act, based on the musical journey provided by Batavia. Not that it’s not engaging throughout, it is. Again, the difficulty of trying to assess music on a single first hearing! I have no idea how Emma Matthews was able to pace herself right until the end with her highest and loudest notes saved till then. I thought the passage near the end of the stuttering vocals, a Monterverdian in gola sound, brilliant in its portrayal of horror and suffering. Reviewers have talked about the maritime quality. Plainly the sea and wind are important to Mills. The staggering horrific spectacle of watching Batavia unfold in the Sydney Opera House was that the set, a giant ship, projected ominously forward at one stage, taking in the borrowed environment, the sails of the Opera House building. We were all in the ship or a ship operating on so many levels. And for many of us the 2009 production of Peter Grimes is still front-of-mind, and before that, Billy Budd – with which the moving floating stages of Nightingale has in common. An opera operates in the context of others performed in the same space and with others with similar themes.


On the question of rape. Yes, I was surprised to receive in the mail a notification to subscribers of rape depicted in Batavia.  It felt like a legal notice. Everyone has an eye to the lawyers like we’ve never done in the past. Mothers have to send in a pack of lawyers to vet the outdoor children’s playground these days. But more to the point, of course watching a depiction of rape performed by human beings is a world away from film violence or television violence. Depiction of violence is all the more interesting currently with television exposure of Northern Territory cattle being shipped to Indonesian abbatoirs compared to the reverse flow of Afghan refugees taking boats with people smugglers to Christmas Island. The Slap is a depiction of rape by any other name and it’s interesting that Mills takes up the issue of violence towards children, of children as pawns in adult gender politics. The newspaper reviews of the opera seem to gloss over the fact that a child was even on stage. We deny ourselves discussion and depiction of violence and rape, just as we silence ourselves on child violence and, for example, paedophilia – something committed in 80% of cases by heterosexuals, most often within the Family Unit (I notice it’s moving from the Nuclear Family Unit, with its connotations of fission and about-to-explode, to Natural Family Unit – where domestic violence, violence against children, rape, etc.  – are all portrayed as ‘natural’, practically ordained by God and certainly sanctioned by the three major religions of the world as something walled up, silent, inside faith, hope and charity).

It’s very regrettable that corporate Australia will probably not witness many of the four Sydney performances of Nightingale; this narrative of myth has been tucked away behind 19th-century opera warhorses where the gender politics is made less obvious (but nevertheless just as present). The 1% will have subsidised and patronised the vehicle by which Nightingale is allowed to sing. Ultimately, though it’s important that these Australian stories are told. I bite my tongue when I hear of colleagues of mine who won’t and haven’t read the Christos Tsiolkas novel but will rely on the television version. Some find it too earnest and over-acted, without perhaps realising how visceral family life outside the Anglo-Saxon majority can be. Moreover, because they are Working Australians they won’t be at home to see the television drama unfold on consecutive Thursday nights, but will rely on a pirated DVD version instead. This may or may not be deferred till ‘whenever’ – they caught the buzz over the water cooler at work, but may never get around to watching it. So I’m not optimistic about either the Nightingale or The Slap messages ‘cutting through’. At $1m/hour, The Slap doesnt’ come cheap; neither does mounting a performance of Nightingale.  

The newspapers reviews, readily available here on the Internet, discuss the plot and who sang in what role. I liked the Narcissus pose of Hippolytus; I liked the regal presence and choreography of Taryn Fiebig as Aphrodite, whose decolletage looked not like she wearing her dress back to front but echoed those multi-mammaried statues of Minoan Crete. Emma Matthews reprised a lot of the super-human energy we saw in La Somnabula. The presence of the child recalled Madama Butterfly.

Reviews elsewhere have commented on individual singers’ performances. What I found very positive was the overall balance between all the singers, reinforcing the action.

A great operatic experience, an opera of our times and for all time.


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