"Cinema is far too rich and capable a medium to be merely left to the
storytellers," said Peter Greenaway, before he gave the flicks the flick and
attempted a hybrid of opera enhanced with film. I adore Greenaway’s work, but what a
woos. How about the obvious obverse? Enter ABC Arts & Entertainment, OzOpera and
MusicArtsDance to take up the vanguard. (Alright, Evita has preceded, but the cinematic
version wasn’t an original work.)
Now let it be said that this is not an ambitious project in anything but genre. Which
is probably a wise way to start. There is a story—a true one in fact—but
it’s so simple even Greenaway would be satisfied. The focus here is mood and
And the soundtrack, of course, is critical. The link to opera is not in musical style
but in the absence of all but the barest recitative. So whilst the narrative is
straightforward enough to be easily carried, the challenges lie in achieving a quality of
composition, performance and synthesis of music with other cinematic elements that would
engage, inform and entertain us.
In all respects, it is an intrepid effort and mostly, though not entirely, successful.
What it lacks is at least one brilliant song. What it has going for it are some absolutely
heavenly—appropriately enough—compositions from Mairead Hannan. For mine, the
stars of both the soundtrack and the film itself are the Australian landscape and the
music it has inspired from Hannan. There is more than a touch of Peter Weir in the essence
of the tantalising and dangerous lure of the outback; always a paradox to Colonial
Sensibilities: as savage and tragic as it can be enticing and enlightening.
This soundtrack ain’t no Picnic … At Hanging Rock, but there are some
wonderful moments for aural indulgence. Uilleann Pipes were launched to fame with Titanic,
and fortunately they haven’t sunk into a Celtic cliché. Here, as effectively as
Zamfir’s pan flutes in Weir’s film, they evoke a pan-cultural ambience of
infinite spaces. Their haunting beauty only surpassed by the wordless, ethereal vocal
harmonies that comprise the essential Lunar leitmotif. Even an obligatory didgeridoo is
used tastefully and non-gratuitously. However, the details of the terrain and the pangs of
loss and cultural conflict central to the film are most vividly echoed in Hannan’s
own violins. Lyrical phrases ranging from folksy sweetness to edgy dissonance carry both
the drama of the story and the aesthetics of the landscape. And they blend, fold and
contrast perfectly with warts and all guitar plucking full of audible, tactile fretwork as
fascinating to the ear as a ragged, craggy mountainside to an artist’s eye.
All the vocal performances are strong, and the songs themselves work well in context
without rising above standard, country-folk balladry. Kelly performs strongly in the lead
role, but he proffered better melodies for Silent Partner.
I do like this soundtrack, some of it immensely, but it is the concept of the overall
project I find most exciting. All the musical, thespian and design elements of Opera fall
easily within cinema’s scope; and much more. Of course, a canvass is one thing;
creating a masterpiece is quite another. In the corner of opera are the works of a few
rather competent tunesmiths—from Mozart to Puccini. "Music Drama" for the
screen has a long way to go, but this is more than a promising start.
Published November 8, 2001