The Ghost Sonata by August Strindberg, adapted by Judith Crispin-Creswell.ANU Arts Centre, Canberra 1998
Australian opera, according to composer Judith Crispin-Creswell, is more complex than traditional European work, because composers can have more faith in their audience being intelligent and literate here.
On the other hand, funding bodies such as the ACT Cultural Council, perhaps more influenced by bums on seats and previous successes, find it difficult to put money up for brand new work like The Ghost Sonata, Crispin-Creswell's adaptation of the 1907 play by August Strindberg. So, without financial support, we will see a professional production at the ANU Arts Centre (February 26 - 28) in which none of the performers will be paid and the production team will receive very little.
Singers in the main roles - including Tom Layton (The Old Man), Kent McIntosh (The Student) and Erika Tolano (The Mummy) - are mainly graduates of the Canberra School of Music, where Larry Sitsky is the force behind the composition course. Crispin-Creswell is completing honours degrees in both composition and opera singing and appears to be the first such student in Australia to produce a complete opera. Her director for The Ghost Sonata is David Atfield, winner of a Canberra Critics' Circle Award last year for his powerful production of Furious by Michael Gow at The Street Theatre.
Between composer and director there could easily be conflict, as we have seen between the conductor and director of Wagner's Tannhauser in Sydney, but the contrasts between Crispin-Creswell and Atfield will create an interesting interplay between colour and mood in the music and social commentary in the staging. Atfield has found the imagery in Strindberg's original - a house has just collapsed as the play begins, while the house on stage seems to offer hope, but is found to contain moral collapse within - can represent our modern conundrum called economic rationalism. Publicly it is touted as our saviour, while it destroys the fabric of society.
Crispin-Creswell's music, which she says uses melody and leit motifs in ways which other "strictly modern" composers may feel are too beautiful, will be supported by David Longmuir's set design, which wraps and lights the physical objects to make them dream-like, allowing the singers to take the stage. Atfield, at the same time, is treating the singers as actors, focussing his direction on the Stanislawski method. In this way the objectives of characters will reveal both the social and class issues in the drama and develop strong motivations in the way they relate to each other.
The music emphasises the personal hopes and sense of failure which led to Strindberg's sonata of ghosts, and seems to me to hang the play together better than the original words alone. The set, including Longmuir's intuitive hands-on lighting which will respond to the music and acting, will give visual form to the moods in the music. The acting, using perhaps a quarter of Strindberg's words, will give us the outer shell for the inner feelings. This is sure to be an exciting, though demanding, experience for an audience looking for a new form of opera.
You can't have opera without a chorus, of course - one reason why opera is even more expensive to produce than straight plays - and Crispin-Creswell uses her Chorus to expand on one of Strindberg's dramatic ideas. He was perhaps the originator of splitting a character into several different aspects, each one presented on stage to confront the central character (The Student in The Ghost Sonata) with his own hopes, fears and guilt. In this opera, the Chorus, singing from the pit, present The Student with the warnings he needs to heed as he questions, tries to understand, and hopes to set up a successful life. But they sing in languages and musical forms which, though he can hear and feel, he cannot understand. He continues to hope throughout, but the end is just another beginning and the Chorus's efforts, in the tradition of Greek tragedy, will be never-ending.
The Student sings: "Wrong that was wrought in moments of anger / Never by added wrong can be righted". Judith Crispin-Creswell and David Atfield are an exciting combination of mood and motivation who may, in art, achieve what The Student hopes for in life. Public funding ought, of course, to support them. In its absence, professionals will still present this work because, as the economic rationalists would say, the fundamentals are in place.
© Frank McKone M.A., F.A.C.E.
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