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Fly Away Peter on the opera stage is a masterful adaptation

Dramatic in its effect, Fly away Peter is a requiem to the fallen and damaged of the first world war. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Sydney Chamber Opera

My life is not for anything. My life is – David Malouf, Fly Away Peter .

Many Australians will have had some contact with David Malouf’s 1982 novella, Fly Away Peter. It is often set as a school text and it remains one of the few Australian novels dealing with the first world war.

After publication, Malouf reflected on Australia’s volunteer army and his reasons for writing Fly Away Peter:

They were bringing Australia closer to the far side of the earth. By forging an experience that had its roots in both places they were redefining, in their own individual lives, all the terms of relationship between the New World and the Old. Australia would ever after be changed for them, but so would Europe, which could now be demystified. Fly Away Peter was written to give this great subject, in so far as I could manage, a definitive form.

It is most appropriate that in the wake of the centenary of the Gallipoli landings, as well as the ongoing first world war commemorations, the novel has reached the operatic stage. The Sydney Chamber Opera’s production of Fly Away Peter opened on the weekend at Sydney’s Carriageworks.

Despite the profound significance of the war to the 20th century, the first world war has relatively few operatic explorations. But two recent operas have changed that: Briton Mark Anthony Turnage’s 2000 adaptation of the surreal and bitter play by Sean O’Casey, The Silver Tassie, and American Kevin Puts’s Silent Night (2012), an operatic version of the acclaimed French film, Joyeux Noël (2005) – have both enjoyed great success.

Composer Elliott Gyger and librettist Pierce Wilcox have used Malouf’s exploration of dualities as a dominant impulse in their work: the tranquil world of the Queensland bird sanctuary is never really absent from the trenches.

Gyger uses birdsong as a metaphor to contrast the natural world with that of mechanised warfare – these are the birds and the aeroplanes of the novel. He also ingeniously incorporates actual birdcalls, primarily into the violin part, which link the opera’s eight scenes.

Fly Away Peter onstage. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Sydney Chamber Opera

The novel has three central characters: Jim Sadler, a young man who is tasked by the land owner, Ashley Crowther, with creating a bird sanctuary in the swamplands on the Queensland coast. Although from different social classes, the men have an almost mystical relationship to the land and particularly to its bird life.

Into this world comes a middle-aged English woman, Imogen Harcourt, a bird photographer, who forms a strong bond with Jim. Many other characters weave in and out of the narrative as it moves from Australia to Europe, and then, finally back to Australia.

The 70-minute opera has only three singers. Jim, the baritone, remains as a single character, but Ashley, the tenor, plays a variety of different roles; most appear for only a brief snatch of music and are gone.

Mezzo Imogen acts as a form of Greek Chorus, being both part of the action, but also, at times, commenting as if from above, incorporating the flight metaphor. Pierce Wilcox’s masterful libretto has as a model David Malouf’s own libretto for Voss, where most of the text is drawn from the novel, but Wilcox refracts his poetic text through repetition and fragmentation.

Fly Away Peter onstage. Photo: Zan Wimberley. Sydney Chamber Opera

Elizabeth Gadsby’s set uses a stark, pyramid structure in clay-white as the playing area which director Imara Savage ingeniously fills with “action”. The only props are dark-green plastic buckets, some of which contain the white clay that is used as a symbol of the trenches and is daubed on the three singers as the war progresses, making them appear increasingly ghostly and disembodied.

These buckets are configured in different arrangements; the final stunning stage picture suggests the rows of crosses of European war cemeteries, and, as Ashley sings out the names of the men who have died, also evokes the countless names on war memorials all over the world.

There are wonderfully lithe physical and vocal performances from an excellent triumvirate of singers.

Mitch Riley, as the central figure of Jim Saddler, has the most commanding physical presence – tall and balletic, he sings with firm line and a highly nuanced and varied tonal palette, effectively suggesting Jim’s humanity and vulnerability.

Jessica Asodi has a warm, multi-hued and well-projected voice, which adds real depth and substance to the interwoven ensembles. Her final moment as Imogen, who is left to mourn the death of Jim, is particularly affecting.

Brenton Spiteri effortlessly portrays a range of characters; perhaps the strongest vocal performance, he has a tenor voice of substance and clarity, and projects the text with crisp articulation. Gyger’s challenging vocal writing is grateful to sing, and these young singers bring out the beauty of the score with energetic aplomb.

Jack Symons leads a virtuosic ensemble with sensitivity and complete control of a score of great rhythmic and tonal complexity. Triumphantly overcoming potential balance issues – having the musicians on the same level as the singers presents challenges – the musical texture from the players provides an enveloping, but transparent and kaleidoscopic range of colour with individual instrumental clarity.

The ensemble with the singers was impressive, not easy with your back to the stage! The frequent interweaving of the voices, particularly of the tenor and baritone, bring to mind similar moments of pathos in Britten’s War Requiem. While dramatic in its effect, Fly away Peter is a requiem to the fallen and damaged of the war.

Gyger writes in the program notes:

It’s taken me until age 46 to write my first opera, but in many respects it feels like a homecoming: as the child of opera-mad parents, and a regular opera-goer throughout my childhood and teenage years, it was always going to catch up with me eventually … And the audience? Quite frankly, I don’t know whether the public is interested in what I’ve got to say. My job is to say it as powerfully and as distinctively as I can.

Gyger has done full justice to the novel: it’s hard to imagine a more gripping music theatre performance this year. See it!

Fly Away Peter is at Sydney’s Carriageworks until May 9.

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