See Cosmonaut on Youtube
This is a rare thing, an opera about ideas, I don't think I have seen a work as adventurous in its exploration of the nature of modern history since John Adams Nixon in China....Chesworth's score is rich in effects and references to other genres. The Age
DVD documentation and audio recordings available on request
Melissa Madden Gray - soprano/alto
Grant Smith - tenor/baritone
Jeannie van de Velde - soprano
Dan Witton - tenor
Graham Lee - pedal steel guitar
Peter Neville - percussion
Adam Simmons - winds
Carlee Mellow - dancer
Katy MacDonald - dancer
Additional voices include Eddie Perfect, Monica Attard, Yuri Gagarin
A Russian cosmonaut is stranded in orbit around the earth as the communist bloc collapses. On earth, a woman yearns beneath the stars and effects a connection between herself and the astronaut. Cosmonaut is a contemporary opera about their unusual relationship.
Combining music and sound, satellite transmissions, movement and a twentieth century mediascape that is central to the themes of the opera, Cosmonaut's libretto written by Tony MacGregor, was inspired by the fate of Soviet Sergei Krikalev, who was in orbit as the USSR fell apart. It explores time, mob mentality during political change, the loneliness of the individual and the possibility of connection between two distant souls.
The opera takes place over four orbits as our cosmonaut, Viktor Khlebnikov, listens to grabs of intercepted transmissions and broadcasts while the political situation on Earth twists and turns. During this time, he communicates for brief moments with Angela, who, isolated in her suburban Australian bedroom, becomes increasingly obsessed with her doomed spaceman.
A multi-disciplined cast, including Grant Smith, Melissa Madden Gray and Dan Witton, members of the David Chesworth Ensemble, dancers from Dance Works and a range of multimedia projections by James Verdon combine to build a vivid and evocative electro-acoustic experience.
Notes for Cosmonaut by librettist Tony MacGregor
Cosmonaut has its origins in the tumultuous events that lead to the collapse of the Soviet Union over the course of the European summer of 1991/92. Seen from Australia this was History, unfolding as a series of media images, in which the crowd – on the street, in the square, occupying the Duma – was the principal actor. Despite all of the pat Post Modern chatter about ‘the end of history’, the rise of virtual reality and triumph of the image, here were millions of people, taking their history physically in hand and onto the street.
At around this time I began to read Crowds and Power, an eccentric, huge and provocative work in which the writer Elias Canetti seeks to document and explain ‘the crowd’ in all its various forms and aspects. In particular, Canetti (a Bulgarian Jew raised in Vienna who fled pre-war Germany to live and work in Britain) attempted to explain how the force and energy of the crowd could be harnessed for apparently opposite ends – producing Kristalnacht and the Nuremberg rallies on the one hand, and on the other, the joyous liberating crowds that took to the streets of Berlin, Moscow and Prague in the late 1980s.
Shortly after the demise of the USSR I began to cast around for a ‘human story’ through which I might be able to explore some of the ideas about ‘the Crowd’, the making of history and the nature of the media that then pre-occupied me. The stranding of Sergei Krikalev aboard the Mir space station in 1991 seemed a gift: here was a man who left the Earth as a Soviet citizen, only to have his country collapse beneath him. Despite access to all the world’s media (I liked to imagine), he was a remote and helpless witness who could not participate even as his fellow Russians took to the streets. Krikalev was literally stranded between States: with the collapse of the old USSR, who was to assume responsibility for the Soviet space program. Until that could be determined, there was no way to get a rescue mission sent to Mir. Krikalev remained in orbit from July ’91 until March ‘92.
A number of years later when David Chesworth approached me with the suggestion that we might make an opera together, my first thoughts were of Crowds and Power and the story of Sergei Krikalev. While the text of Crowds and Power has all but vanished from the final version of libretto, the stranded cosmonaut has turned into a doomed but romantic figure, named after the Russian Futurist artist and mathematician, Viktor Khlebnikov (1885 – 1922). Known amongst the Russian avant garde as ‘President of planet Earth’ and ‘The King of Time’, Khlebnikov advanced the theory that with the correct mathematical formula, it would be possible to ‘unlock’ light and enter Time, to look back through rays of light to see history. In Cosmonaut its Angela who possesses Khlebnikov’s mathematical theories, and we are to imagine its through her application of these mathematical principles that the events of the opera are resolved.
I should mention two other influences here. A few years before I began work on Cosmonaut I read Don Delilo’s Mao II, in which an US businessman kidnapped by Middle Eastern terrorists reflects upon the events taking place in the world which he cannot see or touch, but of which is intimately a part. And quite by chance, I heard a Polish radio documentary based on the diaries of Soviet cosmonauts. Fragments of these diary entries find their way into the libretto in various forms.
Tony MacGregor is a writer, radio producer and sound designer, and is Executive Producer of Radio Eye and The Night Air on ABC Radio National. In collaboration with the video artists Dennis Del Favero he has produced a number of major multi media installation works that have toured extensively to galleries and museums in Australia and Europe.
Channeling all those great women who have gone before her, Helen Noonan plays the Ghost of Opera, the very Diva of Divas. Serving an eternal sentence in the purgatory of her own imagination, this Diva is the quintessence of the world's greatest opera singers - or perhaps a lost and demented soul who simply thinks she is.
Her extraordinary story is told through a combination of an original soundscape, well known arias, witty text, and almost balletic Callas-thenic gesture. Distinctions between art and life, fantasy and reality, tragedy and comedy become one as the Diva possesses the stage.
Recital is loosely based on Recital 1 (for Cathy). A music-theatre work written by Luciano Berio for his then wife, singer Cathy Berberian. Similar to Berio's work this work draws on arias from the performers own repertoire of operatic favourites. All elements - the text, performance style and music were created concurrently over a short and intense period. Consequently each element informed the evolution of the others to some degree. As Douglas Horton shaped the work Chesworth created a series of soundscapes that could be arranged around Helen's extensive and colourful monolougues between her arias. The soundscapes aim both to underscore and reflect on the Diva's tragi-comic themes as well as adding a dynamic sonic architecture within which the Diva is situated. As well as the onstage accompanist, the score utulises an offstage accompanist who plays a keyboard sampler. The sampler sounds are mainly comprised of fragments from the popular classical repertoire which Chesworth sampled off old records, added to this is a collection of crowd sounds, phones and radio noises. The sampler player rearranges and recombines these sounds in various curious ways during the performance.
Arias featured in Recital include the most loved of the classical repertoire, including Mi Chiano Mimi from LA BOHEME by Puccini, Habanera from CARMEN by Bizet and Queen of the Night aria from THE MAGIC FLUTE by Mozart.
The libretto is an adaptation by Douglas Horton of the one act play by Absurdist Fernando Arrabal. The libretto concerns a mother who argues with her two daughters while in an adjacent room their father is being tortured to death.
Horton says of Arrabal; "Many Dadaists and early Absurdists gave expression to their beliefs about an absurd and irrational universe by denigrating and destroying the aesthetic and dramatic conventions of their medium. Arrabal was able to give expression to this world through convention, and through absence - the deliberate withholding of key contextual information"
The opera, from a musical point of view, could be described as an exploration of recitative, a term traditionally used to describe a style of vocal composition in which melody, fixed rhythm and metre are largely disregarded in favour of some imitation of the natural inflections of speech. Rather than using traditional operatic forms of recitative, I explore different ways of setting the prose with melody and a variety of vocal styles and techniques.
A Roland U20 synthesizer utilising some of its programmed features provides the backbone of the orchestration. The keyboard part is largely notated, whereas the musical director, and the musicians devise other orchestral elements.
30 mins, 1 act, 4 singers and audio playback
Jaqui Rutten - soprano
Di Emery - actor/singer
Lloyd Fleming - tenor
John Concannon - actor/singer
Using Roland Barthes' A Lovers Discourse and Schoenberg's opera Erwartung as references, Insatiable is a stylised, abstracted musical drama presenting ideas about the nature of 'performance': What does it mean to 'perform'? Who is giving the performance? What is the audience's position in all of this?
Four people arrive at an old theatre for an audition and each must wait their turn to perform. As they wait, the characters gradually reveal - through recitatives and arias - more about the roles they are playing and speculate on their future lives.
The music is derived from four melodic themes that recur throughout. Stated simply at the beginning, each becomes more complex as the piece progresses. They are: an anonymous piece of Medieval Organum, a simplified version of the cantus firmus from Guillaume Dufay's 14th century mass Se la face ay pale, an operatic melody based on the notes of the major triad and a sequential chord progression similar to that used in the title music of the TV show, Days of our Lives.
Music plays a crucial role in the narrative. It becomes thematically linked to the unfolding of the story. A musical tradition, rather than a literary tradition providing the framework of the story.
The use of non-natural symphonic sounds is an essential element in the work. The music was composed using a Roland JX3P analogue synthesizer with additional timpani, harp and tubular bells.
After several live performances in Melbourne and Sydney, it was subsequently recorded by the ABC and filmed as a television opera
Soundscape & libretto by David Chesworth
Directed by Wendy Joseph
Designed by Wendy Joseph
Commissioned by SoundCulture 91
First performed Performance Space.
30 minutes. 6 parts.
3 performers, soundscape.