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Cloudstreet the opera: a bold undertaking


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International theatre director Gale Edwards has praised State Opera SA’s courage in presenting a musical version of Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet at a time when arts funding cuts are making the development of new Australian work “incredibly rare and difficult”.

Edwards has been working on the adaptation for around five years with composer and librettist George Palmer, and said the pair had offered it to companies and festivals around Australia.

SOSA was the only one that picked it up.

“To take a risk in this climate is a very courageous thing to do,” says Edwards, who is originally from Adelaide and now based in Sydney.

“Tim [State Opera chief executive and artistic director Timothy Sexton] took a risk and made a commitment.

“How wonderful that a South Australian opera company is creating a potentially iconic Australian work. It means so much to me that it is my home town.”

State Opera, which will present Cloudstreet at Her Majesty’s Theatre in May as part of its 2016 season announced today, has gained a reputation for risk-taking. Last year it presented the $1.7 million, Helpmann Award-nominated Philip Glass Trilogy, and it is currently developing another new work called Innocence Lost, an operatic adaptation of Adelaide author Stephen Orr’s novel Time’s Long Ruin.

Edwards, who has opened musicals on the West End and Broadway and directed the premiere production of The Boy From Oz,  says one of the most exciting things about Cloudstreet is that it will be sung in the Australian working-class vernacular – the language of “what I guess you could call little Aussie battlers”.

Winton’s iconic novel is set between 1943 and 1963, telling the story of two working-class families – the Lambs and the Pickles – who come to live together in a ramshackle house in Perth.

While the author hasn’t been involved in the creation of the opera, Edwards says it has his support.

“We are just so in love with the book and loyal to it. We want to honour the book.

“There are so many wonderful things said in the novel … the majority of what they sing on stage is what is said in the novel.”

Despite the challenges of adapting multiple storylines and two decades’ worth of events into a three-hour musical production, Edwards says the characters and structure will remain largely faithful to the original story. The opera will also embrace what she describes as the novel’s other-worldly feel.


“I think that the opera has an epic scope. It isn’t just about two families … it also has a mythological aspect,” Edwards says.

Fish Lamb, who suffers brain damage after a near-drowning and longs to return to the water, is Cloudstreet’s omniscient narrator.

“Inside the story is this mythological dreamscape where Fish can connect to the spirits who once lived in the house, and those spirits are Aboriginal girls who were taken by a white woman under the guise of making them into ladies but actually she abused them.

“Those spirits are in the house crying out to be released, crying out to move on, and Fish can connect to them; through the events in the family, love comes to the house and the Aboriginal spirits are set free.”

It was composer George Palmer, a former Supreme Court judge, who first proposed the musical. Seeking a director with whom to collaborate, he took his idea and songs to Edwards.

“I read it and I thought, ‘My God, this is gangbusters!

“It was very embryonic – a series of scenes and a series of songs. But it was the best idea, and the songs he had written were wonderful.”

The music is said to feature evocative harmonies and achingly beautiful melodies, as well as sweeping orchestral movements. It will be performed by singers from South Australia and interstate, with the State Opera Chorus and Adelaide Symphony Orchestra.

Costuming is likely to be simple, reflecting the era, but Edwards says the set will be beautiful and translucent.

“It needs to reflect the aching heart within the piece.

“Visually, it has enormous potential, but mostly I love the story – I find it moving and tantalising.

“The idea of opera meeting this story is wonderful. Ultimately, the piece is about forgiveness, redemption and love.”

The third and final workshop for Cloudstreet will be held later this month and the production will have its world premiere on May 12 at Her Majesty’s Theatre, with the season continuing until May 21.

Other highlights of State Opera SA’s 2016 season:



The Magic Flute: Mozart’s classic Masonic story will be performed at the Freemason’s Great Hall on North Terrace in February by a cast including Joanna McWaters as The Queen of the Night and Robert England as Sarastro.

Puccini Spectacular: Celebrating the company’s 40th anniversary, this concert in the Adelaide Town Hall in September will feature melodies from operas including La Bohème, Tosca, Gianni Schicchi, La Rondine, Madama Butterfly, Turandot and Suor Angelica.

Tosca: A co-production with the Welsh National Opera featuring soprano Kate Ladner, tenor Rosario La Spina and baritone Mario Bellanova. It will be presented at the Festival Theatre in November.

Opera Studio: Four major works will be staged in at the Opera Studio in 2016, including a production of writer Martin Crimp’s cryptic thriller The Country, presented in association with StoneCastro, Adelaide Festival, and Insite Arts.

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