The Love of the Nightingale | Opera QueenslandLeft - (front) Anke Hoppner as Procne. Cover - Leanne Kenneally as Philomele and Douglas McNicol as Tereus

One of the largest issues facing contemporary Australian performance is surely our own self-doubt. How can one not be intimidated by the likes of Mozart, Chekhov and Van Gough? We place ourselves against these names and shiver with apprehension. But there is a new name, one which Australians can claim proudly. Richard Mills.

The Love of the Nightingale is a new Australian opera, that is both contemporary and classic in its style, content and performance. Composer Richard Mills, together with Librettist Timberlake Wertenbaker and Director Lindy Hume have created a holistic performative experience: emotive, visually appealing, contemporary in subject matter and artful in its realisation.

Timberlake Wertenbaker based The Love of the Nightingale on the myth of Philomele, from Ovid’s Metamorphoses. This ancient Greek myth is based in war-ravaged Athens. When Athens is saved by the liberator from the North, Tereus, he asks a boon of the king of Athens – that he may marry the King’s eldest daughter, Procne. Procne asks her sister Philomele to promise to come visit her in Thrace when she calls on Philomele. Peace comes to Athens, and Procne travels North with her new husband.

After five years, Procne has a son, Itys, but is lonely and asks that Tereus returns to Athens to bring her sister North as well. Procne’s women, her courtiers, advise against such a venture, but Tereus does as his wife asks. However, while watching a play with Philomele and the King and Queen in Athens, Tereus believes himself struck by Aphrodite, and falls madly in love/lust for Philomele. The first act concludes with Tereus delaying Philomele from reaching Thrace and her sister, instead lying and telling her that Procne is dead. A foreboding sense of ill is cast for the second act. The tragic ending of this myth has its own metamorphoses however, with Tereus, Procne and Philomele all transforming into birds, and teaching young Itys the wrongs and rights they each committed.

Wertenbaker and Hume’s utilisation of Greek dramatic conventions such as the Chorus, the Narrator and the poetic libretto match perfectly with both the content and the nature of opera itself. Theatrically, there are some beautiful and simplistic moments, such as Procne’s chorus of women, who are in constant contact with one another and never quite stay still. Their bodies ripple across the stage as one, eloquently and yet simply displaying their unity amongst numbers.

Anke Hoppner and Leanne Kenneally, who play Procne and Philomele respectively, are highly emotive actors. Certainly Hoppner’s vilification of Tereus at discovering the betrayal makes the audience’ hearts pound in time with Procne’s raging beat. Kenneally’s ethereal melodies transform the audience into another time and place.

This opera is so rich in drama that it brings to the stage something that is beyond an amazing score and a powerful live act, but becomes something more in the experience of it. Something that is both complete and unattainable. The score is complex, disjointed and discomforting. It almost behaves on its own accord, commenting on rather than supporting the drama that is occurring. Richard Mills creates music that asks the audience to actively engage in its interpretation. The notes and sounds do not follow in an order that one might expect. In this way, the music becomes not just an element of the drama, but a drama all of its own. 

The thematic content of War and Censorship brings out the contemporary relevance of the opera. A motif line that constantly reappears in the libretto is ‘Do not have the words’. Procne questions her women as to why Tereus shouldn’t travel to Athens to meet her sister. The women only answer ‘Do not have the words’. Tereus, in anguish, claims he did not have the words to know what love was. The soldiers, are silenced, and cannot speak of what they see. They do not have the words. It is poetic irony that those five little words about having no words become such a powerful phrase in the opera.

The opera explores the human need to ask questions, to seek answers, and to express one’s own opinion. The opera itself calls for a change to our society. When Itys asks his aunt Philomele, the Nightingale, why did she become a bird, the answer is ‘We had to transform. The blood had to stop flowing.’ As this line is repeated over and over, until the final ringing notes of the Nightingale take over the score, the audience is left in a meditative state, reflecting on all they have seen and all they will see. It is a great work of art that can appear both magnanimous on stage and true to real life. It is a credit to Mills, Wertenbaker and Hume that they have done so.

Opera Queensland presents
The Love Of The Nightingale

Music Richard Mills | Libretto - Timberlake Wertenbaker

Playhouse | Queensland Performing Arts Centre
13, 16 and 18 July, 2007
Qtix 136 246 or online

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