Glenn Perry is the librettist of a number of highly successful operas for ChamberMade, including Fresh Ghosts and The Possessed, with another adaptation currently in the works – Tim Winton’s That Eye The Sky.

Glenn spoke to Australian Stage's Simon Piening about his latest work, The Children's Bach, which opens in Melbourne this week.

Glenn PerryYou have written various original works for the theatre, as well as becoming something of a specialist at adapting novels for the stage, both for opera and theatre. How/when did you get started as a writer?
I started writing for theatre at the University of Queensland, writing agit-prop political satire about the Joe Bjelke Petersen regime for a group called the Popular Theatre Troupe. Since then I have divided my time between writing, acting and directing. I went to the NIDA Playwrights Studio in 1986 and have been commissioned to write original plays and adaptations by various theatre companies. My first adaptation was a stage version of Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita produced by The Five Dollar Theatre Company. Following that, Douglas Horton from Chambermade opera asked me to write a libretto for the Chinese-Australian composer, Julian Yu. Now I've just completed my fourth libretto for Chambermade Opera, and my third one for Julian Yu.

Do you remember seeing your work performed on stage for the first time? What was it like?
The first few times I didn’t actually see it as I was acting in it as well. But I remember the first time seeing a libretto I'd written (Fresh Ghosts) being performed by singers and orchestra - that was quite something; it was like magic to me. Even though I'd come from a theatre background where I'd seen all the workings and nuts and bolts and how things were put together; at the first full rehearsal when the orchestra first arrived and the singers and musicians hadn't even met each other and the conductor starts them up and whoosh - away they all go - that was amazing to me. It's also a major blessing to have your words put to music and sung - in terms of what you can do with words, opera must be one of the most beautiful and rewarding mediums.

Adapting an established work is a very different prospect to writing something new. What are the major challenges of bringing an essentially literary work, to life in the theatre – particularly one that is already well-known?
The 'well-known' aspect is nerve-wracking as there are many fans of the novel out there who'll be coming to check up on you, to see if you've done justice to the author. When I adapted The Master and Margarita I was very aware of this as it's such a cult novel. I was often running into people after the show who were asking incredulously: "Why did you cut the flying pig?" You feel a great responsibility to the author and to the readers who love the novel.

Similarly, Helen Garner's The Children's Bach has achieved great importance in the canon of Australian literature - it's often listed in Top Ten Australian novels lists, and was even cited by the Australian literary critic Don Anderson as being one of the top four short novels in the English language.

There are challenges of adapting literary works to the stage, but obviously I love the challenge. The first thing you have to know is that a novel is not a time-art object, which means you can pick it up and put it down and read it at your own pace. A play or an opera takes place in continuous time, so you can’t afford to lose your audience for a second; you have to pick them up at the beginning and not let them down till the end.

Novels are usually much bigger than plays and plays are much bigger than libretti. So, trying to make a novel fit into a libretto is like stuffing an elephant into a matchbox. You have to decide what your main theme is and try to pare away anything extraneous to that theme. With libretti you're not necessarily dealing with long sentences - its more like the phrasing of poetry.

Also, in the libretto you are structuring scenes and imagining what it might look like on stage. In a sense you are also the designer and director in that you start creating in a way that is theatrical rather than literary. So, in adapting a novel for opera there's a lot of factors to think about, from the macro to the micro.

How do you decide what gets left in and what gets left out?
If you have a strong idea of what your theme is, then this is a good guide for editing. Obviously, the flying pig didn’t fit my theme in adapting The Master and Margarita so it was cut. If you have your main theme worked out, then you can cut anything extraneous to that theme. This is essential in adapting a novel as a novel is able to explore tangents, subsidiary themes, sub-plots, etc; whereas a libretto has to be more succinct as you have less time to get across what you want to say or explore.

Do you consult with the author of the original work?
With The Children's Bach I originally had to submit a treatment of the proposed libretto and examples of my previous work to Helen Garner and her agent. They then gave their permission to adapt the novel. Helen has been very supportive of the libretto and the opera and has seen some rehearsals.

Are some works better suited to being adapted for opera, as opposed to theatre?
I suppose it's often said that a work is suited to opera if it's disturbingly tragic, usually involving one main narrative arc that leads to a deeply emotional or sometimes shocking conclusion. Often modern operas go for just an hour or two, as opposed to the operas of old which can sometimes go for four hours or so; so in many ways an opera is like a short story rather than a novel.

I think opera is able to examine and to hold very deep emotions and great pain in a way that perhaps might be too much in theatre (it may be considered melodramatic or something). Music has the ability to stretch and explore emotion in a dimension that may be beyond theatre (certainly naturalistic theatre).

The Children’s Bach is an adaptation of Helen Garner’s highly acclaimed short novel of the same name. Can you briefly tell us about the story?…
Athena and Dexter live in suburban 'happiness' on the banks of Merri Creek in inner Melbourne as they raise their autistic boy Billy. When Dexter meets his old flame Elizabeth in a chance meeting at an airport, she brings into their lives her sister Vicki, a teenager looking for a mother; her lover Philip, a tired rock star who still plays the game, and his daughter Poppy, a wise child and student of music. Their meeting throws up the past and the possibilities of the future and all their lives are in some way changed. And for Athena, she finds in Philip a possibility of romance and escape.
{xtypo_quote_right}Novels are usually much bigger than plays and plays are much bigger than libretti. So, trying to make a novel fit into a libretto is like stuffing an elephant into a matchbox{/xtypo_quote_right}
Music plays a large role in Garner's original. Does that musical setting make it easier to give the work a musical/operatic treatment?
In a way, the novel cries out for musical interpretation. All the characters are touched by music in some way: for Philip, music is his profession; for Athena, music is an escape from her domesticity and the pressures of raising an autistic child. Helen Garner's use of music in the novel provides a great stepping stone for an operatic adaptation, as music is not only referenced but also fuels the narrative.

What musical styles have been incorporated into the opera?
The composer Andrew Schultz has produced beautiful, melodic music for the opera, incorporating a tonal, classical style which references Baroque music (particularly Bach's fugues) and balancing it with jazz elements, using such instrumentation as double bass and clarinet (to reflect the night-club/rock elements in the novel).

Can you tell us a bit about the process of adapting the work?
In writing this libretto there was some discussion before a word was written with the composer Andrew Schulz, the dramaturg Douglas Horton and myself. Initial discussions were about the themes, narrative and character arcs we were interested in exploring. Then it's over to me to write the first draft.

In adapting a novel to a libretto, its pretty important to be concise (unless you want a seventeen hour opera) so a lot of work involves essentialising the main story arc of the book, and the main character journeys. Some characters, in the interest of budgetary constraints, have to be cut.

One addition I made to the story was to have Poppy studying Bach's fugues throughout the opera, to act as a kind of counterpoint to the story. This also gave Andrew another layer with the music, so he was able to echo musically the things Poppy tells us about Fugues.

The first draft of the libretto was awarded an R E Ross Playwrights Development Award which enabled us to workshop the libretto with singers and musicians for a week. This was enormously valuable to both me and the composer Andrew Schultz as he was able to try out his musical ideas with the singers, who gave valuable feedback, and we were able to get a good idea of where the opera was melding and what needed more work.

From the development phase, Douglas Horton and I developed the stage action of the libretto, to try to create a world where more than one action was taking place on stage at any one time; an idea which has been brilliantly realised and further developed by the director Christopher Kohn, in rehearsing the opera.

What was it about the story/project that attracted you to it?
The Children's Bach is a wonderfully rich novel and has many things to admire, but I was drawn to its relationship with music and how it was in many ways a brilliant meditation on love. The novel looks at all forms of love: romantic, father/daughter, mother/son; sisterly, platonic, conditional, unconditional, etc and does truly fugue these aspects of love (sorry) together to build an extraordinary prism of human relationships. Helen Garner looks at love with a cold eye and a tender eye and is able to elucidate so much from her short study of her few characters.

I was also drawn to the style of the original; the way Helen Garner told her story. Around the time of writing The Children's Bach Garner said that writing novels was like "trying to make a patchwork quilt look seamless. A novel is made up of scraps of our own lives and bits of other people's, and things we think in the middle of the night and whole notebooks full of randomly collected details" I wanted the opera to have this feel, so I tried to find a style that was faithful to the novel.

At the time I was adapting the novel I was listening to a lot of Portuguese fado music and I remember seeing a documentary on a famous fado singer who described fado as being about 'the longing for the love you had in the past and the love you will have in the future.' It struck me that The Children's Bach was about this longing and I wanted the opera to have this great longing at its heart.

Also the novel has a tender, moving ending and that is a great gift for a libretto: having an emotional ending to work towards.

What’s the relationship between the composer and librettist? ie What comes first – the words or the music?
The libretto comes first. It would be incredibly difficult to do it the other way around. You'd have to fit words to notes of music. I suppose a composer who is also a librettist could possibly do it. Perhaps there could be times when a piece of music comes first and then the words follow. But I think this would happen much more in popular music, where you might get a melody in your head and then the words would come to you. It’s a bit more difficult if there's a whole narrative there and seven characters and seven instruments, etc. A libretto is like the skeleton; the composer needs the bones to layer the flesh.

Having said that, Andrew Shultz and I sent about 100 emails to each other during the writing of The Children's Bach. The composer needs to have some input I think, because once the music is set, then that's it; it very hard to cut a piece of music in rehearsals like you might cut a scene in a new play. You just can’t do it without severely damaging the logic and flow of the music. So the librettist and the composer have to see eye to eye, or 'hand in glove' as they say in opera.

Are you involved in decisions about the music at all – are you able to suggest ideas for the music?
No. It doesn’t work the other way. Definitely not. Although with Julian Yu, there is this really fast Phillip Glass-esque music he writes for marimba. I'm always saying to him: "Hey Julian, can we have some of that 'doodle-loodle-doodle-loodle-doodle-loodle' stuff?"

What is it about opera as an artform that attracts you?
Contemporary opera is a great creative force in that it fuses many art-forms: music, singing, acting, design and bold direction. There are some stories or ideas that cry out for the operatic treatment and its great to see words on a page transformed to a world of music, colour and deep emotion. I've always loved music and I've always been a writer, so opera lets me have my two loves together.

How do you see the health of contemporary opera in Australia?
I think there is some great contemporary opera coming out of Australia. We've just had Through the Looking Glass at Malthouse and there are other companies in Australia doing interesting new contemporary opera such as IHOS in Tasmania. Melbourne's Chambermade Opera, led by Douglas Horton has been producing acclaimed contemporary operas (mostly new Australian works) for twenty years. The problem is opera is so expensive as you have to pay for singers AND the orchestra AND the high visual/design sensibility that is often found in contemporary opera; so it’s an incredibly expensive art form, which is a shame as there are limited funds, so therefore limited works. Even Chambermade Opera, a company devoted to producing new contemporary opera, can only afford to do 1 or 2 works a year. So, I suppose opera in Australia would be a lot healthier given a few million dollars or so.

What’s next for you?
I'm revising my fourth libretto written for Chambermade Opera; which is also my third for the composer Julian Yu. It’s based on Tim Winton's novel That Eye The Sky and will be produced by Chambermade Opera in 2009.

The Children's Bach opens at the Malthouse Theatre June 20. Further information»

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