Voss by Richard Meale
This is an excerpt from the garden scene in Act One of Voss. Nighttime in the garden of the Sydney home of the rich merchant Mr Bonner, who will help finance Voss’s expedition to cross the country. Two of his dinner guests, Johann Ulrich Voss (Geoffrey Chard), the surly German explorer, and Bonner’s young niece Laura Trevelyan (Marilyn Richardson), wander out to catch the night air. They find much in common in their imagination and dreams: 'I will be followed across the continent by your thoughts’, Voss declares. Laura crosses into those thoughts: 'I crossed the threshold. He was there.’
Summary by Vincent Plush
Against a shimmering orchestral sound – had Debussy ever visited the Australian outback he may have written music such as this! – we eavesdrop on the first encounter between two cultures, the world of the German Romantic lied floating alongside a culture still unformed and equivocal. The interior passion of this unlikely couple remains sublimated, but the soaring music reveals an intensity that will sustain them over years, distance and fates. In the full 12 minutes of this 'Garden Scene’, Richard Meale has written an Australian liebe gesang that looks both forward and backwards, in and out.
Voss revisits the fateful outback expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt, as re-created by Patrick White in his iconic novel. In his first opera, Richard Meale surprised and delighted theatregoers with a sumptuous and neo-Romantic score comprising evocations of the refined life in colonial Sydney contrasted with the harshness of the Australian outback.
'I will cross this country from one side to another. I mean to know it with my heart. It is mine by right of vision.’
Johann Ulrich Voss, Act One.
Almost from the day it was published, in 1957, Patrick White’s novel Voss seemed destined for a life beyond the printed page. In the minds of many, including its creator’s, it would surely become 'the great Australian film’ embodying the size and panoramic history of its country of origin. Some of the greatest names in 20th century film history – directors, stars and designers – tried and failed. Each successive project succumbed to what a dejected White would call 'the curse of Voss'. Ironically, as each prospect dimmed (Joseph Losey came the closest but fell short of government film funding approval), the thought that Voss could have another life – as an opera – took hold.
In April 1978, Peter Hemmings, a Scot who would shortly become General Manager of the Australian Opera, had breakfast in a little town near Florence with the Australian novelist David Malouf. Would Malouf be interested in creating the libretto for an opera based on Voss, with music by Richard Meale?
The creation of Voss proceeded slowly, sprawling over seven years, with Malouf in Italy corresponding with Meale in Adelaide. In the middle of this was that inspired and inspirational figure, Jim Sharman, who would direct their opera in 1986. 'David’s libretto was far better than any screenplay I had read’, Sharman relates in his 2008 autobiography Blood and Tinsel. 'He instinctively understood that the central dilemma in translating the novel into another form was the mysterious communion between Voss, the explorer in the desert, and his music and spiritual companion in the city, Laura Trevelyan. Opera can dissolve time and space.’
Patrick White had based Voss on the German explorer Ludwig Leichhardt, whose three expeditions into the Australian outback ended with the disappearance of Voss and his entire party in 1848. Into this tragic but too familiar tale of failure and loss, White wove a kind of ‘telepathic communion’ between Voss-Leichhardt and Laura, his ‘muse’. This is the dimension, Sharman has long maintained, that eluded the filmmakers: how to 'crack the code between Voss and Laura’.
Thirty years after the appearance of Patrick White’s novel, the operatic version of Voss was the centrepiece of the Adelaide Festival in March 1986, where it received a handsome production by The Australian Opera. Seasons in Sydney and Melbourne followed quickly, interspersed with recording sessions featuring the same cast and an expanded Sydney Symphony Orchestra. This was an all-stops-out collaboration by the best musical and stage talent in the country, with ‘can-do’ goodwill uniting our leading festival, orchestra and opera company. They were also bonded in their relief that the long-awaited and much anticipated 'great Australian opera’ may finally have arrived, but spared the disasters that had befallen its predecessors. In 2012, the year of Patrick White’s centenary, a new production is keenly awaited, a hope that will refresh the enthusiasm for a genuinely Australian opera first produced 25 years and a generation ago.
The NFSA collection contains three scripts for film projects by Ken Russell and Joseph Losey. Amongst other historic materials, these were revealed during The Voss Journey in May 2009, in which the NFSA led 14 major institutions on an unprecedented four-day, 15-event investigation of the legacies of Patrick White and his novel.
The research yielded by that project featured in The Life of Patrick White, a major 2012 exhibition at the National Library of Australia (April–July) and the State Library of New South Wales (August–October).
Notes by Vincent Plush