The personal is political is opera

Jonathan Marshall talks to composer Irine Vela

There is no denying the self-confessed artistic ‘eclecticism’ of composer Irine Vela. Aside from working with the Melbourne Workers’ Theatre since its inception in 1987 and being a founding member of the Melbourne-based choral group Canto Coro, Vela is even credited on Phillip Brophy’s latest warping of cinema scores, Film Music (Sound Punch, 1997-2002). “With Head On [directed by Anna Kokkinos], Phillip and I worked together on a few things,” she explains, “I was the Greek music consultant for that, so maybe he has used some of those pieces—but I didn’t know that until now! If he has, I’m rapt!”

Vela is about to go into rehearsal for her second major operatic composition, 1975, which she describes as a kind of prologue to her successful 1996 production with the Melbourne Workers Theatre and Canto Coro, Little City. “If you put those 2 works beside each other, then you could say Little City is set in the near future,” Vela claims.

“What precedes Little City is this story of 1975, in which…the only political party that the disenfranchised and the vulnerable have in Australia [the Labor Party], dies in a sense. That is when the rights of the people and the visionary idea of what is possible in politics begin to erode. So then you get the situation one finds in Little City [composed during the height of the Thatcherite Liberal regime of Jeff Kennett in Victoria] where there is nothing. There are no health care services, there is no after-school program, there is nothing. And so people are spurred on to revolt. But 1975 is more character-based, while in Little City it was the choir itself [which represented the populace in general and the working classes in particular] which was the protagonist. 1975 will still have the force of the mass singing, but they are more like a traditional opera chorus…”

Vela notes that in composing her new political opera, she has been inspired by the popular US artist Leonard Bernstein, who drew upon jazz, American folk and popular idioms, as well as classical and romantic music. “I use anything that works for the dramatic and musical problems I encounter.”

1975 deals with the years 1972-5, in which Gough Whitlam led the ALP to victory in the national polls, only to be ignominiously ousted 3 years later; the whiff of scandal, incompetence and betrayal strong in the air. This has been a popular theatrical subject ever since David Williamson’s Don’s Party (1971). Vela’s take on these events is very different however.

Whitlam’s term in office signified Labor’s first national government after 20 years in opposition, and it is traditionally seen as “the high water mark of social democracy” and progressive government in Australia (Graeme Davison et al, eds, Oxford Companion to Australian History, 2001). However a growing number of contemporary commentators point out that, for all of the ALP’s high principles, it also initiated the policy of studious non-intervention and tacit support for Indonesia’s military occupation of East Timor.

Vela has therefore sketched a figure to embody this shift in Labor policy: the character of senior ALP member and mother, Paula. “She represents that part of the Labor party which you later see in Bob Hawke, who argued that we have to get pragmatic and do everything we can to ensure that our party gets into office. So we can’t be idealistic any more. We can’t be worried about workers and unions. We can’t ‘give over’ to them. We have to manage them.”

Vela characterises 1975 as a “popular opera,” partly to distinguish it from more didactic, Brechtian-influenced styles (including her own Little City). The character-based nature of the work means that ideology is explored through the old adage of “the personal is political.” Vela has “set 2 pieces of a requiem mass”—a choral form composed to honour the dead.

“The notion of the requiem is both literal and metaphorical here, expressing the genocide of East Timor as well as the grief and loss of Paula for her journalist son, who has died there. The piece begins with a burial in Indonesia and then we go back 3 years, and return again to the funeral at the end of the performance.” In this scene, the idealistic son, like Australia’s role in the East Timor invasion, is buried within political and emotional memory, thus giving the tragic tale of political disillusionment a palpable emotional charge.

The Melbourne Workers’ Theatre and Canto Coro, 1975, composer Irine Vela, director Wesley Enoch, musical director Peter Mousaferiadis, performers include Melita Jurisic, Cidalia Pires, Grant Smith, Lisa-Marie Charalambous, Jeanie Marsh, Michael Lindner, Jenny Vanderbilt, North Melbourne Town Hall, May 21-Jun 7.

RealTime issue #54 April-May 2003 pg. 42

© Jonathan Marshall; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 April 2003