Love in the Age of Therapy
(published as Laughs, Nudity and Burt Bacharach:
it's opera, but not as we know it -)
State of the Arts magazine Dec 2002-Feb 2003)
Carol Middleton talks to composer Paul Grabowsky and librettist Joanna Murray-Smith
about their opera Love in the age of therapy, which premiered at the Melbourne Festival
in October and will be opening at the Sydney Festival on 8 January.
Paul Grabowsky and Joanna Murray-Smith are the best of friends. They apologise for not being more controversial. “We’re never going to get on the front page unless we have some significant fall-out involving litigation and threats of physical violence”, quips Paul in his typically wry manner. “I’m going to take a restraining order out on Paul very, very soon,” rejoins Joanna, and they both fall about laughing.
The story of their collaboration on the opera Love in the age of therapy is full of mutual appreciation and good vibes. Paul and his wife Margot and Joanna and her husband Raymond spend a lot of time together and, back in 1994, the musician and playwright started hatching a plan for creating an epic work. Joanna wanted to “hitch her literary horse to Paul’s musical wagon”. Paul, impressed with Joanna’s succession of plays, with their “rigorous, critical and compassionate studies of people desperately seeking truth”, wanted to use her prowess to emulate his favourite opera writing team, Mozart and the Italian poet Da Ponte.
The result was Love in the age of therapy, an entirely contemporary opera that pays homage to one genre in particular - the comedy of manners. If it has any root in operatic tradition, it is in the comic masterpieces of Mozart, rather than the grand or, as Paul would have it, “bloated” 19th century operas that leave him cold and “befuddled”. “For me,” he says, “the greatest opera composer is, and will always be, Mozart. That’s where everything for me is in perfect balance – there’s subtlety of comedy, clarity of design, incredibly well drawn characters, and music that always serves the dramatic purpose and is beautiful to listen to. A great man of the theatre.”
The opera is set in modern times, in ‘the age of therapy’, and explores the lives of two affluent middle-aged couples whose predictable and unsatisfying lives are suddenly ignited by a spark of passion. Joanna explains: “It raises the absolutely classical themes: the split between the generations; the fear of mortality; the search for love; the attraction towards doing what you know is wrong, but feel somehow compelled to do anyway. I think the more you work as a playwright, the more you realise there are only a few themes and we are reworking them all the time. These are the themes that audiences connect with over and over and over again, whether they connect with them in the form of a Hollywood movie or contemporary opera.”
However classical its theme, this is a story of our time, of our lifestyle, and it has reached audiences that are not familiar with grand opera. Joanna believes it has been most successful with people who are not opera-goers. “I have been stopped on the streets twenty times in the last three days by people saying how much they loved it, which was very gratifying. I think some people were possibly shocked – coming to see a play where people use words like cool and fuck and are wearing short skirts and where there’s nudity onstage. I don’t think anyone was offended by it – I think it was more a matter of adapting their expectations.”
The advantage of comedy is that you can gauge its success on the first night by the response of the audience. If the audience laughs, you are home and dry. And, at the three Melbourne performances of Love in the age of therapy, the audience did laugh. Paul recalls, “I was just thrilled by the audience’s response. We wanted it to be a pacy, funny story and have lots of great lines in it, which most operas don’t have. What we really set out to do was make a good night at the theatre, not to reform the notion of opera or change people’s lives.”
The process of putting the opera together involved a steep learning curve for both of them. For Joanna, the prospect of writing an opera was at first daunting: “I had thought it was going to be a nightmare because I’m not musically literate, and it was my first libretto - I had no idea how librettists in the past went about doing it. But Paul really broke the ice for me by saying, ‘Approach it as you would one of your plays’. The moment he said that I began to relax, because I felt as if I could write about characters that were real and accessible to me rather than stereotypical operatic characters and I started thinking about story in storytelling terms which is what I do as a playwright.”
Joanna found the learning experience exhilarating, with a fresh rush of adrenalin as she faced each new challenge. The opera started with her text. She wrote the first draft of the libretto and gave it to Paul, who went away and started writing the score. Matching the text and the music involved some to-ing and fro-ing between the pair of them. Joanna recognised that “there was a whole other enormous and primary vehicle for telling the emotional story which is the music, and that was essentially out of my hands. So the libretto had to give space to the power of the music and to the potential of the music.”
The steepest learning curve for Paul happened at the workshop stage. “We had never worked with an ensemble of opera singers before, so we didn’t know anything about the protocols or conventions of that particular world.” He was used to singers “going with the flow”, but opera singers like to come into rehearsal fully prepared. Paul came to have a huge respect for the singers, who were asked to act on a very natural level while singing these difficult parts. “It was like playing three-dimensional chess!” he said.
Paul is best known for his work with jazz and film scores. Trying to define his musical style in this opera is a challenge. Paul flippantly refers to his style in the program notes as ‘avant-lounge’. “It’s a joke, but in a way it’s not,” he explains. “There is this strong current of what is now called lounge music or easy listening music, which runs through the score. People play music at home that they don’t listen to, but just have it running. The art of listening to music is one that is not developed as it was in the 19th century before there were recordings. This idea of music forming a soundtrack to our lives is part of the philosophy and structure of this work.”
There are familiar musical references - to the bossa nova in the opening scene or Burt Bacharach in the Scrabble playing scene. Paul eschews the word eclectic, preferring to see his style as a unity, made up of influences, but coherent. “I think what the opera shows is that we live in an eclectic world. The world we live is a patchwork of millions of influences and the score articulates that. What people fail to remember is that Mozart was eclectic, that Benjamin Britten is eclectic, that there are lots of references within those scores too, and it’s only with hindsight that you can see the style.”
The success of the Melbourne performances of Love in the age of therapy has raised a vital question: will the opera become part of Opera Australia’s repertoire? Paul expresses his concern: “Are they going to leave it on the shelf, like so many other new works, or are they going to attempt to put it in the repertoire? I think they should, because it is a piece that will always be challenging for a cast; it has a very broad age range in it, so it’s a good opportunity for young singers and veterans to work together; it requires great acting ability; and it is a story which is completely understandable from start to finish, unlike so many operas.”
Joanna believes the themes of this opera will cross cultural barriers, but that there are subtle ways in which it is particularly Australian. “I suspect that those characters - in the choices they make, in their sense of irony, in their humour - display an Australian way of looking at the world, because I am, because Paul is. I think there’s a boldness in what we’ve done, a boldness that comes from being a culture that’s not infatuated with cultural history, of not growing up feeling overwhelmed and intimidated by a way of doing things that has come before.”
Paul has the last word. “We’re just trying to tell our stories. Whether it’s a new genre or not, it’s our story, ours as Australians. This is our music, our music theatre, and we can be proud of it. It’s a comedy, it’s opera, it’s contemporary, it’s fun – people laugh, what more can you ask for?”
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