Creating chamber opera Death By Defenestration

This week marks the world premiere of a new opera, Death By Defenestration, presented as part of Festival of Voices and supported by Salamanca Arts Centre’s HyPe program.

The work explores a family’s dark secrets as two brothers struggle with their demons, and their principles. The story takes place in their childhood home where – with their mother caught in the middle – one of the brothers wrestles with what he has witnessed as an Australian war vet from the Iraq war, the other is a proclaimed pacifist and atheist.

The libretto and music of Death By Defenestration is by Joe Bugden, whose first opera was The Call of Aurora and premiered at the Peacock Theatre in 2013. Salamanca Arts Centre spoke to him about the development of the work and his creative process.

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An excerpt from Death By Defenestration was presented through an IHOS project some years ago but 2016 marks its first iteration as a full-length production. What would you say was the core inspiration for the project?

The first spark was the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I remember that happening for a whole range of reasons, one of which was that it happened and was headline news on the day that the Writers Festival was being launched [Joe ran the Tasmanian Readers and Writers Festival from 1999 until 2008]… Something like that happens and it stops everything…. just pushes everything off the agenda. I had always, like many others, known that the reasons that were given for the invasion were unfounded and untrue. So it was that global context.

Also, as you go through life and you meet people [you realise] that families growing up in a similar context, with the same “brainwashing” – you’d think that they’d grow up with a shared worldview [but] that that’s not the case sometimes. You hear from time to time of families where siblings or children and parents are estranged and really beyond reconciliation.

So it was those two particular contexts. The global, tribal, cultural and religious differences that tear the world apart and how families can be torn apart by as intense and deep philosophical views that take place around a kitchen table.

Why an opera? Why did you feel this material would work in that form?

In the context of arts funding, opera is seen as the bad guy that gets most of the dough, and that’s certainly the case. You can throw as much money into a production as you’ve got and it could still use more. But opera, as a form, goes back five hundred years. The idea of telling stories through song or with song goes back eight hundred years. In church music it goes back a thousand years. So any emotion that words might be able to convey I think are more successfully, more profoundly conveyed when added to music. In simple terms, it’s theatre that uses music to add to the emotion. Not just as a backdrop or a soundtrack but really the music determines the drama.

And so in the creative process what comes first, the musical idea or the story idea?

The story idea. I come up with an idea, do some research… and I write the libretto. I sit down at a piano and then I develop the broad architectural structure to that, so set the words to music, and then orchestrate it for the various instruments.

How does the subject matter inform the style of music that you’re using?

The more you write, the more you paint, the more you act – the more you do whatever it is in a creative way – you do develop your own voice and you say, “This is truly me, for better or for worse. These are the parameters in which I am comfortable, in which I think I know what I’m doing.”

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The cast of Death By Defenestration 2016 working on blocking of a scene with director Lucien Simon.

I try to write beautiful music all the time. Everything I sit down to write I say, “I want this to be the most beautiful music I’ve ever written.” It is quite melodic. The harmony is based on a progressive tonality, so it modulates all the time. But there are moments of sarcasm in the music, there are moments of humour in the music, so there are music devices [that can be] seen as sarcastic because [they’re] out of context with what the serious point of view might be.

I notice from the rehearsals that there are dramatic things happening physically, and Death By Defenestration has been described as an ‘opera noir’. So was it important to you to do something that had something had action in it, rather than people talking and singing about ideas?

Yes, it deals with some dark themes and some heavy issues. The director,Lucien Simon , has come up with a whole range of theatrical initiatives and devices that I could not have imagined. Even now when he tells me what’s going to happen on stage I’m surprised, because when you write something you have assumptions of what might happen, how it will end, and how it will go from beginning to end. What the actors and singers do, so long as its true to the words and to the story, that’s fine…. The body language, the positioning, the physicality, the physical relationship, the facial expressions, all those sorts of things, add to the success of conveying the story and the issues that they’re trying to convey.

Was it difficult to find the right cast? Obviously the roles require quite specific skill sets.

Philip Joughin, who sings the role of Darren, the younger brother, sang in my previous opera, in the role of [Antarctic explorer] Douglas Mawson. Nick Monk, who sings the role of Trevor, the older brother, also sang in my previous opera [and] I was really happy with what they did with the characters in that.

Josephine Giles, who sings the role of the Mother, she was referred to me by some other singers in town. Josephine has sung with the Australian Opera and when I heard her voice and when I met with her for a coffee she taught me a lot about how to write for voice even in twenty minutes over a coffee, it was a wonderful music lesson.

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The cast of Death By Defenestration 2016 working on blocking of a scene.

You do have to write for the voice and it’s not just the range and that’s the wrong question that I’d been asking. When a singer says, “Okay, I’ll sing the role,” I say, “What’s your range?” But there’s a lot more to it than that. You can’t have them right down here low if there’s instrumental music going on because it’s lost. If they’re singing too high all the time, apart from it being a physical strain, it’s difficult for them to articulate the words.

I was told that English is a terrible language to sing opera in and I thought, “Well, that’s silly”. But it’s actually true, because we have lots of “oos” and ees” rather than “ahs” like Italian or Spanish, it is a struggle. So therefore I did have to change the words sometimes to make sure that there singers mouths are open when they’re singing either words very quickly or syllables very quickly and at a pitch that might be reaching the upper or lower limit of their comfortable range.

defen wordWhat kind of experience do you hope that the audience will have when they come and see this production?

First of all, I hope that they are totally enthralled with the music. As the composer, that is my first aim. If that happens, I will be happy with what I’ve been able to do.

I think they will be caught up in the story and the drama that unfolds. We’ve got some animation done by Milly Jencken, who’s a student at the art school. Milly and Georgia Vanderwyk have done the set design… And Lucien Simon deciding to use the Founders Room not in the conventional theatre way but almost as an installation space. What Lucien has done is use the window as a demarcation point of the present interior world and the exterior world, where our nightmares, fears, shame, guilt, and all those things that we try to push away from our day to day existence reside. But we can’t always keep them out.

Death by Defenestration 

50 minutes’ duration with no intermission.

Suitable for audiences 18 and over.

Wednesday 13 July 2016 @ 7:30pm
Thursday 14 July 2016 @ 7:30pm
Friday 15 July 2016 @ 7:30pm
Saturday 16 July 2016 @ 7:30pm

Concession $27.00 / Full $36.00
Tickets available ONLINE

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The production is supported by the Tasmanian Composers Collective, Salamanca Arts Centre, HyPe 2015, and SPACE. HyPe 2015 was supported by Arts Tasmania and the Australia Council for the Arts.

DEATH by DEFEN logos 2016

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