Queensland Conservatorium Theatre
September 1, 2018

“The law must take its course,” sings Reverend Callaway in Paul Dean’s new opera Dry River Run. “Right now we’ve got nothing but a baseless accusation.” It’s an attitude we’ve been hearing a lot in the wake of the #MeToo movement, but the power imbalances that have traditionally seen the law offer little justice for victims of sexual violence were even more striking in 1900.

Dean’s first opera, with libretto by two-time Miles Franklin Award-winning author Rodney Hall and commissioned for the Queensland Conservatorium’s Opera School, is set in Western Queensland on the eve of Federation, and it’s these gender imbalances that form the crux of the work’s drama and tragedy.

Dry River RunThe cast of Queensland Conservatorium’s Dry River Run. Photo © Patrick Adams

The scene is set with a dawn funeral, flies buzzing in the violas as the lights gradually reveal a stark, desert stage – Peter Mumford’s semi-abstract set is raw and open (along with lighting designer Nigel Levings, he gives the work a sharp visual unity), a simple timber platform the only landmark as a dry, clacking ostinato underpins the music. Archie Callaway, an outspoken advocate of Federation, has died, leaving behind his widow Gladys and daughter Veronica. His conservative brother, Reverend Callaway, has arrived in town to claim his half of Archie’s property, Dry River Run. The chorus enters with the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past, the European music struggling to assert itself against the wild landscape painted by the orchestra.

Against the backdrop of another struggle – that of pro and anti-Federation sentiment – a more personal story unfolds. Archie’s young employees, Henry and Joseph, are both in love with Veronica, Dry River Run’s architecture echoing that of Janáček’s Jenůfa. The love-triangle doesn’t go un-noticed by Reverend Callaway, who orchestrates a ‘test’ of Veronica’s mettle: the two boundary riders will take her with them on a ride to a remote cabin on the Callaway property – a cabin with a dark history – and leave her there alone.

Dry River RunPhillip Costovski and Henry Pinder in Queensland Conservatorium’s Dry River Run. Photo © Patrick Adams

Dean is perhaps still best known as a clarinettist, but his career as a composer is escalating rapidly – he’s the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra’s Composer in Residence next year – and this ambitious first foray into opera has yielded some wonderful writing, a stirring, tenebrous score shot through with prominent lines for clarinet, bass clarinet, oboe and cor anglais. The student orchestra, under the baton of Nicholas Cleobury, handles the complex music with aplomb: as Veronica sings of butterflies she’s haloed by a glittering swarm from the orchestra, while wry suggestions of hoof beats accompany Joseph and Henry on a lazy ride (astride two wooden barrels in one of the opera’s few lighter moments) and the ensemble charts the escalating drama in cracking orchestral thunder.

The singing – especially that of the five leads – is generally very good, the students doing an impressive job in the new and challenging material, the chorus admirably holding their own even in the more chaotic music of a pub brawl.

Dry River RunOliver Boyd in Queensland Conservatorium’s Dry River Run. Photo © Patrick Adams

Oliver Boyd is imperious and condescending as Reverend Callaway, his earthy baritone exuding authority in a role that’s particularly demanding both vocally and in stamina. Xenia Puskarz Thomas has a warm, luxurious mezzo that fills the theatre as the outspoken Gladys Callaway, who sees a brighter future for women in the advent of Federation, while Phillip Costovski brings a bright, smooth-edged tenor to Henry, offset by Henry Pinder’s warm bass as Joseph. Soprano Sheridan Hughes brings sweetness and clarity to Veronica, her heart-wrenching wordless notes in the final act conveying a trauma she can’t yet articulate. An Aboriginal character, named only as the Ochre Man (Dylan Hoskins, in a speaking role), has returned to the town as a constant reminder to the inhabitants – and the audience – of the bloody colonial history that is part of this, and any, story of Australia.

Dry River RunXenia Puskarz Thomas in Queensland Conservatorium’s Dry River Run. Photo © Patrick Adams

Hall’s direction captures the bleakness of his scenario, the 32-piece chorus – who function not unlike a Greek chorus – is a seething crowd that whorls slowly around the stage, but it is in the more intimate scenes that his blocking is most effective. Some pacing issues in the opera mean the drama plateaus across much of the first act – though Dean’s music keeps the tension simmering – and it loses some steam in the denouement, but there are also moments of incredible tension and terrifying drama, which, with a little tightening, could hit home with even more force. The return in the final act of material from the funeral binds the music effectively into a whole.

Dry River Run is a condemnation of toxic masculinity and the power structures that allow and encourage it to flourish, and although the opera acknowledges Veronica’s voicelessness – her anguish plays out in plaintive oboe and the writhing choreography of a ballet sequence (choreographed by Delia Silvan) in the wake of her attack – we hear little of her inner life before or after, while her attacker is drawn in vivid detail, his internal conflicts writ large in some of the opera’s most turbulent music. Fuller characterisations of both Veronica and Gladys could perhaps bring more depth and humanity to what is a violent and tragic tale.

Dry River RunHenry Pinder, Sheridan Hughes and Phillip Costovski in Queensland Conservatorium’s Dry River Run. Photo © Patrick Adams

Dry River Run adds to a significant canon of operas drawing on Australia’s history – from Richard Mills’ Batavia and Richard Meale’s Voss to more recent works such as Kate Miller-Heidke’s The Rabbits and Deborah Cheetham’s Pecan Summer – holding a mirror up to Australia both at Federation and today. While the tough Gladys Callaway is optimistic, Dry River Run as an opera is less so, painting a grim picture of the future in which the old pre-Federation power structures of church and class simply adapt to the new order, echoes of which resound in contemporary discussions of equality and gendered violence.

More optimistic, however, is the future of Australian opera, both in the hands of the young singers at the Queensland Conservatorium and those of a composer flexing his opera muscles for the first time in an audacious – and I would say ultimately successful – foray into the genre.

Dry River Run is at the Queensland Conservatorium Theatre until September 9


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