In 1986, Brian Chatterton, Head of the Music School at the then South Australian College of Advanced Education, commissioned Ralph Middenway and librettist Andrew Taylor to write an opera for the Bicentennial, a Singspiel set in the Barossa Valley in the closing weeks of World War I.
The piece is set in a Barossa village, still largely German-speaking despite a Government edict in 1917. (The unidentified model for the village was Bethanien, renamed Bethany as part of that edict, and these days a shadow of its former self). The action runs from the Lutheran Reformation Festival on 31st October 1918 to Armistice Day on 11th November.
Käthe Kaschke is Juliet, Harry Whitelaw is Romeo. Her mother is the widow of a small-holder, his father a widower with a large property out of town. The young lovers face each other across a rigid ethnic divide. Their parents believe in sticking to one’s own kind, as do the German rustics (with good reason).
There are many parallels with R&J, but no-one dies (apart from a few million in the trenches) and with the coming of peace there is a general relaxation of tensions and the four principals at least will live happily ever after.
The main roles are for lyric soprano, dramatic soprano and light and dark baritones. There are seven supporting roles; the Pastor speaks; the orchestra is of relatively modest size; there are onstage a five-piece scratch ensemble of the kind then common in the Valley, including a primitive piano accordion. Two characters express their feelings by playing rather than singing: one church music on a small positive organ; the other ragtime and elaborate decoration on piano, requiring a fluent technique.
As in any Singspiel, secco recitative is replaced by dialogue.
The initially heterogeneous musical idiom gradually comes together as tensions build.
At one end of the spectrum are a rag, ultra-minimalism, a diatonic drinking song, two chorales, a pastiche choral prelude and ersatz 1918 pop.
At the other are confronting orchestral passages, interval rows, clusters, ebullient six-part choruses in irregular rhythms, and demanding solos and ensembles.
It needs four experienced singers, an experienced conductor, and competent student singers and instrumentalists.
The action takes place in a simple church, in a churchyard, in Frau Kaschke’s plain farmhouse kitchen and Mr Whitelaw’s tasteful parlour, and in front of the Weinstube in the village square. Settings need to suggest this diversity. All scene changes are open; most of the stagehands are the villagers; others operate flies and a revolve or trucks; the score is tailored accordingly.
It was performed several times in October 1988, seventy years after the event and 150 years after the arrival of Lutheranism in South Australia. The venue was the Scott Theatre in Adelaide.
Tessa Miller played Käthe, Geoffrey Asshenden was Harry; the parents were Mary Branagan and Alan McKie. Tessa Bremner directed and arranged costumes. The composer designed the bare bones of the set; Clive Richardson and Colin Dudley dressed it. The musical director was Brian Chatterton.
Audiences were very receptive. One worldly wise old woman, born in the Valley and of an age to be Käthe’s younger sister, said, “That was nearly my story – don’t change a thing!”
There have been several serious attempts to revive it, by people associated with the
Barossa Music Festival, by the librettist, English Professor at Edith Cowan University, and Brian Chatterton, on behalf of Co*Opera.
The original score was hand-written with typed text. In 2001–2002 it was transcribed and substantially revised. There is provision for some alternative orchestration.
The Singspiel is the kind of piece one might see at the ‘second houses’ of a large German city. It is suitable for performance by staff and students at well-established tertiary music schools, or by professional companies. Although not easy, it is readily accessible from the points of view of performers and audiences alike.
Despite its provincial name and setting, the story is universal. With a few minor changes in the libretto it could be set in other parts of Australia, or in the United States. In either case a name change might seem desirable: local factors might suggest an alternative.