The sound of buzzing violas is the first thing the audience will hear when Dry River Run – a brand new opera by composer and clarinettist Paul Dean and author Rodney Hall – opens in Brisbane at the start of September. “The whole piece starts with hordes – as Rodney describes them in the libretto – of pestilential flies and butcherbird song,” Dean explains.

The opera, ‘orchestral fragments’ of which the Queensland Symphony Orchestra performed in its 2017 season, is set in a remote town in Western Queensland on the eve of Federation, opening with the funeral of Archie Callaway, a popular farmer, and the arrival of his brother to lay claim to a half share in the property. “It’s a dawn funeral – they had funerals very early because it got too bloody hot otherwise.”

Paul Dean, Dry River RunPaul Dean

When I speak to Dean, he’s just come out of a meeting about the show, set to go into production in less than an hour. “It’s terrifying, you know, as a clarinettist/composer who’s written 30 pieces for instrumental ensembles, a couple of concertos,” he says. “Here I am sitting there talking about wigs and shoes and fabric and where are we going to put the coffin on stage? And there’s going to be an extra split in the roof of the pub scene so that the lighting can work properly.”

“I went to change something in the score recently and I went to put it in an email to the conductor,” he says. “Then I thought, ‘Oh, hang on, the repetiteur needs to know, the director needs to know, the lighting designer needs to know’ – it ended up being 15 people in this email! The implications of me even changing a bar were that far-reaching.”

Dry River Run is Dean’s first foray into opera writing, part of the contract that saw him leave his position as head of the Australian National Academy of Music in Melbourne to take the Head of Winds job at the Queensland Conservatorium in 2016. “They knew that my career was going into the direction of being a composer,” Dean says. “To sweeten the deal Professor Scott Harrison asked me to write an opera for the opera school in 2018, and that it would be part of my workload here – to actually write an opera – which is something that I found way too much of a carrot to ignore.”

He does admit to some trepidation, however. “After agreeing to sign on here, I sort of went back to Melbourne, looked out my office window in South Melbourne and went, ‘What the hell did I just say I would do? I’ve got no idea how to write an opera!’ I mean, I’d played in lots of operas and I’ve listened to opera my whole life, but I certainly didn’t know anything about writing one – or at least I didn’t think I did.”

So Dean contacted an old family friend – who also happens to be a two-time Miles Franklin Literary Award-winning author – Rodney Hall. The pair met in Melbourne in 2014 and Dean explained to Hall that he needed a story and libretto. “He was really excited,” Dean says. “He hated my idea for an opera, which we don’t need to talk about, but he said, ‘Look, let me go away’ and a month later he came back with the story.”

Hall, who will also direct the production, is a big Janáček fan, Dean explains, so Jenůfa – the Czech composer’s bleak story of infanticide in a small village – was a model. “I think it’s the most extraordinary opera – I love Janáček operas, and I love [Shostakovich’s] Lady Macbeth,” Dean says. “The dark operas are the ones that I love the most.”

“This is a particularly difficult story,” Dean explains. “It involves sexual assault, it involves the church, it involves a family in rural Australia four months before Federation.”

Dry River RunXenia Puskarz Thomas, who sings Mrs Gladys Callaway in Dry River Run. Photo © Nick Morrissey

Dry River Run focuses on Archie Callaway’s widow Gladys and her daughter Veronica, who are caught in a plot of domestic violence (Dean is loathe to give out any spoilers) set in the context of Victorian morality. The action takes place not just on the eve of Federation, but the eve of women (though only white women) gaining the vote, which Mrs Callaway and her daughter hope will deliver equal rights and future justice. “It’s a complicated, dark story,” Dean says. “It’s opera, after all.”

“There are a few issues in the opera that will obviously promote thought and discussion and conversations afterwards,” he says. “And I always think that’s a good thing. I think art’s role in society is to question and lay bare some of society’s great faults and I don’t think this is an exception.”

While the viola-flies and butcherbirds evoke the natural landscape, Dean sets the social scene with the hymn O God, Our Help in Ages Past, sung by the congregation arriving at the funeral. “That brings us into the musical world,” says Dean. “It’s very clever, Rodney uses the hymn to get us into ‘why the hell are these people singing and not acting or speaking like it’s a play’.”

For Dean, the biggest challenge of writing his first opera, which clocks in at two hours and 20 minutes of music, was the sheer scale. “How does one keep the drama up for that period of time?” he says.

Dry River RunOliver Boyd, who sings Reverend Callaway in Dry River Run. Photo © Nick Morrissey

There are a few musical elements that unite the piece. “I’ve got a series of eight chords for Reverend Callaway, who is the main character, and I’ve got a series of six chords for Mrs Callaway, his sister-in-law,” he says. “Then there’s certain sound worlds for each of the characters, plus the flies, which make a regular appearance.”

The butcherbird calls, which Dean has transcribed for the wind section, “make the odd appearance,” while the hymn of the opening plays a significant role. “The hymn becomes quite an important emotional tool for me at the very end of the opera,” he says. “I start the hymn as it is written and then it just smears entirely in a sort of pseudo-Ligeti fashion.”

“Martin Bresnik, my friend and fellow composer, his statement is always that you don’t leave home until your bags are packed,” Dean says. “I did leave home with my bags unpacked – I only had this series of eight chords when I left home, but I picked up a toothbrush and some deodorant and some Panadol on the way, and some t-shirts, and my bag was pretty full by the time I got to the end.”

Having a script to hang the dramatic structure on helped. “But actually keeping the energy in the writing was a big thing for me,” Dean says. “My father passed away halfway through writing the opera and I had a lot of trouble getting back to the energy required to have the inspiration to make sure there wasn’t too much – or any – padding.”

The staging of an opera by an Australian composer is a rare enough event in itself, but this will be the third in the Dean family, with Brett Dean, Paul’s brother, writing Bliss – based on the Peter Carey novel and one of only two Australian operas to receive more than one production – and Hamlet, which premiered at Glyndebourne, played at the Adelaide Festival and is rumoured to be heading to major opera houses in both the USA and Europe.

So did Dean draw on his brother’s expertise in the field? “I had finished my first scene – which was actually scene five – at a time when he came out,” he says, “It was one of the Christmas vacations, he was here working with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. He came up to Brisbane to see Mum and Dad, and we spent the whole day talking about writing operas and it was a fantastic thing. I heard a couple of early tracks from Hamlet and I played him some of my MIDI files of Dry River Run, so it was fascinating from that perspective.”

“At the time I was listening to George Benjamin’s Written on Skin, Thomas Adès’ The Tempest, and Brett’s Bliss,” Dean says. “Everything he writes is an enormous inspiration to me – and of course I saw Hamlet in Adelaide earlier this year and I kind of wish I’d heard it a year earlier.”

“It just gave me this spark of inspiration to do something extra at the end,” he explains. “I thought Hamlet was probably the greatest piece ever written by an Australian, without a shadow of a doubt, and probably one of the greatest operas written in the last 30 or 40 years – probably since Grimes.”

Dry River RunHenry Pinder, who sings Joseph, a Boundary rider, in Dry River Run. Photo © Nick Morrissey

For his own opera, Dean has marshalled formidable forces, with Dry River Run demanding five main soloists, five or six smaller roles, a 32-piece chorus and “a really, really big orchestra,” he says. “It just about fits in the pit we’ve got here.”

“I’m incredibly lucky that I have Nicholas Cleobury conducting,” Dean says, citing the English conductor’s links with Tippet, Ligeti, Messiaen, Birtwistle and Peter Maxwell-Davis. “[He’s] been at the cutting edge of doing new opera most of his life. We’re very, very lucky to have him as a sounding board.”

Dean also flags his “own personal team” in his partner, cellist Trish O’Brien. “She’s had to put up with listening to every single bar about two and a half thousand times,” he says. “I probably could never have written it without her. So I’ve had a really amazing inner sanctum to help me get through this first opera.”

For Dean, having a young orchestra and cast tackle Dry River Run has been particularly exciting. “They’re just so into making this story happen,” he says. “I think some of them are destined for huge international careers.”

Having an office in the building where the musicians practice and rehearse is also an advantage. “I get a lot of people saying ‘What the hell do you mean by this quarter tone or this articulation.’ So it’s kind of a nice team effort to have with all the students – and my students, of course, are playing the clarinet parts and they’re cursing me at every lesson.”

In terms of scale and prestige, writing an opera is a significant milestone – the American composer Robert Starer once described it as “the ultimate challenge and the ultimate achievement in a composer’s life.” But for Dean, opera can also do what other forms cannot. “I don’t think that there’s a form of music that can recreate the emotion that an opera can give you,” he says. “I’ve learnt more about composition writing this two hour, 20-minute piece than I have doing anything else, and it’s changed my music, in many ways. It’s changed the way I think about composing.”

Dry River Run plays at the Conservatorium Theatre, Queensland Conservatorium Griffith University, South Bank, September 1 – 9