Simon Lobelson is the latest singer required to summon the five octaves required for Maxwell Davies’ ‘mad’ King George.

One of the more curious things you might have noted about the passing of Sir Peter Maxwell Davies earlier this year is how a composer who was such an enfant terrible back in the 1960s could end up the fondly admired Master of the Queen’s Music with a host of ‘popular’ compositions to his name like the catchy An Orkney Wedding, with Sunrise, or suites of songs to be sung by Scottish schoolkids.

Next week in Sydney, the ambitious Verbrugghen Ensemble are aiming to put the record straight by winding back the clock on Sir Peter in a programme entitled Of Magic and Madness, the centrepiece of which will be a performance of one of his seminal early works: Eight Songs for a Mad King. Directed by Kate Gaul, the production will feature baritone Simon Lobelson as the deranged King George III as well as a bold new work by composer Matthew Hindson (This Year’s Apocalypse) and the lyrical Sextuor Mystique by Heitor Villa-Lobos.

Maxwell Davies with Simon Rattle in the 1980s

Maxwell Davies was 35 years of age when he wrote Eight Songs for a Mad King. Born in Salford in the north of England, he once said that his inspiration for composing was Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Gondoliers, heard at the tender age of four. However, after studying at the Royal Manchester College of Music he embraced a very different style of music making, going on to form New Music Manchester, a group committed to cutting-edge contemporary music, with fellow ‘young Turks’ Harrison Birtwistle, Alexander Goehr, Elgar Howarth and John Ogdon. He had his galley years, as they say, including a stint in Australia where he was Composer in Residence at Adelaide’s Elder Conservatorium from 1965 to 1966, but it was very much the scandal surrounding the shocking first performance of Eight Songs that put him on the map. “The work still astonishes now – the technical demands it makes on the singer and ensemble, the spirit of the music, its dissection of a broken mind,” says director Kate Gaul. “Who’d have thought an artist would ever be asked to make sheep sounds or sing like a horse?!”

The monodrama is set to a libretto by Randolph Stow but closely based on the recorded words of King George III, taken down by doctors and courtiers during his periods of ‘madness’. Written for the South-African actor Roy Hart, it requires its baritone protagonist to have a grasp of what at the time were very new extended vocal techniques and cover a gruelling range of over five octaves. “Maxwell Davies wrote these songs for a singer with an undoubtedly strong technique, but with extravagant and death-defying vocal effects to represent Mad King George III who couldn’t sing and had a very loose grip on the reality of his unfortunate situation,” says Simon Lobelson, the latest singer to tackle the demanding role. “This challenge is the great dichotomy of Max’s masterpiece. You need to have the foundation of a solid technique to create the most horrendous human sounds in a non-harmful way. Actually it’s really quite liberating for a change, having sung such ‘vocal’ roles as Rigoletto, Figaro, Germont and Amfortas, not to feel the need to make the loudest, most impressive sound possible at all times, which I know is how many singers roll.”

Baritone Simon Lobelson

It wasn’t just the music that was avant-garde for its time, even the score had a crazy look about it, one section famously having the staves written in the form of a bird cage with the text scrawled higgledy piggledy right across the page. But it is the range of noises that must emanate from the king that still strikes the modern listener as decidedly off the wall. “The sounds he requires are, for the most part, noises that most humans would make on a daily basis without even knowing it,” says Lobelson. “They range from surprise, to violent intakes of breath, howling, and even actual screaming. Actually, listening to the sounds made by my two sons under four-years old, who are made for the jungle, was revelatory in my discovery of these vocal effects. Having said that, some of his vocal directions required a little further research and some trial and error, like ‘wheedling’, ‘shriek’, ‘like a child’, ‘knifelike’, ‘becoming a high wheezing’, ‘strangled’, ‘as a drill sergeant’, ‘Italian tenor’, and my personal favourite, ‘like a horse’.”

In the past, productions have often been as controversial as the musical work itself. Maxwell Davies originally asked for the six players to be seated in giant bird cages (the King is meant to be talking to his aviary), but in subsequent stagings singers have appeared naked or been seated on the lavatory – or both. Lobelson admits to having been bowled over by the work the first time he heard it and a seminal moment was seeing it performed nearly 20 years ago in the Sydney Town Hall. “It was superb, and a complete emotional roller coaster,” he recalls. “I laughed a lot at the craziness of it all, especially Songs six and seven, which contain lots of levity. But Maxwell Davies knew what he was doing, because they set the audience up perfectly for the slow-burn apocalypse of the last song.”

Given those demands, though, was he at all nervous about taking on the role? “It is an extremely difficult piece and my own high musical, vocal and dramatic expectations made me wonder initially whether I was up to being that vulnerable and exposed on stage, and being willing to go to these dark places,” he confesses, “Much more so than being nervous about being naked on the toilet.”

Lobelson describes the piece as “dramatically transparent”, maintaining that it seems to play itself. It then becomes about “having the confidence to be him onstage – to go there – which can only be done when you are able to completely let go in performance”. In his opinion this is why opera singers are often accused of not being able to act. “Letting go is very hard to do when you’re juggling many balls in the air at once,” he says. “However to be labelled as a ‘singing actor’ for me is actually the highest form of praise.”

Lobelson in Sydney Chamber Opera’s Owen Wingrave

A first-rate track record in contemporary work has developed in Lobelson a certain fearlessness alongside a good sense of humour. “Given some of the straining sounds required, a well-placed toilet might be of some help,” he says, though he describes the Verbrugghen production as relatively PG. “I’ve had to do some pretty way-out stuff on stage in my time, like drink two cans of Stella before even singing a note; smoke; snort sherbet; rape someone in a cage and shoot myself through the head. But I’ve never had to be fully nude.”

“I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with full nudity elsewhere – maybe in another country, or better still an uninhabited island,” he quips, “though were I required to do so on this particular occasion, I’d have liked to have done a bit more exercise these past months; and not have my students from the Con in the audience, which is possibly not the best political move for future respect in the classroom.”

So when the curtains (or the lights) come down next week, how does Simon Lobelson hope the audience will feel? “I remember feeling devastated at the end of that performance 20 years ago,” he says. “It was utterly heartbreaking to see a man bare his entire emotional and subconscious soul to me, and with that end. Laughing and crying at the same time can be one of the most cathartic things, so I hope the audience will be able to appreciate, even for a split second in that group-therapy-in-a-dark-room-thing we call theatre, that beautiful spark of madness that we all possess.”

Of Magic and Madness is at Sydney Conservatorium on Tuesday October 4