The operatic version of Patrick White’s novel is legendary. How long have we to wait before someone takes up the cause?

Has there ever been an Australian opera with a more protracted, turbulent and truncated history? Patrick White’s 1957 novel Voss was loosely based on the expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt in the 1840s. The writer created an obsessed German explorer attempting to traverse our uncharted continent. Rich in so many issues embodying European heritage, national identity and Indigenous culture, Voss has long fascinated painters and film-makers, and a brave handful of composers, among these Moya Henderson and Barry Conyngham.

Critically, it was Peter Hemmings, General Manager of The Australian Opera, who hit upon a solution for bringing Voss to the operatic stage. Hemmings approached David Malouf whose early sketches persuaded the skeptical composer Richard Meale that the impossible was indeed possible: Voss could become an opera.

Voss, Patrick White, Richard MealeRobert Eddie as Judd in the original production of Voss. Photo © Don McMurdo

Egged on by director Jim Sharman, it took Meale seven tumultuous years to produce his opera from Malouf’s libretto. Had there ever been such anticipation and excitement in Australian music? Had that elusive beast, ‘the great Australian opera,’ finally arrived?

Voss headlined the Adelaide Festival in March 1986 with five Festival Theatre performances. In June, it opened OA’s Sydney winter season with ten performances and in March 1987 it moved to Melbourne. Three cities produced a combined box office of around 67 per cent, much better than some more traditional fare those seasons.

In late 1986, Stuart Challender recorded the opera with the SSO and its original cast in the Goossens Auditorium, a stunning performance subsequently released by ABC/Philips, with worldwide release by Polygram. The final 1987 Melbourne performances were simulcast on ABC Classic FM and TV. At the time, Sharman remarked that “the understated intensity of an opera like Voss seems ideal for translation to the small screen [although inevitably] you lost some sense of the scale, the broad sweep of events”.

Voss was revived for AO’s 1990 subscription season, Dobbs Franks, replacing a declining Challender who had barely a year to live. After scarcely two dozen performances in three cities, Voss was last seen in July 1990. The production team disbanded, sets and costumes were dismantled and an important moment in Australian music passed into memory.

More than a quarter-century later, an entire generation has not had the opportunity to see ‘the great Australian opera’. Questions arise: is it flawed? irrelevant? dangerous (in terms of box office)? Why have we not seen it since 1990, and why do we need to see it?

Having studied the troubled history of Voss for over a decade, I have come to agree that the third act is indeed problemmatic, but not to the point of inhibiting its reappearance. (Meale’s archive at the NLA even reveals another ending.) Perhaps in this internet age of virtual romances, an opera set in Australia’s colonial past is no longer fashionable. Why waste time and precious resources on a revival, say the intendants, when we could create a new opera? (Nearly all Australian operas die after their premiere seasons, perpetuating the whole sorry cycle.) Yes, we are grateful for the recording and the television video, and our waning memories – many of the original players are now deceased, or perilously elderly – but none of this can compensate for the experience of a live production. Not a revival of the original production, Sharman has counselled, but a totally new one, by a younger team that can bring new perspective and life to the enterprise.

Although it originated in Adelaide, the future of Voss should not be expected from its city of origin. It is equally a Sydney story, a Brisbane story, a national story. Rumours of new productions surface from time to time, then dissipate. If not our national company, or even a state company, perhaps we may see it taken up by one of the less timorous teaching institutions?

There is no denying that, for its brief four years and two dozen performances, Voss was a shining moment in Australian history. It’s the opera we continue to read about, listen to and discuss, but why have we not seen it? Until we do see it again, our history and culture are lacking.

Vincent Plush has spent a decade researching Voss and advocating for a new production. He recently submitted his PhD thesis: Music in the Life and Work of Patrick White