In the Penal Colonyis a minimalist chamber opera taking on big, brave themes.

“The harrow has the job of carrying out the punishment.
The law that the condemned man has broken will be written on his body.
The first six hours, the man remains alive almost as before.
He only suffers pain…
After two hours he has no strength left for screaming.”

It all sounds like a fun night at the theatre. Philip Glass’s In the Penal Colony,based on the 1914 short story by Kafka, is one of his darkest and most confronting works. And it is being given its Australian premiere this week by Sydney Chamber Opera (SCO) to mark the cult composer’s 75 thbirthday.

Even for Kafka, this one’s particularly grim. A visitor is invited to witness a violent execution carried out by a terrifyingly efficient torture machine – punishment for an undisclosed crime. Along with the unnamed visitor, Sydney Chamber Opera’s audience will be drawn into the action as voyeurs witnessing a sadistic spectacle.

The young guns at SCO are shaking up the opera establishment with their reputation as the little company tackling big, confronting themes. Their first production in 2011 was based on the rantings...