“I thought that it was a nutty idea, but nutty enough to be intriguing,” says best-selling author.

Over the years it’s been a book, a radio series, a hit play for Belvoir and Neil Armfield, and now Tim Winton’s iconic Cloudstreet is set to become an opera to premiere next year at State Opera of South Australia.

Catching up with the West Australian writer over the phone from his home in Perth, Winton admits to having lost count of the attempts to adapt his 1991 novel of two working-class Australian families (the Lambs and the Pickles) who come to live together at One Cloud Street, in a suburb of Perth between the transformational years of 1943 to 1963. “It’s all a bit vaporous in my mind,” he confesses, before recounting some of the ideas for musicalising the book that have come across his desk in the past. “Over the years people have sent me songs and kinds of musical settings for this and that, but in terms of the whole piece as an operatic or musical theatre version, this is the first time.”

Cloudstreet workshop cast with Gale Edwards and George Palmer (Photos by Oliver Toth)

The idea of turning it into an opera came several years ago from Sydney-based composer (and former Justice of the Supreme Court of New South Wales), George Palmer.I just thought that it was a nutty idea,” says Winton, “but nutty enough to be intriguing. I thought, ‘what the hell! What would I know? You want to make it into an opera? Go for your life! It’s your money.”

The might sound a little blasé, but Winton is all too aware of the risks and the height of the stakes in this kind of undertaking. “George is taking a long time getting his ducks in a row trying to do it right,” he explains, “but I guess, you only get one chance at this sort of thing. In Australia we don’t get the out of town tryout because we lack sufficient towns to tryout in. These things are so expensive they tend to be organised around festivals and stuff. We often see shows from abroad and they’re years old by the time we see them. That slickness and smoothness is a result of the erosion that comes with many performances.”

Cloudstreet the novel is very much about ordinary people – a drama about people living in real time. Did Tim Winton ever worry that it might be more grounded as a musical than a ‘high-flown’ opera? “I was struggling to think of it as a book all the years that I was writing it,” he laughs. “No, I don’t really have an agenda. I’m just curious that anyone is interested. But I take your point because it’s not an unearned prejudice that opera is a rarefied form where people tend to sing in another language and the story almost always tends to take place in another place, time, or era. If it doesn’t feel like something close to home, it’s not going to trouble us very much. The novel is written in a demotic, and George trying to make a piece out of quite a high art form using demotic language is a challenge – but to be fair, it is a bit of a challenge to do that in literature as well. I guess, the challenge of the book was to try to make high language out of low language. That’s the most intriguing part of the opera, for me. What he is trying to do is what I was trying to do – trying to marry the low and the high, the ordinary and the extraordinary.”

Nicholas Cannon & Simon Gleeson

Although not directly involved in the adaptation – “who’d want to involve me in that process?” he quips – Winton has seen some video footage of workshops, which impressed him. “It’s a very warm production, which seems to be quite happy to blur boundaries,” he explains. “George is not content to sit within one strict tradition. Whether it’s opera or musical theatre I don’t really know and I don’t really care to be honest. Hopefully, most people don’t either.”

From those first glimpses on video, the work that comes to Winton’s mind is that quintessential opera about community, Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. “It has very distinctive place, a very distinctive setting, there’s a regional thing going on, it’s set in time, and it works. It doesn’t have to have a big guy flashing his sword around or wearing a horned helmet. Still, I wouldn’t be averse to a horned helmet. Fish Lamb in a horned helmet? What the hell.”

Talking of the intellectually disabled Fish, the novel’s occasionally controversial narrator and described by theatre critic Michael Billington as “a mix of Dickens’s Smike and a Dostoevskian holy fool”, how will an opera tackle what some might see as a significant dramaturgical hurdle? “In the same way when the thing’s performed on the stage,” reckons Winton. “You have a small, mentally damaged boy being played by a grown up whose ball has dropped. That’s the magic of theatre. Somehow the lights go down and so do everyone’s defences. Everyone in the audience somehow buys in – or doesn’t – but that’s the challenge.”

Johanna Allen

And does he feel the opera will rival what I refer to as Belvoir’s five to six hour stage adaptation? “It was actually four and a half hours,” Winton laughs. “It’s funny how its legend grows. It’s like Tony Abbott – the longer he’s gone the better he’ll seem, certainly to himself.”

Once you start singing, of course, it usually takes two or three times longer to say something, and so the process of filleting a text is often crucial. Winton isn’t too worried, likening it to David Malouf’s libretto for Richard Meale’s adaptation of Patrick White’s Voss back in the day. “That was a monster, a much bigger book than Cloudstreet, and far denser in a way,” he admits. “Someone has to make hard choices – I’m not sure if they’re going to find room in this opera for the talking pig – but the great thing about music is that it jumps fences and it does it with ease. It doesn’t even need to acknowledge certain realistic boundaries. I think music broaches time. It leads and it slips and it travels sideways. I think that’s a huge benefit certainly when you’re trying to bring something that has a big and sprawling narrative into some sort of governable, and manageable duration – for the sake of mercy on the audience.”

Also, people can sing their inner thoughts. They can sing their dreams and their nightmares. They can sing within the space of three or four lines something that might take many pages to put across in prose. There’s an economy to the sung word. Once someone starts singing it does take time, but it swallows time as well.”

George Palmer, director Gale Edwards and musical director Timothy Sexton clearly have the blessing of the writer of the book that more often than any other regularly tops lists that go by titles like ‘Greatest Australian Book of All Time’. And though he may not have seen a workshop yet, Winton is looking forward to the end result and is refreshingly open to the unexpected. “When I go and see a show based on one of my works I want to be surprised, I suppose,” he explains. “My best experiences of theatre or screen adaptations are when they have that peculiar mixture of familiarity and surprise – where you recognise a familial resemblance without somehow being so familiar that you’re mouthing the next words. The most important thing is that it’s something in and of itself. That it’s artistically whole and successful – something that works. My hope for George and all these people that have put so much time, effort, money and talent into it, is that it lifts off and flies.”