Many consider it the great Australian novel. So will George Palmer’s adaptation be the next great Australian opera?

When Cloudstreet first hit bookshop shelves 25 years ago, not even its author could have anticipated the novel’s success. There’s nothing grand or extravagant about Tim Winton’s story of two working-class families brought together to live in a run-down, rickety house in an unnamed suburb of Perth. No, the secret of this endearing and humble novel, that charmed readers around the country, was its quintessentially Aussie prose, loveable characters, and evocative description of Australian life in the 1940s, ‘50s and early ‘60s. 

The book has since been made into a radio play, a wildly successful theatre production and most recently a TV miniseries. And now this favourite Australian literary masterpiece is undergoing yet another transformation: into a new operatic work opening this month at State Opera of South Australia. 

For composer George Palmer QC, turning Cloudstreet into an opera has been one of the biggest undertakings of his musical career. After juggling composing with his work as a solicitor, and serving ten years on the bench as a Judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Palmer gave up his life in the law in 2011 to focus his energies on composing the opera. Since taking up the project six years ago, Palmer’s adaptation, Cloudstreet!, has received a series of workshops and development sessions, and after a final stretch (and some frantic orchestrating), the opera is finally ready for the stage. 

Writing an opera had always been Palmer’s ambition. It was just a question of finding the right subject matter. Palmer describes his desire to set a text that was immediately identifiable as Australian: “I wanted something that represented, in some way, our culture,” he says. “I couldn’t think of a better work to adapt than that most wonderful of Australian novels, Cloudstreet. It’s a novel that I have loved very deeply for 15 to 20 years. I don’t know how many times I read it before thinking it would make a fantastic opera. It’s got everything: high tragedy, vaudevillian art, a specifically laconic Australian humour and a laconic Australian stoicism. It’s an entrancing story.” 

Johanna Allen as Oriel Lamb in Cloudstreet workshops

But how would one of the country’s most respected and successful authors react when approached about turning a book he wrote 25 years ago into an opera? According to Palmer, Tim Winton was surprised: “I think there was a little bit of incredulity on the part of Tim and his agent that this work could be turned into an opera, or an opera that Tim would be happy with. I think he might have been a bit concerned that an opera might be over-intellectualising the work and the characters. So we sent some video footage with the music to him and I think that might have assuaged his doubts.”

Cloudstreet is not the first of Winton’s novels to be turned into an opera. The award-winning author’s writing has served as operatic inspiration once before – in a recent, award-winning Victorian Opera and Malthouse Theatre production based on his book The Riders, with music by Iain Grandage and a libretto by Alison Croggon. Clearly there’s something about Winton’s unique approach to prose that lends itself well to music. As Palmer says, “the magic of his language is overwhelming. It is a unique blend of everyday speech patterns and pure poetry. He’s very precise in his use of words – very economic. The language doesn’t draw attention to itself.”

As if composing wasn’t enough, Palmer has also penned the libretto for Cloudstreet!, drawing heavily on Winton’s own language from the book. “I have tried”, says Palmer “to use as much as possible of his own words. Of course, I’ve had to elaborate and expand in some parts – there are parts in the libretto that don’t appear at all in the book – but I wanted to keep as close to Winton’s prose as I could.” 

We’re all familiar with what is best described as the Australian ‘vernacular’ – a lexicon of slang, ockerisms and idiomatic turns of phrase that pervade all levels of Australian cultural life. Winton’s prose is full of it, rendered in the most elegant and insightful way. Palmer embraces the Aussie plain-speak in his libretto: “the characters are often singing pure Australian-isms – four-letter words, a lot of them!” 

In the early planning stages of the libretto, Palmer got a call from celebrated theatre director Gale Edwards. “Gale rang me and said she’d love to have a look at it,” he says. “We got together, she read through it, and she immediately became very passionate about it.” Edwards has had substantial input into the structure and the development of the libretto, reading through drafts and discussing what would and wouldn’t work onstage. “It’s been a terrific learning process for me,” says Palmer, “understanding the technique of storytelling for a live audience. A reader can turn back the page and read something again. You can’t do that with a live work. They’ve got to get it immediately.”

Composer, George Palmer

Winton’s Cloudstreet is a large book (coming in at over 400 pages), and it covers a substantial 20-year timeframe, so adapting it for the stage is no mean feat. Nick Enright and Justin Monjo’s theatre adaptation went for over four hours. For Palmer, condensing the story into a three-hour opera proved to be the most challenging part of the process. “There are so many stories – major and minor – interwoven into the book,” he says. “All of them are fascinating. The hardest thing was to decide what to leave out. What were the essential stories I had to tell? And what were the fascinating byways that I had to omit?”

The story begins in 1943, during the Second World War, and it ends 20 years later, with pivotal characters who start out as children in the beginning becoming adults by the end of the book. Palmer made the decision pretty early on to use adult opera singers to portray the novel’s younger characters: “we’re going to have to ask people to suspend a little bit of disbelief”, he explains. “For example, the first scene is set by a river, and the kids are 10 or 11 – though there are adults onstage. They’re frolicking around like kids do, and the music is appropriate for that. Then as time progresses, we see them growing up into adults, played by the same singers.” 

Palmer concedes that this places significant acting demands on many of the performers: “The singers begin as child characters, running and jumping around, and tussling with their brothers or sisters, eventually becoming adults, falling in love and dealing with disappointment and tragedy. I’m very confident that after very careful auditioning of a lot of people, we’ve come up with a group of singers who can not only sing brilliantly but can carry off the acting demands as well.”

One character in particular presents a substantial challenge to cast. Fish Lamb is a young boy full of promise, but who tragically is nearly drowned in the opening pages of the book. He survives, but is left brain damaged and with significant cognitive issues. His observances in the book are some of the most honest and powerful, and his relationship with his older brother Quick makes for some of the novel’s most beautiful storytelling.

The greatest challenge with Fish is getting a terrific singer who is also a terrific actor

As Palmer explains, “the greatest challenge with Fish is getting a terrific singer who is also a terrific actor. Fish is onstage almost the whole time, but of all that time, we see mostly the disabled child. There are some brief moments where we see him before the accident, or where we see the truly heroic vision of what he could have been, where he emerges into something quite otherworldly and sublime. But to fit that transition for an actor is extremely hard. And it’s not something all opera singers are capable of. So we had a very long search for the right Fish and I think we’ve found him. I’m really hoping the magic of this wonderful character will come through very strongly.”

Musically, Palmer has used the directness, honesty and simplicity of Winton’s storytelling to dictate the tone and style of the score. Some of the most notable large-scale operatic works based on great Australian literature have adopted a musical language steeped in the modernist tradition. Richard Meale’s setting of Patrick White’s Voss and Brett Dean’s setting of Peter Carey’s Bliss in particular have some very violent musical moments. In composing Cloudstreet! however, Palmer says he wanted the score to be accessible to a wide audience – like the prose of Tim Winton’s novel. “It is music that I hope is transparent and approachable,” says Palmer. “The novel is enormously sophisticated, though it doesn’t wear intellectualism on its sleeve. I wanted the music to be immediately appealing.”

With the opera’s premiere rapidly approaching, Palmer is able to reflect on the process, which, he says, “has encompassed so many elements that needed to be drawn together. Not just music: it’s a narrative as well. It’s dramaturgy. It’s adapting a novel into a libretto. There are so many strands. Pulling all of those things together has been very hard of course but, I have to say, enormously exciting. I wouldn’t swap it for the world. Working with these incredibly talented and creative people – like Gale Edwards, Tim Sexton (Artistic Director and CEO of State Opera of South Australia), and the whole cast – has been a terrific experience.”

State Opera of South Australia performs Cloudstreet! at Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide from May 12-21