Theatre Royal, Hobart
April 13, 2018

Near a chilling waterfront, a small chorus sings: “My whole and sole object was to kill them. The laws of God and Nature render this my duty.” This is a line from A Tasmanian Requiem. Three years in the making, this 83-minute oratorio for voice and brass shares the history of the Black War. In an opening address, it is made very clear that this requiem was not created to entertain. Its intention is to allow us space to grieve for lives destroyed; for an Indigenous population that lost more than 90 per cent of its people in the two decades after British arrival on Van Diemen’s Land.

A Tasmanian Requiem features a score by composer Helen Thomson, a libretto by Greg Lehman, and video by visual artist Julie Gough in partnership with Michael Gissing. Lehman also commissioned a poem by Elder Jim Everett-puralia meenamatta,while producer/writer Frances Butler also contributed collaboratively to the libretto. ​

The work has its world premiere in the Theatre Royal – Australia’s oldest theatre still in operation, which opened in 1837 to provide entertainment for a growing European colony. There is an unsettling irony in the venue’s Tasmania state crest. Mounted near the royal box, it looks down upon a stage set to share the story of cultural damage done by the very generation that erected it.

Tasmanian RequiemA Tasmanian Requiem. Photo © Alastair Bett

A projector screen extends the narrative of this requiem with continuous vision. A small ensemble takes to the stage featuring musicians from the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra, here forming the Island Brass Quintet under the skilful direction of Gary Wain.

There are three sets of “voices” – two Palawa Voices: mezzo-soprano Lotte Betts-Dean as Earth Voice and a small Chorus featuring soprano, tenor and bass singers. The groupings represent different languages through which this requiem is presented – English, Latin, and a Tasmanian Aboriginal language. These singers and performers don formal black clothing. But here, the outfits do not appear as regular concert blacks. They are mourning blacks.

The concert begins with a breeze of soft air blown through brass instruments, setting an atmospheric entry into the real landscapes and night sky shown on the screen. Vast fields and island flora surround playing kangaroos; a gentle welcome into an untouched world. The first movement is titled Genesis, and marks the beginning of it all. From here, the descent begins.

Through the second movement, Inferno, we are shown the rotting flesh of a kangaroo carcass; a colony of ants appear aimless around their home. Rhythmic and tonal dissonance intensifies for the remainder of the work – paradise unravels and begins to decay. By movement four, Fire/Requiem Aeternam II: “Num lagger! White man comes!”. Old paintings of colonists are cut together like a video that shows an ensuing arrival, invasion, and destruction. The Conciliation, painted by Benjamin Duterrau c.1840, is one of these works, portraying an angelic George Augustus Robinson in the centre (“Chief Protector of Aboriginies”, as he was known). Indigenous people are painted into the landscape around him – Robinson shaking hands with one, raising his other hand into a Christ-like gesture of saviour or hope.

A Tasmanian RequiemMadelena Andersen-Ward. Photo © Alastair Bett

“Parrawa! Parrawa!” cry the Palawa Voices, Madelena Andersen-Ward (mezzo-soprano) and Zoy Frangos (tenor): “Go away! Go away!”. The chorus confronts us with real accounts of the damage caused not only by the physical outcome of the war, but also the imported cultural values, singing that the Indigenous people were “the lowest possible scale of human nature”.

“The women were killed and put in a fire, the children’s brains were beaten out.” It is a disturbing and historically backed account of 40,000 years of history forcefully discontinued. Some of this text is drawn from real newspaper and archival clippings, which are sung as well as shown on the screen. It is sickening to absorb.

Through simultaneous Palawa Voices, Chorus 1 in Latin and Chorus 2 in English, it grows difficult to distinguish the languages and diction. The consequence is that the voices become fused, a dialogue between textures and articulations. The contrasting tonal qualities of the voices aid this feel – Betts-Dean’s thick, heavy operatic voice emerges as though from her very guts, and notably composer Helen Thomson – a lighter soprano – also sings here in her own work. But it is Andersen-Ward who steals the show – her timbre rings of innocence and purity, further rendering the heartbreak of the events she portrays.

There is no clapping between movements – we were instructed at the beginning not to break this immersive experience. We sift through Cycles of Forgetting/Offertory and into following movements, watching romanticised imagery of stunning colonial homes, soured with a history we often cast aside when observing these properties’ aesthetic beauty. We watch vision of a wood-chopping event and a Royal Visit – white children and parents laughing and enjoying themselves. We don’t enjoy it with them. We watch through a different lens. (Although, rather tastelessly, a woman next to me boasts: “At least that kid isn’t me!” when some of this archival footage is screened, her friend unwrapping a lolly shortly after. Indeed, we have some progress still to make.)

Tasmanian RequiemTasmanian Requiem. Photo © Alastair Bett

The work slowly concludes with modern-day video, including snapshots of Butler and Everett-puralia meenamatta engaged in political and human rights activism. At the end, we are returned to footage of land – swarming birds and, finally, hopeful major-sounding music as we fade into a spinning and troubled night sky.

A Tasmanian Requiem evokes deep thinking. I learnt more about this state’s history than I had during my childhood and school years. I learnt more than I had in my academic studies in sociology. I learnt about the atrocities committed against the Indigenous population – bodies tied to trees, women kept captive for days before being slaughtered, churches erected by white people while Indigenous people were being rounded up and shot. The concert program – itself a stunning document – forms a more appropriate collection of historical facts than those I recall learning through the Tasmanian school curriculum.

This work is a requiem that encourages our community to mourn and grieve. Not only does it force us to remember, but it educates those of us who cannot remember what has been kept silent, the stories that have been buried rather than taught to our children. This work is dark and monumental. I hope it will eventually be made accessible in schools across Tasmania and beyond. In A Tasmanian Requiem, this state has found a true masterpiece.