Hobart City Hall
June 23, 2018

Hobart braced itself for another Dark Mofo evening this Saturday – some of us donning our blackest winter coats; others wearing cloaks with red crosses printed on their backs. If you were at the Winter Feast, you might’ve seen performance artists wearing not much of anything at all. The scent of woodfires scattered across the waterfront served as a warming reminder that we’d chosen to brave a deathly cold evening – this time to witness a modern opera in the Hobart City Hall.

Backwards from Winter is a “monodrama for soprano, electric cello, computer and video” – though “melodrama” would have been a fitting alternative in the program notes. The first object to notice when entering the dimly lit hall was an upturned car; haze emerging from somewhere near its roof that was pressing into the ground, indicating a fatal accident had recently taken place. In front, a catwalk-like stage was set and a solo electric cellist and vocalist (Antonis Pratsinakis) waited at the far end. The audience was seated parallel to this long stage, which was covered with a sheet of white pillows; over this, projections of various shapes and colours were cast to indicate the mood of the opera.

Composed by Douglas Knehans with libretto by Juanita Rockwell and mis-en-scene by Constantine Koukias, Backwards from Winter told the story of a young woman (soprano Judith Weusten), who lost her lover (actor Chris Jackson) in a car accident. Structured on the poetic and syllabic structure of Japanese tanka, the story was told in four scenes – one representing each season.

Conceptually, this modern opera is remarkable in that its story unravels in a nonlinear fashion. After the lover’s death at the opening, we quite literally moved backwards from winter. Time was reversed as the pair’s relationship changed through each season – the conclusion in spring showed the moment they first fell in love.

Sustained through the course of one hour by the soprano, cello, and actor, this production was not without its faults. The effect of the haze machine, which was justifiable in the opening (winter fog; the car accident) became excessive throughout the show. Many audience members were seated on the floor to receive the full brunt of the substance (to which many a cough could be heard), and in such a large and dark venue it had minimal visual impact throughout the seasons to come.

Projections lit the performers’ platform to reflect each season – in Fall: red, the colours were a deep red to match; in Spring: blue, there were various flowers shown. At one point, binary code was projected – appearing an entirely random choice of visuals. However, the soprano’s full use of the stage was effective – in Fall: red, she carried the weight of a tall tree on her back; in Spring: blue, she smiled and danced with her lover.

Synths could be heard in the background – in fact, it was often hard to tell whether or not the soprano was singing at all. Her voice sunk into the surrounding aural experience – her intonation was immaculate (and her timbre stunning) and she was amplified but did not appear to be wearing a microphone. This ambiguity of sound added to the aura of the show – a world that was only broken when watching the male actor for too long. Indeed, this wordless lover left a lot to be desired. He confronted us at the opening Winter: white with a bloody shirt before walking the span of the platform in a sort of slow motion, eventually climbing the car (and assumingly into his death) with minimal grace and balance. Later, his shirt was clean but his face remained the same – a permanent expression of disorientation that quickly grew tiring, particularly when our soprano was so animated.

I was also unsure why the young soprano was clothed in a delicate silk negligee while the actor was fully clothed (and even changed into a fresh shirt) – though we can assume these were the outfits they had both been wearing at the moment of his winter death.

The music itself was enjoyable to listen to – though did not appear to match the increasing warmth of the seasons and lovers’ relationships. Similarly, the libretto was appropriate to the story but the Japanese poetic structure and references to swirling koi did not seem to bear any relevance.

Despite some shortcomings, I did take pleasure from the full experience of this opera. A work of this nature is rarely performed in Hobart, and as a package it made for a thought-provoking production. Its darkness matched the sex-and-death themes of the Dark Mofo festival, and if given the chance (and a mask to block the hour-long haze), I would probably see it again.