Firstly, let’s not allow the number of stars to dampen the spirit, enthusiasm and creative vision that inspires and accompanies new Australian work, especially those that embrace stories reflecting colonial occupation, survival and a few uncomfortable truths. On Friday evening, with little fanfare and quietly slipping into Australian operatic history, a new opera called Buckley premiered in Rosebud, one of a chain of seaside towns on the Mornington Peninsula that straddle Port Phillip Bay and morph into suburbs all the way to high density central Melbourne – a place unaccustomed to staged opera let alone a world premiere. The town is not far from Sullivan Bay where events that followed the escape of English convict William Buckley in 1803 – 40,000 years after the local Boon Wurrung people had been living on the land – are said to have given birth to the vernacular saying ‘Buckley’s chance’ which Aussies know to mean “to be as good as impossible”.

Sarah Prestwidge as Purran-Murnin and Michael Lampard as Buckley. Photograph © Amanda Stuart

Referred to as ‘a narrative chamber opera’ in three short acts and written by locals composer Antony Ransome and librettist Richard Cotter, Buckley celebrates the survival of a lone white man who made his way around the Bay, who was fortuitously welcomed in by the Wathaurong people on the Bellarine Peninsula and subsequently spent the next 32 years living among them. The convict settlement under the command of Lt Governor David Collins never lasted, packing up after just a few months before heading south to Tasmania.

Lucidly directed and cleverly designed by David Lampard, it’s an incredible story that began with a promising concept – a piece of local history told in opera that had the potential to educate, comment on, unite and impact on a broader Australian community. But in glorifying Buckley’s ability to survive in the face of overwhelming odds are we forgetting that it was due to the Wathaurong people who Buckley owed his life? In Ransome and Cotter’s 80-minute work, their significance felt noticeably neglected.

Much of the text of Cotter’s libretto sources historical ‘white’ documents. Delivered over a short but changeable overture, the opera begins with John Morgan (Brendan Croft) as narrator, author of the most well-known account of Buckley’s life, The Life and Adventures of William Buckley, who met Buckley in 1852. Almost 200 years later, it’s from this perspective that history is interpreted. Ransome does, however, continue with a chorus of Aboriginal men and women who sing both compelling and entreating words from off-stage with the arrival of Collins and his entourage of soldiers, convicts and settlers:

“Tarebuden koolin – wida yannana murrumbinna, winda linga.
White man, where are you going? Why?
We know you took our young women to kill seals,
Mon mon deek birrkin maren mum, along Bass Strait, karberin tournet, murder surrounds you.
Urummurrua, all about everywhere, this is our country.
This country all around here is ours our mother and our sweetheart.
Bunjil made the mountains, rivers and trees for us.
Mulligan, wallert, wimba, coolup.
Birds, possum, wallaby, emu are in our care.
Tarebuden koolin! Monmaat netberet.
White man go away now, this very moment.”

But the only noteworthy Indigenous presence seen on stage comes in Act 2 when the young woman Purran-Murnin chances upon Buckley while sleeping in the bush and believes him to be one of her people’s warriors reincarnated. In Act 1, Ransome and Cotter dedicate much length to the conditions and ambience of the oft-drunken camp. Even Buckley’s appearance is sparse to this point. Closing the act, the boredom and disappointment with the place is assuaged with a rum-fuelled party to which Mozart’s Non più andrai from The Marriage of Figaro and a delightful English folk song raise both the mood of the setting and the melody meter. But this lively divertissement seems to gobble valuable time. It also raises the question of relevance, and the opportunity to elaborate on a clash of cultures felt lost.

Lucas de Jong as Tuckey. Photograph © Amanda Stuart

Act 2, in which the 32 years Buckley spent with the Wathaurong people is covered – marrying Purran-Murnin, having a daughter to her, then preparing her for his departure – felt too hastily swept over. Buckley’s story had the smell of Puccini’s Pinkerton from Madama Butterfly but the drama remained arid. When Buckley finally meets white colonials again in Act 3, he narrates his story through a long introspective-like aria. Buckley chose to remain with the settlers of early Melbourne but, with apparent inner struggles as a voice between Indigenous and white people, he left for Tasmania (as the narrator returns to tell the audience), where he married a ‘real’ Australian wife. Buckley’s was a remarkable life and makes a salient story. But when the final chorus rang out with accolades of persistence, bravery, dignity and blessedness, you cry out for Indigenous input and perspective.

Musically, an overall meandering, willowy quality to Ransome’s score evokes the landscape with thought and subtlety. Woodwinds feature large in the music, played by a tight ensemble of eight from the Peninsula Chamber Musicians, with flute, oboe, clarinet and bassoon making up the majority of instruments. Viola, trombone and harpsichord/piano added texture, along with percussion that includes traditional bilma (clap sticks) that seemed to echo through the bush and the snare drum’s military beat that supplies cultural contrast. The issue was that the musical temperament rarely burst with drama even as vocal lines attempted to do so, the result being an uneasy tension between the two despite conductor Joseph Lallo’s attentive approach and the palpable commitment of the cast.

Baritone Michael Lampard’s reliable vocal heft, expressive colour and conviction in the title role ensured that Buckley’s journey from harshly punished convict (sentenced for stealing two pieces of Irish cloth), to Wathaurong member and later encounter with his own white people again was elevated with strong impact. Lampard’s rock-solid command of and nuance achieved in the text is to be lauded, especially so in Act 3’s lengthy retelling of his years with the Wathaurong people.

As Purran-Murnin, Indigenous soprano Sarah Prestwidge rather defeated all in coming to the rescue after Shauntai Batzke’s late withdrawal due to family circumstances. The combination of Prestwidge’s sweet, mellifluous soprano, her music’s gentle warmth and the light, graceful steps she took brought a touching presence to the only Indigenous role. Particularly striking, Prestwidge beautifully tempered Buckley’s brawny resonance for the intimate duet they shared in Act 2 as they sank into each other’s affection.

Hew Wagner as Collins. Photograph © Amanda Stuart

Hew Wagner put his glowing tenor to fine use as Collins, providing both the authoritative rigidity of a leader and lyrical musings of a man questioning his circumstances. Other roles, doubled with the passing of time between Acts 1 and 3, were satisfactorily supported by dark cavernous bass Steven Gallop’s Rev. Robert Knopwood/Daniel McAllenan, polished baritone Lucas de Jong’s Lt James Tuckey/James Gumm and Jerzy Kozlowski as Dr Edward Bromley/Rev. George Langhorne. Tenor Stephen Carolane’s effortless energy drew impressive life on three roles, of which Buckley’s fellow convict, William Marmon, was sung with pleasing vigour. And it seemed that a token female white role was needed for an English song but it beamed full of richness from Alexandra Oke as Hannah Power. Members of the Rosebud Theatre Group, Astral Theatre Society and Southern Peninsula Singers formed an adequately sung chorus of settlers and Aboriginals but reinforced numbers would have helped.

Lampard’s period-dressed design brilliantly resolved the needs of the opera’s setting while capturing a sense of isolation, simplicity and hardship with the enigma and depth of the bush ever-present. Stands of tea tree could be moved about in their dry landscape shaped by raw canvas, parts of which could be hoisted and lowered to create variable scenes. Projections added minor benefit to the whole picture although a camp-fire burning during Buckley and Purran-Murnin’s duet looked convincing. Notably, Lampard’s spatial eye and sensitivity in blocking kept the breadth and depth of the stage well covered and consistently visually interesting.

Before Buckley got underway, local Indigenous elder Caroline Briggs’ revealing welcome to country included the story of her ancestral links to both local Indigenous and white people from Collins’ original settlement. In those few words alone a collective emotive energy seemed to fill the room. Unfortunately, it didn’t feel that way when the lights when down on the final act.