Published online at Limelight Magazine 26th October 2020
If there were one thing to celebrate on Saturday’s World Opera Day 2020, it would be the opportunities companies have in taking advantage of online platforms. When it appears so many opera companies worldwide are functioning (or not) on survival mode, others are responding in creative ways to circumvent varying imposed restrictions. One such small Victorian player, Gertrude Opera, has taken a giant leap in presenting their 10-day Yarra Valley Opera Festival entirely online and marking Saturday with an easily ensnaring and multifaceted work.
Kate Kelly was co-created by author Merrill Findlay and composer Ross James Carey, and illustrates the story of Kate Kelly, second youngest sister of Australia’s infamous bushranger icon, Ned Kelly.
Emily Burke as Kate Kelly
Born in 1863 in Beveridge Victoria into a large Irish Catholic family and baptised Catherine Ada Kelly, Kate’s enigmatic story exemplifies a woman’s struggle against a lack of liberty, respect, choice and, worse, consequential and commonplace, unpunishable domestic abuse. She had gained notoriety as a horseback performer soon after Ned was hanged at Melbourne Gaol in 1880. For unknown reasons, she escaped the limelight and eventually resurfaced in New South Wales where she worked as a domestic servant in Forbes, fell pregnant to William “Bricky” Foster, married him and continued increasing the family. And then, now known as Ada Foster, she disappeared again. A week later, at the age of 36, her body was found in Forbes Lake.
Findlay and Carey’s current 50-minute work featuring soprano, baritone, tenor and small ensemble was originally written for one soprano voice when it premiered as The Kate Kelly Song Cycle in Forbes in 2011 at the inaugural Kalari-Lachlan River Arts Festival. It’s an alluring and evocative piece blending history, myth and circumstance; a work that cleverly bridges personal storytelling and cultural interconnectedness.
Findlay’s story is embroidered with sensitivity on a deceptively rich and sprawling canvas with its three identities contemplating events from a perspective seemingly beyond its time. Carey’s music – written for violin, cello, clarinet and accordion –responds marvellously, both in expressing context and poignancy without employing gimmick. Created in the current context of isolation, the production is incisively directed by Gertrude Opera Artistic Director Linda Thompson and employs the work of cinematographers from three states: Anna Cadden (Tasmania), Tiana Koutsis (Victoria) and Ehran Edwards (NSW). Each of the three soloists, performing in three different locations, are dressed in black as if presented as spirits of their characters in order to convey and confess their thoughts in a modern day life. And it fits the bill nicely.
The five-part work begins with Bricky’s Sorry Song, an ebbing and mournful ballad to which baritone Andrew Moran gives brawny weight and sorrowful depth. Sitting in a pub alone with a beer in hand, Bricky is stricken by remorse for the physical and psychological mistreatment he inflicted on his wife. “I bashed the woman I cherished”, he laments but declares he never killed her. Looking back, this is indeed a man who desperately wants to change; a modern man who has every possibility to act on it.
Within a verdant bush setting as Kate, fierce and commanding soprano Emily Burke introduces her audience to the galloping tempo of Ghosts of Glenrowan in a haunting and frenetically spun recollection of her past. Burke – well-remembered for her impressive display as the iron-fisted Aunt Lydia from the festival’s 2019 Australian premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale – infuses a profound pathos and disturbing anxiousness in her performance that reflects Kate’s trauma, acknowledged by Findlay’s text. Conspicuously, despite the abstract suggestion of Bricky’s dubious behaviour, she never points the finger, in a sign perhaps that, with the luxury of looking back, no woman should ever blame herself for another’s crime.
The third part belongs to Chinese shopkeeper Quong Lee who reminisces on his acquaintance with Kate and her children in The Harvest Moon in Spring. It’s a texturally rich and flavoursome song brought to life by the powerful and soaring tenor of Michael Lapiña – as well as the colours of Melbourne’s Little Bourke Street Chinatown – and captures the idea how stories and legends influence our culture and behaviour.
In the fourth song, Burke sings Kate’s beautiful and emotionally entwined Poor Irish and Wiradjuri with magnetism and gravitas, outlining a resemblance between her mother Ellen and Indigenous local Ellen Googoolin (Yellow Belly Woman) two women “fighting against the odds”. Set in a cemetery, Burke picks the rambling capeweed, makes a daisy chain and hangs it across a grave in a symbolic nod honouring our ancestors and influencers, and recognising humanity among all. Alone and at the edge of a lake, Kate’s imminent departure from life is depicted in the fifth and final I Heard the Banshee Cry, framed by the superstition of looking into a banshee’s eyes and being dragged down into a bog. It opens and concludes with harrowing discordance and contains a short-lived jaunty and jazzy optimism with Burke at her immersive best.
The four unseen musicians – Thibauld Pavlovic-Hobbs (violin), Zoe Knighton (cello), Brendan Toohey (clarinet) and Patrick Burns (accordion) – play a rapturous and expert treat.
There are, however, a couple quibbles that came to mind. Just occasionally, the text could be better economised to fuse with the musical phrasing and I also wondered if there was a thought to giving Ellen Googoolin a voice. Still, Kate Kelly is one of those works as complex as you wish to make it. It sails forward satisfyingly and, as art so spectacularly does, invites curiosity.
Coming to a close, Gertrude Opera has achieved much in bringing the 2020 Yarra Valley Opera Festival to its scattered online audience. And there’s every chance that when the festival returns to the beauty of its surroundings, there will be benefits to reap from this experience.
Gertrude Opera, Yarra Valley Opera Festival
24th October 2020