Academically approved

On Friday with D to the Conservatorium to see/hear a “dress rehearsal” of Psyche, billed as an opera by Meta Overman.

What is she? I hear you ask (not) – assuming you’d even determined the gender.

MO was born in Rotterdam in about 1907. She emigrated to Australia not long after WWII with her young son and pianist husband.  The impetus seems to have been to escape post-war privations in the Netherlands – relatives had accommodation on offer in Perth.  To escape the Perth heat, they moved to Albany.

Albany!  I have spent time there on account of my late aunt.  In the early 50s it must have been a remote spot indeed.

Overman wrote Psyche for the first Perth Festival, in 1953.  It is based on a novella/fairtytale by the Dutch writer, Louis Couperus.  A 1908 translation is available online.

The Perth Festival was and remains a venture of the University of Western Australia.  Psyche was conceived to be performed at the sunken garden there which was used as an outdoor theatre (my mother related to me more than once seeing Jacqui Kott there in Midsummer Night’s Dream).  It’s a special place amidst the sandy wastes of the West.  Meta Overman’s ashes were scattered there and, as it happens, I scattered (unauthorised by the University but at her written request in a document found amidst her effects) some of my Albany aunt’s there when the time came.

Psyche eventually had 10 performances there in the 1955 festival.  It was poorly attended and a financial disaster and this amongst other things apparently led to the end of Overman’s marriage.  She decamped to Melbourne with her son and  (I infer: he is  apparently still living and was active as a jazz pianist as recently as 2012) a rather younger man (not that there is anything wrong with that).

It is easy to imagine why Psyche was not a success with the 1955 Perth public. Aside from the obscurity of its fin-de-siecle source, it  was a novel work – scarcely an opera in conventional terms.  Only two characters – Eros and Psyche’s elder sister, Emeralda, are portrayed by singers.  Psyche herself was represented by a dancer, a male (I assume) dancer represented the Chimera and a Satyr who interact with her – with the Satyr (shades of Debussy) also shadowed by an obbligato flute soloist.  Psyche’s younger sister was represented by a harp solo.  The balance of the instrumental music was provided by Overman’s husband on the piano.  Two other characters were spoken by actors.

For this revival, Jeanell Carrigan semi-orchestrated the piano part for a small ensemble whose makeup seems to have been determined by the availability of the SSO fellows – a string quartet, double bass, flute, oboe and bassoon.  The solo harp and flute parts  were retained and JC herself played a still-extensive piano part.

The music was accessible and dramatically apt without stretching many boundaries and to that extent can be excused criticism of the sort that Dr Carrigan (in my opinion unduly dismissively) levelled against Elliott Gyger’s music in her review of Oscar and Lucinda .

In the scene involving the Satyr the music launched slightly incongrously into treatments of O du lieber Augustin and another song which I recognized but still cannot name.  There may have been other songs referred to here.  The best I can do by way of explanation for this is that in the novel as translated the Satyr is dismissive of “classical music” and these songs therefore represent something more popular. he Wikipedia entry on O..Augustin, which should be updated in the section on “Use in other musical works” to include reference to Psyche, mentions that “The melody is also used in “Daar wordt aan de deur geklopt”, a Dutch children’s song for the celebration of Saint Nicholas Day

I felt the instrumentation was a little cautious and could profitably have expanded, even with the available forces, more beyond the still very evident backbone of the piano part.

The actors both had microphones, which was in my opinion a misstep even if necessary for them.  Singers and actors had books (not always consulted) and it didn’t look to me as if this was just for the dress rehearsal.  The dancers (who were excellent) gave the most fully realised performances.

I enjoyed my encounter with a slightly clunky oddity.

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