CHAMBER MADE OPERA: A unique and intimate work performed in the home of
composers Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey.
Since its founding in the late 1990s, Melbourne’s Chamber Made Opera has
garnered a reputation for exceptional creativity in the microscale works it
commissions and stages in private venues.
Created by composers Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey, librettist Cynthia Troup
with Visual Assemblage by Neil Thomas, and ‘neighbourly interruptions’ by The
Suitcase Royale, Dwelling Structure: An Opera in 8 Time Use Episodes, co-
presented with the New Music network, is no exception.
Taking as its point of departure the echoes of ordinary domestic life in the
composers’ own home (an historic converted Rechabite Hall in Northcote), this
evocative, richly poetic work transfixes the imagination; transporting the mind
to a tingling, hypersensual state sensible to the subtlest nuance of the
The performance began with the full-capacity audience (Chamber Made has a strong
following) gathering in the main hall of the Rechabite Tent (as a separate
branch of the now-moribund temperance organisation would have been known at its
height), replete with its small stage and proscenium arch but now converted to a
An installation work comprising boxes covered with old newspaper varnished brown
and verdigrised objects seemed heavy with the patina of time. Black music stands
surrounded the boxes and displayed notation in the form of gridded quick-read
barcodes that encrypted instructions to hidden computers.
The audience was directed to leave the stage area and move to the adjoining
kitchen. Here standing, with our necks craning to get a better view, the
composers commenced performance of their work, a form of prelude or overture,
but radically realised. A row of candles along the island bench demarked
audience from performer and, with a large fraction of bench space covered with
computers and audio devices, the expectation was for a sonic onslaught. Instead,
the artists went about ordinary tasks, opening a refrigerator, setting food to
cook, moving across the small space.
Already entranced, we were directed down a set of stairs to the adjacent living
area, walled off from the garden’s cold night air by glass doors. Through a
circular cut in the kitchen wall Humphrey peeked at us, not in a menacing way
but as if observing, with care. Small variations in the light became apparent
and a tiny spotlight cast the shadow of an old cooling fan up onto the ceiling,
turning from choppy light into smooth curves as the blades gained speed.
There was an awareness of garlic and nuts being sautéed in oil – the rich vapour
slowly diffusing thorough the room triggering, as if by Proustian association,
happy feelings of warmth and calm and domestic cosiness. My mind imagined the
softly suffused interiors of the Nordic painter Hammershoi. And I was strong
aware of how the anticipation, the unusual format and the cooking fragrances had
activated my mind to increase awareness of very small changes.
This is an opera where the libretto is not sung. Instead, exactly like opera
surtitles (and not at all like aphoristic conceptual text art), words are
projected onto the wall in coordination with small interventions in the viewing
In some time periods, the history of Temperance Hall is memorialised – a
sequence recounts the one pound fine metered out to lads from the past who
disturbed the peace by singing on the way to a dance at the nearby Town Hall. At
other instance this story is echoed by spoken interventions that permeate the
house from the street (and when they are heard you are not sure if they are just
random conversations from outside or parts of the performance). We become aware
of the continuity of the domestic with the outside world, of sheltering and tiny
The sound of a basket ball bouncing across the kitchen floor immediately
triggers a rush of childhood memories. The artists’ children appear and perform
momentarily. We are presented with the possibility of a richly-lived, embracing
domesticity – there is no conflict, no melodrama.
Despite the radical departure from conventional form, the opera is rooted in
traditions. Each time period is marked with a descriptive, sometimes slightly
ironic tempo - like ostinato come possible. They work as scenes in a one-
act opera. And as the sensibility rises still further you become aware of a
tonic base pedal, a low sound, projected through the floor and referencing a
tradition as old as Monteverdi.
The work concludes with the distant echo of ‘Auld Lang Syne’ first heard sung
from another room and then reconfigured and transmuted by Madeleine Flynn
playing at a key board outside in the garden, just in our view. In the
languishing moments she stands and gazes through the glass doors fixed on
Humphrey who is standing above us on the stairs. Time passes. Calmness.
Quietness at an intimate human scale and the sense of the ordinary being
recovered to consciousness and of endless continuity.
A subtle and important achievement pushing the edges of the form in all the
Chamber Made Opera present
A Private Living Room in Northcote
May 26 – 28
First published on
What the stars mean?
- Five stars: Exceptional, unforgettable, a must see
- Four and a half stars: Excellent, definitely worth seeing
- Four stars: Accomplished and engrossing but not the best of its kind
- Three and a half stars: Good, clever, well made, but not brilliant
- Three stars: Solid, enjoyable, but unremarkable or flawed
- Two and half stars: Neither good nor bad, just adequate
- Two stars: Not without its moments, but ultimately unsuccessful
- One star: Awful, to be avoided
- Zero stars: Genuinely dreadful, bad on every level