Dwelling Structure

Gary Anderson

CHAMBER MADE OPERA: A unique and intimate work performed in the home of composers Madeleine Flynn and Tim Humphrey.
Dwelling Structure
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 ordinary.

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 work space.

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 environment.

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 incursions.

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 right ways.

Chamber Made Opera present
Dwelling Space
A Private Living Room in Northcote
May 26 – 28

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

About the author

Gary Anderson is a leading medical researcher based at the University of Melbourne and is currently completing a Masters in Contemporary Art at the Victorian College of the Arts.