Perth doesn’t see a lot of drug-fuelled Sapphic opera, but Tenth Muse Initiative managed to strike a chord (a few, actually) with its sold-out production, The Priestess of Morphine.
This haunting story followed the real-life Baroness Gertrud Günter von Puttkamer, and the personification of her pseudonym, Marie-Madeleine – a name under which the historical Baroness wrote erotic lesbian poetry fuelled by drugs and lust. Gertrud – analytic and contemplative – is the head to Marie’s tragic tale.
The presentation of one person split across two halves conjured concepts of gothic doubling laid bare against an elegant set. A leadlight lamp, wine-bottle-flowers and a table laden with books visually enhanced the spectral aesthetic of the soft-palette costumes and charged botanic imagery. These elements, combined with effective lighting and music, cleverly captured time, place and mood without detracting from the narrative.
Librettist Aiden K Feltkamp’s poetic lyrics accompanied Rosśa Crean’s unusually goosebump-inducing compositions. Throughout the Prelude, eerie strings and percussive melodies laid the aural groundwork for this unforgettable foray into inspiration, erasure and subversive sexuality.
The first movement (‘The Awakening’) was a rebellious introduction to a woman who refuses to find herself oppressed. A violin and cello played intensely as projected flowers bloomed. Gertrud wrote in a notebook, accompanied by the lantern-toting spectral form of her nom de plume, Marie. The art of resurrection was expressed in operatic tones and (very much appreciated) projector-screen subtitles, which persisted throughout the performance.
The second movement (‘In Salvation and Sin’) sounded like desire if it were made of music, and the actors moved in passionate waves. Projected journal entries accompanied Victorian-era sepia photographs. A handwritten letter, the ‘ink fossil of Baroness Gertrud Günter von Puttkamer’ revealed something of the Jewish poet whose Nazi-taunting, brazenly Sapphic alter ego/pseudonym/spectre Marie was a gothic/operatic literary rarity.
The third movement (‘Morphine’) dealt with Marie’s coerced addiction, which left her utterly alone. Unceremoniously injected, Marie experienced the soporific and stupefying power of the poppy from which morphine is derived. The music in this movement embodied impressions of a morphine dream, much like the intoxicating interactions between the two performers throughout the entire work.
A waterphone was featured in the fourth movement (‘Tumbling’) lending disquieting and discordant edges to Marie’s isolated panic as she grappled with her imposed isolation.
‘Harvest Song’ (the fifth movement) contained a heart-breaking duet, and was followed by ‘The Flower of Oblivion’ (the sixth) in which death and amalgamation were interchangeable entities.
Accomplished performers Ava Charleson and Jessica Taylor shone in their respectively challenging roles, with flawless vocals and exemplary expression. Superb acting and enchanting music enhanced this metaphor-rich experience of Sapphic madness, heart-breaking sadness, trauma, oppression and infinite longing.
This show did contain adult themes, sexual references, war references, depictions of drug use and loud, sustained music. If any of the above are likely to disturb you, this may not have been your ideal evening.
However, those who enjoy tales of queerness, nearness and the darkness of bottomless drug spirals, would more than adore The Priestess of Morphine.
The Priestess of Morphine
Blue Room Theatre, WA
Producer: Hannah Lee Tungate
Director: Rachel Doulton
Performer and Artistic Adviser: Jessica Taylor
Projection Designer: Blair Parkinson
Lighting Designer: Katrina Johnston
Tech Operator: Chloe Palliser
Administration Coordinator: Isabella Cisse
Copywriter: Bec Bowman
Graphic Designer: Georgia Crowe
Performer: Ava Charleson
Percussionist: Thea Rossen
Violinist: Julia Watson
Cellist: Miranda Murray-Yong
Librettist: Aiden K Feltkamp
Composer: Rosśa Crean
Musical Director: Laurissa Brooke
The Priestess of Morphine was performed from 31 January – 4 February 2023