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Creating a four-part divorce

In the scheme of things, there really haven’t been that many operas written specifically for TV. The most enduring have been the seasonal favourite, Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, Britten’s Owen Wingrave, Stravinsky’s The Flood and, in Australia, Peter Sculthorpe’s Quiros (written for the 50th anniversary of the ABC in 1982).

Apart from being in select company, the opera The Divorce, currently in production for imminent screening on ABC TV, goes two better: it will also exist as a limited cinema release and will be available for catch-up viewing on iview, where you’ll be able to watch it on anything from your mobile phone to a flat-screen monster. Moreover, unlike the predecessors listed above, The Divorce is the same shape as a mini-series: the story is told over four episodes.

Is the composer of the music for The Divorce, Elena Kats-Chernin, fazed by these brave new worlds of music drama? Not a bit of it. Challenged yes, fazed no. Elena, after all, is no stranger to opera (four original operas so far and a fifth in the works for Berlin’s Komische Oper) or film (her scores for silent films include Victor Sjöström’s The Phantom Carriage).

Hugh Sheridan and Lisa McCune star in <em>The Divorce</em> Hugh Sheridan and Lisa McCune star in The Divorce
“Early on I realised that the structure of the piece had to be very different to any stage work I’d written before,” she says. “Just as you can’t do a close-up on stage, so I realised that in The Divorce, a song might only need to be 25 seconds long to make the kind of impact that would it would take three minutes to achieve on stage.  And the idea of writing it in episodes made us think very carefully about the shape of each scene, how the story arc would play out in a multi-part structure, when the audience might be away from the piece for a week at a time before they join up with it again.”

When Elena says “us” she means her collaborators, for all of whom she has high praise. The piece has been bubbling away for some time (just as not everyone makes a quick decision to get divorced.) Opera Australia’s Artistic Director Lyndon Terracini first approached Elena in 2011, at which point she began working with director Simon Phillips (who subsequently bowed out of the project due to other commitments) and playwright Joanna Murray-Smith. It has been quite a journey to get to the point where The Divorce is now in production as an operatic mini-series.

“One of the things I’ve learned in being part of this team is the need to be exceptionally flexible. As the idea for the way the piece would be “delivered” changed over time, our ideas about it changed too, and that was incredibly exciting. Even after I started writing the music – which was quite late in the process, really – there were moments when I would get a call from Joanna, or the director Dean Murphy, and realise that if we changed a scene in a particular way it would play better. I remember re-writing one scene on a flight to make a recording for the next day. The music director, Vanessa Scammell, has been absolutely amazing in moments like that…I mean this way of structuring a piece was completely new to me.”

In this musical soap era, wealthy couple Iris (Marina Prior) and Jed (John O’May) are getting a “modern” divorce after a long and satisfying marriage, and are throwing an elaborate party at their elegant home to celebrate. But by the end of the evening, Iris and Jed’s divorce has triggered a renegotiation of all that had seemed certain, and the characters are each set on an unanticipated course. There are eight main characters in the story and Elena had created musical identities for each of them. But the sound of The Divorce is very different to the sound it might have had if it had wound up as a theatre piece.

“I started listening to the sound of TV,” Elena says, “to find the best way to make the music shine when it came out of TV speakers…and to reflect the fact that the story takes place at a party. So what we have instrumentally is really much more like a big band than an orchestra. And I’ve loved writing for the wonderful diversity of voices in the cast – from Kate Miller-Heidke to Peter Cousens.  You know, if the circumstances were right, I could definitely do one of these again.”