The tormented life of famed Renaissance mathematician, physician and astrologer Girolamo Cardano is the subject of Sydney Chamber Opera’s newest opera Biographica, with the concept and music by acclaimed Australian composer Mary Finsterer and libretto by Tom Wright. Cardano, who is known for his book Ars magna (The Great Art; or, The Rules of Algebra) which is an integral text in the history of mathematics, has an equally fascinating personal life away from his medical prowess - including jail time for a heresy accusation, the loss of his teaching position and the execution of his son. Jack Symonds, SCO’s artistic director and the conductor of Biographica, explains that the “the fundamental question for all productions is ‘why is this an opera, rather than another form of story telling?’, and the answer for this particular work is that the story of this brilliant Renaissance man would not be the same without music”. Specifically, without Mary’s music - which combines technique and palette from the Renaissance period with modern extended technique and instrumentation, telling the story of a unique genius in a way befitting to his character: of his era, but timeless. The larger thematic devices found in the libretto, ideas of immortality, fate and wealth, are operatic from the first, and Mary’s music helps portray Cardano as more than just a historical figure, which is what this story could be like without the music, according to Symonds: “This is not a history lesson, it’s an understanding of the period as Cardano saw his own life.” An imaginative and vibrant score is fitting for the complex life lived by this exceptional figure. Symonds “cannot think of illustrating a historical figure” without this type of care towards the music of their era. Opera offers something to bold and eccentric stories that other platforms cannot: the music suspends your belief, and lets you imagine how life was in the eyes of the protagonist played out on the stage in front of you.
This particular story has been playing on composer Mary Finsterer’s mind for longer than SCO have been around. “I knew she was writing the piece”, says Symonds, “and so we started discussions on the finer details - how many singers and instrumentalists we’d use. This piece could be remade for any scale, it’d work as a grand opera and it’d work as a one man show. We’ve hit somewhere in the middle, with five singers, an actor and eleven instrumentalists.” The players in question include some of Australia’s finest vocal talents as well as new music champions, Ensemble Offspring. “The sound world of Biographica could only be contemporary, and Mary has taken full advantage of the extensive skill set of the Ensemble. She’s included specific extended technique, but also given the instrumentalists the space to live within a comfortable tonal world”, explains Symonds. “There is unique balance in this work between gestures and harmonic ideas from the Renaissance period in which the story is set, and a feeling of pushing musical boundaries”.
Despite the small cast, this story involves “lots of characters”, which makes the whole work feel “quite epic”! When putting together a brand new opera, from Symonds’ experience, the process can go one of two ways: “The first is where every little detail is on the page, or alternatively when the composer presents a bit more of a blank canvas - where there is scope and room for singers to become the characters, and create their stories”. The latter is how the process for Biographica has presented itself, and across the five-week rehearsal and production period, each creative was given the opportunity to grow and become the parts they embody. “One of the most exciting parts of this kind of compositional approach is that you get the opportunity to see the singers become the people they are playing, using their instinct and intuition. Mary has also been extremely encouraging of the singers to add their own ornamentation and explore the breadth of their individual characters, musically”. The singers themselves - Jane Sheldon, Simon Lobelson, Andrew Goodwin, Anna Fraser and Jessica O’Donoghue - “come from different musical backgrounds, but each have the fascination with and the ability to perform new music without being specifically locked into the contemporary repertoire.” They are each “exceptional actors, as well, and have become the Renaissance characters wholeheartedly”. Mary’s writing involves tightly-woven quintets for the singers, so “much of the learning process is them not only becoming the people they’re portraying, but becoming a unit - something that requires flexibility, and an understanding of several genres.” Leading Australian actor Mitchell Butel portrays Cardano in a speaking role - a new challenge for the Sydney Chamber Opera, taken on by theatre director Janice Muller in her first opera production. “She has developed so many new works, so she absolutely understands what it means to bring things to life for the first time, and knows the reality that things need to be thrown out and reworked multiple times”, says Symonds. “Producing a new opera has a lot of elements and it can be unruly work. Things change daily, and Janice has an amazing way of dealing with the seemingly ever-changing terrain of a new work. It’s been incredibly insightful.”
The priority of Sydney Chamber Opera since its debut production of Symonds’ Notes From The Underground in 2011, is to “balance new Australian composition and production with an interesting selection of international opera to showcase the place that contemporary opera production has in the world”. The company has quickly developed a name for innovative and industrious programming, attracting a fresh audience to the world of opera. Now residents at Carriageworks, who are known for championing a diverse range of contemporary works, SCO’s voice is encouraging the growth of Australian opera. The mission of the company is to give a good breadth and representation of where chamber opera is in the world, highlighted by the fact that their 2017 season involves this epic world premiere by Finsterer alongside a work that epitomises 20th century chamber opera - Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. They are also developing several new works to be premiered in 2018.
Appearing as part of the Sydney Festival, Biographica promises to thrust its audience into the mind of an exceptional man, accompanied by music that speaks from him directly - “music reflecting the piercing beauty of the Renaissance much like maniera painting: rich, florid, bold.”
Photography by Dean Golja