Lament for fame's first victim
By Matthew Westwood
From The Australian - August 18, 2006
The English poet Rupert Brooke would almost be forgotten today were it not for his famous verse, written in the first year of World War I, about a "corner of a foreign field/ That is for ever England".
Now an opera has been written about Brooke by an Australian librettist and composer. The Hive, by Sam Sejavka and Nicholas Vines, is a morality tale about overburnished reputations and the quicksilver of instant celebrity. It opens at the Arts House in Melbourne next week.
William Butler Yeats, the Irish versifier, called Brooke "the handsomest man in England". Accounts of him describe his sky-blue eyes, athletic build and easeful gait. He certainly had his female admirers, among them Virginia Woolf, but he was open to persuasion from members of both sexes. The thought gives a certain piquancy to Shelley's line: "On a poet's lips I slept".
Brooke served with the Hood Batallion in the war, but saw little active duty. His was not to be a glorious death at the Somme or Gallipoli but from blood poisoning, the result of an infected mosquito bite.
The poet has been immortalised at least once before in Australian composition. The remarkable Frederick Septimus Kelly, an Olympic oarsman as well as musician, was serving with Brooke on the SS Grantully Castle when Brooke died en route to the Dardanelles. Kelly wrote his best-known work, an elegy for string orchestra, in memory of his friend.
Sejavka points out that Brooke lived in the emergent years of the information age. "Rupert Brooke was portrayed as a kind of war hero, when in reality he was nothing of the sort," he says. "He was a test case for modern-day media hype."
The libretto is adapted from a play Sejavka wrote in the early 1990s when he had a fame-induced crisis of his own. The singer had been portrayed - by Michael Hutchence, no less - in Richard Lowenstein's film Dogs in Space. The screenplay had taken some liberties and Sejavka says he objected to its depiction of circumstances that led to the death of "Sam's" girlfriend by drug overdose. "There was a suggestion that the character that was based on me was the person who introduced her to drugs," Sejavka says, with a voice that carries the grain of life's experiences. "That was just not true. It really upset me."
That episode coloured Sejavka's dramatised account of Brooke's death and posthumous celebrity, in which the poet's ghost "watches as his image is manipulated" to suit the agendas of others. The Brooke character in the opera is sung by Simon Meadows, and other singers take roles of Brooke's shipmates on the Grantully Castle and members of the bohemian-chic Bloomsbury set. The libretto has abundant entomological references - some to real insects, others to made-up ones - to evoke the swarm and sting of those who mourned, glorified and mythologised Brooke after his death. Shipmates pretend he died in battle, his publishers seek to capitalise on his death to boost book sales, and Woolf fantasises about his sexual exploits.
Sejavka emerged from the 1980s Melbourne punk scene and his catholic musical taste, while extending to such bands as Dresden Dolls and the Fiery Furnaces, does not necessarily embrace Puccini and Verdi: "I find it hard to sit through opera, really."
Nevertheless, Douglas Horton, artistic director of the experimental, Melbourne-based opera company Chamber Made, perceived that The Hive had musical possibilities. He had seen the original play at La Mama and eventually commissioned Sejavka to write a libretto from it.
Sejavka adapted and condensed the text but the project languished. A number of composers, Matthew Hindson among them, considered setting the libretto.
Then Vines came to Horton's attention via a concert series at Chamber Made called From the Lip. The librettist and composer might, on appearances, seem an odd couple. But Vines, a serious young insect with a Harvard scholarship, "got his head around what I was trying to do", Sejavka says. Their methods complemented each other: Vines's "obsessive, almost scientific way of working", paired with Sejavka's "obsessive, unscientific" ways.
Vines studied composition at Sydney University with Peter Sculthorpe and Anne Boyd, and his mentors at Harvard have included visiting British composers Harrison Birtwistle and Judith Weir. He is completing his PhD there, but he has reservations about the "blanket apathy" of the university towards its composition students.
"You don't really get much education, per se, but you get plenty of resources," he says.
Horton set the composer a formidable challenge with the commission for The Hive. The director wanted a production that would be "eminently tourable", with minimum musicians. In fact, he wanted no musicians at all: The Hive would be an "a capella opera".
Vines hesitated. Writing a music-theatre piece solely around voices would be an interesting technical exercise, but possibly boring for the audience. "I said there is no possible way you can do that," Vines says. "It was too difficult for this text."
Instead Vines - who says his work has a stylistic affinity with Thomas Ades, the British composer of Powder Her Face, an opera about the sexually liberated Duchess of Argyll - has scored the opera for piano and electronic keyboards.
The music, he explains, slides between representations of the real and the fantastic. Brooke's ghost, the shadow of his true self, is represented with the more natural sounds of acoustic piano and diatonic harmony. With the hype and swarm of the hive, the sound palette becomes increasingly electronic and strange.
Vines takes cues from other musical styles and rhythmic patterns. He uses rhythms based on the dots and dashes of Morse code, a melody with folk-song inflections, and a "weird hymn tune".
Brooke's story, or at least Sejavka's fable of Brooke as a victim of fame, still has potency, Vines says. "It's about how Brooke struggles with this: he's famous for being good looking, basically," he says. "Brooke is dealing with having this celebrity, this adulation, and not feeling he deserves it for anything he has actually done. At the end of the opera there is deep sadness. Even with all his gifts and achievements, he did not think much of himself."
Vines's other theatre works include a "bellowdrama" called The Mysterious Demise of One Brody-Marie and an opera for student performance, The Sepulchre of Love. A future project is a commission from the Sydney Philharmonia Choirs, a setting of the Dies Irae. The Chamber Made piece, he says, came at the right time in his career.
Vines faces the typically uncertain prospects of a composer and he is starting to apply for academic and administrative jobs in universities. The Hive has its premiere next week, and Vines says Birtwistle has shown the score to London's Almeida Theatre and Music Theatre Wales, both of them influential companies.
But even if The Hive is not more widely seen, it could serve another purpose as Vines's dissertation for his PhD.
Chamber Made presents The Hive at the Arts House, North Melbourne, August 23-September 10.