Overture from Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera 2017  Image: Dean Golja

Overture from Biographica, Sydney Chamber Opera 2017  Image: Dean Golja


The Australian - Arts section


When Mary Finsterer was a music student in her early 20s, she worked for a time as an accompanist to a magician called Charles Panache. He was a comic illusionist and his tricks would quite deliberately dash his audience’s expectations. Instead of producing a white dove from out of thin air, Panache would bring forth a dead pigeon. Finsterer’s role at the keyboard was to provide the “sting” — or musical “ta-dah!” — that would announce another feat of wayward magic.

Since that time Finsterer has made her living as a composer and teacher. She has written music for contemporary outfits such as Ensemble Offspring and Ensemble InterContemporain, and has worked on film scores as various as Die Hard 4 and the lighthouse drama South Solitary. But her latest project an opera, Biographica, to be given its premiere by Sydney Chamber Opera at the Sydney Festival in some ways has taken her back to that world of mystery and sleight of hand.

The opera is about 16th-century Italian inventor, philosopher and gambler Gerolamo Cardano: a true Renaissance man whose inquiring mind ventured into fields such as mathematics, engineering, natural history, medicine and occult arts of divination. Finsterer first learned of him when, almost by accident, she happened upon his Liber de ludo aleae (Book on Games of Chance).“It was serendipitous in a way,” she says. “I was walking through the ANU library about 20 years ago and I came across this little book just by chance — which is interesting because the book is about chance … It’s about how to gamble, but he was also talking about how to dress, how to cheat. It’s a historical document, but it brought to the fore this human being.”

 Mary Finsterer found the central character of her first opera when she happened by chance on one of his books. Picture: Renee Nowytarger

Mary Finsterer found the central character of her first opera when she happened by chance on one of his books. Picture: Renee Nowytarger

Finsterer says she had been looking for a subject for an opera that would dramatise questions to do with identity, knowledge and self-actualisation. “Who am I, what path am I on?” says the composer over a cup of coffee at Carriageworks in central Sydney. “We almost have to ask ourselves every day. If we want to be creative we have to choose those things. It’s a creative process.”

In Cardano, born 1501, she found a larger-than-life figure to stand in for such existential questions. He wrote more than a dozen books, including an autobiography that Finsterer says she struggled through in an English translation. Among his achievements were theories about negative numbers and probability, mechanical inventions such as the combination lock and insights into the existence of allergens.

Filled with scientific discoveries, Cardano’s life was not short of tragic and violent incident. Knife fights over gambling, imprisonment for heresy, a son convicted of murder and beheaded … it goes on. Cardano was obsessed with personal fame and while he may be an obscure figure today — compared with near contemporaries Leonardo and Copernicus — he certainly achieved celebrity in his lifetime. It has been suggested he inspired the figure of the magician Prospero in The Tempest.

“He is full of contrasts, he epitomises what it is to be human, the dark, the light,” Finsterer says. “His autobiography is warts and all; it brings to the fore everything that it is to be human. He doesn’t hold back on anything. The interesting thing is that he doesn’t have the natural filters that human beings usually have.”

Finsterer has collaborated with writer Tom Wright, whose libretto for Biographica, in Latin and - English, dramatises key episodes from Cardano’s life. We first encounter him consulting the stars to divine the date of his own death. We see him cure an archbishop of asthma, invent the combination lock and despair at the fate of his children. In the penultimate scene Wright’s Cardano invokes the mysterious substance of fame: “I drink it and pass it through my vitals.”

Interestingly, for an opera, Finsterer has chosen not to assign a musical voice to Cardano, in the sense of depicting his character through sung vocal lines. Instead, she has an actor, Mitchell Butel, playing the role, while five singers make up the chorus and play other characters as required.

“I wanted to rethink, ‘What is opera?’ ” Finsterer says. “I grew up with this sense of theatre being very strong. I love that immediacy with theatre; it brings you up close to characters. Opera is kind of the opposite: you enjoy the action, and then they stop for an aria, a distilled moment where a singer is really able to explore emotion. I wanted to bring the immediacy of the spoken word into the medium of opera, this idea of mingling spoken word and sung.”

She also has looked back to the musical conventions of Cardano’s time but reimagined them with modernist techniques such as serialism. “Renaissance music is essentially based on tertian harmony,” she says. “The whole idea of horizontal movement and voice-leading from one note to the next is very important: it’s a study of relationships …

“I thought, how can I use this past knowledge so we feel a sense of familiarity? We know the terrain but we don’t know how it’s going to unfold. How can I reimagine voice-leading so the elements are the same but the way they unfold is different? To do that, I drew upon serial techniques to construct progressions that are not necessarily what you expect.”

Her score for small orchestra — Ensemble Offspring, conducted by SCO’s Jack Symonds — uses modern instruments but with the addition of viola da gamba, the early version of the cello. Finsterer has written many pieces for small ensembles, and orchestral and multimedia works, but Biographica is her first opera. A few years ago a 20-minute excerpt was given a workshop reading at New Opera Ventures Australia, where contemporary opera is showcased for possible presenters.

Then Sydney Festival artistic director Lieven Bertels saw it and decided to include it in the festival, which is now under the direction of Wesley Enoch. More than 20 years since a mysterious book revealed itself to her, Biographica and the brilliant, complicated figure of Cardano are about to have their operatic debut. “I’ve been patient, I’m really happy that it’s happening now,” Finsterer says. “I’ve waited so long, if it was going to be another year down the track, or five, I don’t care. It’s not very often that you write an opera. I wanted to get it right and have the right people supporting it.”

She makes an observation worthy of Cardano: “It’s almost like all the planets have aligned.”

Sydney Chamber Opera presents Biographica at Carriageworks, Sydney, Saturday to January 13, 7.30pm.

MATTHEW WESTWOOD January 3, 2017