Ever since my first experiences of playing in an orchestral pit as a student in operas of Mozart, Verdi and Puccini, I’ve always thought of the orchestral contribution to an opera of being of paramount importance, the medium’s genuine protagonist as it were. It seems fitting then that this new work for orchestra, Moments of Bliss, signifies a first station on the long journey of writing my first full length opera based on Bliss, the first novel of the celebrated Australian writer Peter Carey. I have chosen four scenes from this powerfully dark and satirical tale and shaped them into a suite of four purely orchestral movements which will form the basis for several orchestral interludes throughout the opera.
Published in 1982, Carey’s Bliss relates the life of a happy innocent, Harry Joy, a story-telling advertising agent, father of two and universally admired "Good Bloke" who dies of a heart attack. Though clinically dead, Harry is revived after four minutes, convinced however that he has awoken in hell. In this tormented vision of his own life, Harry meets the wonderful healer and whore, Honey Barbara, a fellow traveller with whom Harry manages to conquer hell, regain his sense of love and faith, and retire to a paradisiacal forest.
In finding it important to allow this orchestral piece to follow the evolution of its own musical drama, the four scenes don’t necessarily appear in the same chronology as the book. Hence the first movement, Hotel Room (Awakening), places us in a scene from about halfway through the story’s telling: the magical moment of the awakening of love between Harry and the young prostitute, Honey Barbara. Harry has arranged for Honey to join him in the opulent hotel room in which he has ensconced himself. Though initially embarking on the purely commercial and relatively anonymous relationship of hooker and client, their ensuing conversation reveals genuine empathy and sympathy for each other. Set against the mindless drone of TV programmes from neighbouring hotel rooms, the opening movement captures this awakening, eventually evoking a smoky, erotic atmosphere of mutual attraction through the sounds of a late-night-piano-bar combo.
This opening first movement is abruptly cut off by the arrival of the second, Heart of the Matter, a depiction of cardiac trauma and arrest. Here we find ourselves in the opening pages of the drama. Our hero Harry suffers a massive heart attack, the sweat and nervous energy coursing through the entire orchestra with a particular focus on the woodwind instruments as they scream through emphatic repeated figurations, themselves struggling to find opportunities to breathe. A pounding climax of panic and struggle gives way suddenly to a floating realm, high string harmonies accompanied by the crystalline "flatlining" of his heartbeat in piano and triangle. The music again finds traction and starts tumbling irrevocably downwards in a series of short wind interjections towards the third movement, Knocking at the Hellgate.
Here, Harry’s arrival in Hades is portrayed by way of that most devilish of contemporary sound worlds, the television game show. Like the proverbial drowning man, Harry revisits in quick succession former moments of glory from the crass commercial world that has been his spiritual home. Messages from sponsors vie for attention, contestants scramble for answers in dollar-laden quiz shows, whilst promises of a cleaner, whiter world and sound bites of a life of luxury, fame and fortune ring out in every direction.
Where is the perfect holiday destination? Do you want the lounge suite or are you still going for the car? Have, have, have...
Harry discovers in hell the real emptiness that lies smurking behind the façade of his day-glo, prime-time profession, the realisation that advertising and its inane assurances of a better life aren’t the answer to everything, or indeed anything.
Harry’s grand entrance into hell gradually gives way to disillusionment and doubt as the solid, corporate edifice of the orchestral strings gradually yet irrevocably lays down the ground rules by which the game must be played.
The final movement, Family Secrets, stands alone, tentatively resuming the unfolding of the story only after the strains of the brash brass of the TV world have disappeared into the ether. In a moment of repose, reminiscence, even sentimentality, Harry’s estranged wife, Bettina, contemplates not only her ongoing love for her husband but also her own imminent death from cancer. Given a year to live, Bettina finds space to remember fond moments of former bliss and rue missed opportunities of her own career.
Here the orchestra emerges indeed as chief protagonist, embarking upon a broad, dark elegy coloured by deep gongs and, cutting through the general tone of anguish and tragedy, an emerging unison line of strength and hope in the strings and horns.
Moments of Bliss was commissioned by Symphony Australia as part of the Resident Artist/Composer Attachment Programme of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra, and is dedicated to Markus Stenz and Alice Heiliger
© Brett Dean, 2004
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.
"Moments of Bliss [is] an orchestral suite drawn from an opera that Dean is writing based on Peter Carey’s novel, Bliss. Introducing the work, (Markus) Stenz called it ‘a true 21st-century piece’, and in many ways it’s an apt description, particularly in the use of sound effects and tape sequences. These ideas are hardly new in themselves, of course, but Dean manages to blend the electronic and the acoustic sounds in a fashion that makes previous attempts seem like a rehearsal for their real possibilities. He also backs it with some sensational instrumental writing, especially for bass and contrabass clarinet. I can't wait for the full opera." (Martin Ball, The Australian, 06 Dec 2004)
"This new score mirrors some Mahler characteristics: a huge orchestra, some extraordinary solos and unexpected instrumental combinations, a mixture of severely serious and popular music and an all embracing impression of sombre resignation. On its first outing, the work received a warm response; yet another substantial product from the MSO’s active composer in residence." (Clive O’Connell, The Age, 04 Dec 2004)
"Dean's brilliant sense of humour comes to the fore in a suite of extracts from a forthcoming opera based on Peter Carey's novel Bliss... For this story of an Australian advertising executive who thinks he has died and gone to hell, Dean combines street noise, advertising jingles and air-conditioning hum in a hellist potpourri of modern life that climaxes in a convulsive orchestral heart attack. If Dean's vocal writing is half as expressive, he could be on course to produce the first great landmark opera of the 21st century." (Guardian, 18 June 2007)