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Above: Opera Australia chorus and Tomáš Kantor as The Lost Boy perform in front of one of the powerful projection sets, which often included real photography and newspaper clippings from the time. Featured image: dancer Macon Escobal Riley and Tomáš Kantor. Photo credit Keith Saunders.

Oratorio is a dynamic form of communication. Instruments, choral commentary, soloists and often an impressive amalgam of text combine to depict a compelling figure or major moment in time. Joseph Twist’s setting of powerful poetry by Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas propels the traditional, high-powered oratorio vehicle with eclectic, electric effect in the modern tale of homophobia in ‘Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan’.

This retelling of the violent, turbulent, transformative twentieth-century time where Adelaide pioneered the transition of homosexuality from a criminal to legitimate human practice is excellent oratorio fare.

Twist’s kaleidoscopic chorus writing, firecracker multi-directional solo lines and soundscapes that drip with emotion and scenic poignancy are a beautifully scanned treat of English text and controversial Australian situation setting.

This retelling of injustice and bittersweet human rights progress unfolds above an evergreen sonic tapestry. Twist’s dynamic oratorio score has evolved exquisitely over recent years into a well supported stage spectacle.

His setting of the text borrowed from media sources, modern opinion, vivid recreations of scene and actual letters or court transcripts easily accommodates the additions of theatricality. This flashback quasi liturgical drama from a persecuted underground gay church in the 1970s is drenched in trauma. It is a beautiful soundtrack for the physical, visceral and visual impacts successfully interwoven by skilful creatives.

This story as created here hurtles through time from the bashing and drowning of Dr Ian Duncan in 1972. The opening choral narrative bites into our sensibilities as the clear word painting lays terrible details of a hidden gay community’s compromised, criminalised intimacy is flagrantly discussed.

Twist’s instrumental and vocal strands shine in glistening spirals throughout this worthwhile production. They are keenly performed by soloists, ensemble and brilliantly blended by conductor Brett Weymark.

Above: Mark Oates gave a compelling performance as the voice of Doctor Duncan and former SA premier Don Dunstan. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

The roller coaster of fear, hope, bravery and persecution of homosexuals zooms before us, athletically phrased, accompanied by stunning stage movement and lithe projection backdrops including surtitles.

From one of Australia’s smallest cities, the ensuing murder cold case years with possible police cover-up, legal loopholes, activism, sexual decriminalisation and alienation are presented in doco style with comment from key players and general public in reactions depicted concisely and artistically.

In this way extreme horror, jubilation, solidarity, a changing society and damaged landscape leapt stunningly from the Dame Joan Sutherland stage in brief exchange and with some fine extended aria moments.

Oratorio transitions into operatic event here.Following on from Opera Australia’s fine reworking last year of Handel’s Theodora for the active opera stage, Twist’s work also is repainted magnificently as a piece of national theatre.

Accompanying movements of chorus and dancer depicting the murdered Duncan dangling dangerously or delicately from the set spell out the backwards nature of our country and world a mere half century ago.

Neil Armfield and associate director Cheryl Pickering block the stage with exquisite sharing of the space by cast. Lewis Major’s choreography for chorus comment when they enter centre stage from the choir rows is always effective and engaging.

Above: Two sides of the investigation- Mark Oates, Tomáš Kantor,Macon Escobal Riley and Pelhan Andrews with photos of accused SA Police officcers on the projection behind. Photo credit: Keith Saunders.

From the outset, the deceased-Duncan aerialist effigy (with incredible work from dancer Macon Escobal Riley) drops hauntingly before us. With real water on stage, this verismo-oratorio-opera stuns us into hypnotic admiration despite the terrors of a humanity only slightly less harsh by the end of the tale and the unsolved murder case.

Voices of Duncan and inimitable politician Don Dunstan (the elastic voice and penetrating stage presence of Mark Oates), of so many lost last-century not-out gay boys or men (as brought to us via the Lost Boy Tomáš Kantor’s finely cross-dressed, opera and musical theatre utterances) were touching, powerhouse elements of this event.

Also, the hectic attitudes of cops or lawyers (communicated in the chameleon, impressive depths of Pelham Andrews’ tone and dramatic caricature) plus superbly characterised Greek-style chorus with fleeting vox pop women, liberated lesbians and a new age of parents were all presented with lingering lilt in this well paced, short stunner of a history lesson.

Set and costume designer Ailsa Patterson’s believable, remembered and multifaceted manipulationof muted beige and grey detailed hues for general public and main protagonists is an appreciated and effective element in this production.

The audience’s hearts, hopes and minds swell also with this necessary fable’s huge impact so honestly, grittily and endearingly brought to us. Neil Armfield must add this visual, vocal and musical triumph to his current film credits which already proudly swell with the Australian LGBTIQIA+ classic Holding The Man.

This production is aptly presented by OA creatives and amazing cast assembled, smack bang in the centre of Pride Month Down Under.

From our antipodean end of an historically resilient rainbow a multitude of creatives, talented performers and daring oratorio-opera textures describe the legacy of a devastating local event. It succeeds in a clear, slick, thought provoking flash of guts and glitter. This bit of history, artistry and no-aching-holds brand of pioneering stories needs to be a key part of regular performances both locally and globally.


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