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Baritone Michael Lampard performing the role of the soldier in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

Holy moley, what a ride.

The first three WEIGHT OF LIGHT shows – two in Canberra and one in Goulburn – have happened and it’s hard to put into words how it felt, and how it continues to feel.

It’s amazing (such a weak word in this instance) to have the work performed by such fine artists as baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. It’s also been fantastic – an education, really – to be able to observe what goes into staging a work professionally, and a part of that has been spending time with the show’s tireless director Caroline Stacey, set-designer Imogen Keen, lighting designer Linda Buck, and stage-manager Anni Wawrzynczak. Then there is the sheer thrill (and almost overwhelming nerves) of opening night and the relief that comes from seeing an audience demand two curtain-calls from the performers. And then there’s the energy of the foyer afterwards, as punters talk about the show over a glass or seven of wine. As I’ve mentioned before, writing for the page is such a slow-burn of a process; writing for the stage offers immediacy, in every way.

Last weekend saw THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT head to Goulburn, where it was performed in an intimate and atmospheric space to an incredibly enthusiastic audience at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, the organisation that bravely commissioned the work. Not only did Michael and Alan yet again perform spectacularly, it was wonderful to see the show come across so very well in a smaller venue.

In the lead-up to the shows, there was a wide range of media, including:

It’s pleasing to report that there have been a number of wonderful reviews, with the following the crux of it:

Accompanist Alan Hicks performing in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT at The Street Theatre in Canberra. (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a gem of a piece, combining the performance rhythms of a song cycle with the force of theatre. Much of its power comes from the delicate way the combination of Nigel Featherstone’s spare text and James Humberstone’s dark and carefully mournful music touches on issues of masculinity and trauma. Michael Lampard finds even the smallest scrap of light and uses it to the advantage of the performance. THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT will certainly have a life beyond the two Canberra performances’ – The Canberra Times

‘THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT is a richly crafted production with universal themes of grief, despair, hope and fear’ – Australian Stage

‘Seamless, exquisite, mesmeric poetry of text, music, drama and the conversation of light and shadow on a spare, evocative set that had me ‘falling / in my (own) chest / my guts / my legs / my head’, but then carried me as I fell, lifted me until I became the weight of light’ – award-winning author, poet and performer Merlinda Bobis

‘An enthralling visual and aural experience’ – Australian Arts Review

‘A beautiful show. The whole package – words, music, performance, set and lighting. Highly moving’ – Whispering Gums

‘Composer James Humberstone, librettist Nigel Featherstone, director Caroline Stacey, baritone Michael Lampard and pianist Alan Hicks have put together a dark and spellbinding tale of a soldier who has returned from his latest tour of Afghanistan. As they move through the songs, a sense of a person lost and wondering emanates through the music, the lyrics, and the strongly effective staging and lighting, all in a well thought-out story that is touching and dramatic in every aspect. What this song cycle shows is that if there is anything good to come out of war, it is the beauty of creations such as THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT’ – Canberra City News

‘A truly stunning piece of work. Bravo’ – Sydney Voice Project

Baritone Michael Lampard and accompanist Alan Hicks. performing together in THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT (Image credit: The Street Theatre)

So, enormous – let’s say endless – gratitude from me to every single person who came to the shows, to those who shared their thoughts (and tears) in the foyers, to those who wrote me an email or sent a text message or shared their response on social media. It’s meant the world to me.

What’s next?

A breather for all, before THE WEIGHT OF LIGHT hits Sydney on Friday 27 July at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music. It’s also pleasing to announce that composer extraordinaire James Humberstone has secured a deal for the work to be professionally recorded and released physically and digitally.

Oh yes, what a ride.

An excerpt from the libretto; art work by Katy Mutton.

Yes, it’s true: it’s show-time week.

That sound you can hear? My knees shaking. Pretty sure my ribs are rattling too.

After four years of wrestling 1400 words into 14 songs, The Weight of Light will have it moment in the sun this weekend and next. It has been such an amazing – daunting at times, but ultimately highly rewarding – experience, and here we are and I’m feeling incredibly grateful. Grateful to have this opportunity to write for performance, which, as I’ve noted before, is a new and different way of working for me. Grateful to be able to bring together three things I adore: words, story, and music. And grateful because it takes a team of skilled and extremely committed people to bring a work like this in front of an audience.

Recent adventures in media-land can be found in the Sydney Morning Herald, Resonate (the magazine of the Australian Music Centre), and the Canberra City News.

There are only three performances: 7.30pm on Saturday 3 March and 4pm on Sunday 4 March at The Street Theatre in Canberra; and 7.30pm on Saturday 10 March at the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium.

Tickets can be purchased here.

What is the show about?

Having completed his latest tour of Afghanistan, an Australian soldier is on leave and taking the opportunity to return to his family’s farm in regional New South Wales – he is looking forward to resting. However, as he makes his way home he is confronted by news that is both life-affirming and devastating, which pushes him to reveal a dark secret that clings like a ghost. Ultimately he must question everything he knows. What sort of man is he? What does it mean to be brave? And what future might be waiting for his family?

Who are the key artists in the show?

Michael Lampard rehearsing at The Street Theatre, February 2018 (Image: James Humberstone)

Baritone Michael Lampard will be playing ‘the soldier’. Born in Hobart, Michael has performed widely across Australia, Europe, UK, USA and Asia in operas, oratorios and many recitals. Competition success includes being an award-winning finalist in the Australian Singing Competition (2006 & 2008), being a Quarter Finalist in Placido Domingo’s Operalia in Paris (2007), placing third in the 2013 RMP Aria in Melbourne and winning the 2015 Melbourne Welsh Male Choir ‘Singer of the Year’ competition. Aside from his singing activities, Michael is also an experienced composer, conductor, chorus-master and voice teacher having taught privately and at the University of Tasmania. Since relocating to Melbourne in 2013 he has quickly established himself as one of Australia’s most exciting young operatic baritones. He has recently worked with Victorian Opera, Lyric Opera of Melbourne, Emotionworks, Melbourne Opera, CitiOpera, the Forest Collective, Camberwell Chorale, Victorian Youth Symphony Orchestra and as a chorister for Opera Australia. With the pianist Rhodri Clarke, Michael established the Zenith ensemble, a recital duo that have performed critically acclaimed recitals at the Melbourne Recital Centre, for 3MBS (Winterreise as part of the 2014 Schubert Marathon) and for many societies and organizations around Melbourne and Tasmania. He is establishing himself as a leading interpreter of new art music, commissioning and performing the premieres of many works by Australian and international composers.

Alan Hicks rehearsing the bowing technique required by the score (Image: James Humberstone)

Accompanist Alan Hicks is one of Australia’s foremost vocal coaches and accompanists. As Head of Voice at the ANU School of Music (2008-2012) he developed an exciting and innovative programme which provided voice students with high-level performance opportunities at embassies and consular venues throughout Canberra (in collaboration with the Friends of Opera), at Wesley Music Centre through the Wesley Music Scholarships and the Wednesday Lunchtime Live series, at the Street Theatre in fully staged operatic productions and at the Canberra International Music Festival. In April 2012 his students appeared in three of the five ABC Sunday Live concerts broadcast from Canberra. Alan is in demand as a recitalist with national and international artists. He performs in duo partnerships with Geoffrey Lancaster (Canberra International Music Festival 2009-2012) and Alan Vivian (Clarinet Ballistix and ABC Sunday Live). At the 2011 Australian Flute Festival he gave recitals with Aldo Baerten (Belgium), Jane Rutter (Aus) and Luca Manghi (Italy/NZ). Alan has appeared with his wife, mezzosoprano Christina Wilson, in Europe and Australia, performing regularly for the Canberra International Music Festival and on ABC Classic FM. Alan is a graduate of the Newcastle Conservatorium of Music and of the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester, UK.

Composer James Humberstone during the creative development sessions at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, December 2017 (Image: Ryley Gillen)

Of course, there is also The Weight of Light’s composer, James Humberstone. James’s output is influenced by his research background in experimental music, and his interest in composing for children and community ensembles. Born in London, Humberstone migrated to Australia in 1997 after completing a degree in composition at the University of Exeter. His honours thesis was on the music of Howard Skempton, with whom Humberstone studied briefly after graduating. Humberstone has often cited Skempton as his greatest influence. By combining postgraduate studies in composition and experimental music with education qualifications and an 11-year residency at Sydney’s MLC School, Humberstone developed an approach to combining new and challenging music for children with a pedagogical approach, and continued to extend his experimental research and practice. He also combined knowledge about technology gained through nearly a decade at Sibelius Software with his compositional and education experience, and has become a leading authority in this field, publishing and regularly speaking at conferences internationally. In 2013 Humberstone completed his PhD and joined the faculty at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, where he remains as a tenured senior lecturer. Today he works in the fields of composition, music education and technology research, as well as experimental music.

Director Caroline Stacey (Image courtesty of Canberra City News)

Last but by no means least, the director of The Weight of Light is Caroline Stacey. Caroline is currently Artistic Director/CEO of The Street Theatre, Canberra’s creative hub for professional and independent artists. In 2012 Caroline received the Canberra Artist of the Year Award for her outstanding contribution to theatre and the performing arts. Other awards include: ACT International Women’s Day Award for her contribution to the performing arts in the ACT (2011), ABAF Margaret Lawrence Bequest Scholarship (2010), and the MEAA ACT Green Room Award for leadership in the cultural sector (2009). Caroline has a Master of Theatre Arts and BA in Sociology and English. Caroline has been nominated for Green Room Awards many times (including MO’s Madame Butterfly) and is the recipient of Canberra Critics Circle and Victorian Music Theatre Awards. Other creative roles include:  Artistic Director Castlemaine State Festival, VIC; Artistic Director Melba Festival; lecturer VCA Opera School; Cultural Planning and Development Manager Knox City Council; National Artistic Directorate member of ChamberMade; board member Rotary Puccini Foundation Awards, and Artistic Director of Outback Youth Theatre, NSW. Caroline has an extensive career as a stage director of theatre and opera. Opera/music theatre credits include: Love & the Art of War (Sydney Opera House), L’Orfeo (Queensland Music Festival), Pimpinone (West Australian Opera); The English Eccentrics, L’enfant et les sortilèges (Melbourne Festival); Lakme (Canterbury Opera); Madame Butterfly, The Magic Flute (Melbourne Opera); Medea (Adelaide Symphony Orchestra); The Tender Land, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Albert Herring, Nelson (Operalive); The Happy Prince (Victorian Opera), Rusalka, L’amour des Trois Oranges (VCA), Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Dido and Aeneas, Medea, The Jade Harp, The Six Memos, Albert Herring, and From a Black Sky (The Street).

So that’s the calibre of a team that’s required to bring a song cycle to the stage. Extraordinary, don’t you think?

It would be terrific to see you at one of the shows.

Now, to the bath with a glass of whiskey…

Shit’s just got real.

Those were the words from the commissioner of The Weight of Light, Paul Scott-Williams, after I tweeted a picture of the poster for the show (below).

Last Friday afternoon I had dropped into the Street Theatre in Canberra to chat with the show’s director, and there it was, the poster, beaming beautifully from the entrance. Needless to say, I was gobsmacked: not only is the poster exquisite – the art work is by Australian visual artist Katy Mutton – but, to be frank, I never thought I would have the opportunity to write for performance. Or have a full-sized poster outside a theatre…in the national capital.

But here we are. And it’s wonderful.

A thing of beauty, and nerves, and excitement.

As I’ve written before, The Weight of Light has been in development since late 2013, when Paul, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, and I had a coffee in Canberra; he wanted a contemporary song-cycle that would be relevant to current social concerns. We chose masculinity (these days that word would be preceded by ‘toxic’) as the core theme, though it’s also about war, home, and healing – and the show is not without love, too.

The story involves an Australian soldier who has come home from another tour in Afghanistan: he has a dark secret, but, as he soon finds out, so does his family. The music has been composed by James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium, is being directed by Caroline Stacey from the Street Theatre in Canberra, and will be performed by Melbourne-based baritone Michael Lampard and Alan Hicks, one of Australia’s foremost accompanists.

We go into a two-week rehearsal stage starting on 19 December. Yikes.

A short video of the creative development sessions we held in December at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music can be found here. (It includes footage of me laughing, possible in all the wrong places.) A brief Q&A with yours truly can be found here; I talk a little about what it is like to work on a collaborative project, and provide some insights into how James and I developed the songs. Also, a short piece about the making of The Weight of Light that I wrote for Resonate, the magazine of the Australian Music Centre, can be found here.

What does all this feel like?

Preliminary staging ideas by Imogen Keen and Caroline Stacey, from the Street Theatre in Canberra

Exciting. Terrifying. Exposing.

Especially when Caroline showed me the drawings (above) for the staging – it really does feel as though the show is becoming ‘real’.

If you’re in the ACT region in early March, it would be really great to see you at one of the performances!

It was, to be frank, a day that felt both terrifically exciting and utterly terrifying. Like skydiving, perhaps, or climbing a cliff without ropes.

I am referring to the recent creative development day for Homesong, which, in the larger scheme of life’s trials, should have been a breeze. But the fact is I’m primarily a fiction writer, meaning most of what I do is private. I write in private, I read in private. Quite frequently I meet with other writers to talk about this thing we do, but those conversations are, in the main, private too. Ultimately the work is made public, but then it becomes a private experience for a reader. I’m simplifying, of course, because there might be reviews, public readings, festival appearances, and book-club attendance. But writing for the stage is a different kettle of fish: it’s a living and breathing three-dimensional human space. Hence the reference to terror.

So what happened?

Team in development: Paul Scott-Williams, James Humberstone, myself, and Antony Talia. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

The creative team – project initiator Paul Scott-Williams from the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium and composer James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and I – spent a day at The Street Theatre in Canberra. Under the guidance of the Street’s artistic director Caroline Stacey, the work was performed behind closed doors by pianist Alan Hicks and baritone Tristan Entwistle. Together with actor Antony Talia, the team then reflected on the work, teasing out areas that needed further development. Was this song sufficiently articulate? Was that word really the best for the purpose? How do we want the audience to respond? Were the themes clear? (Apologies for being a little vague about the actual story, but more of that in later posts.)

After making some minor adjustments and resolving technical issues (i.e. staging), the doors were opened to an audience of thirty brave souls who fortified themselves with a glass of wine and then watched the first public performance, before providing feedback, again under the guidance of Caroline.

Baritone Tristan Entwistle getting to know the score before the first public performance. Photo credit: The Street Theatre

For a fiction writer, whose idea of a good day is spent from dawn to dusk at home in tracksuit pants and ugg-boots talking with sparrows, this was a confronting experience. Reading and responding to a piece of fiction, especially something as long as a novel, involves a period of commitment – hours, if not days, maybe even weeks – and then, after the last page is turned, there is time for reflection before conclusions (if any) are reached. Not so with a live song-cycle: at the Homesong creative development, once the last word was sung and there was a moment for applause, the response came immediately. Despite still processing the work myself, it was fascinating to learn what resonated, what was clear and what was not, and to hear possible solutions.

Rather predictably, as soon as I was in my car and driving in the night away from the theatre, doubt reared its head. Was I the best librettist for this project? Was I even ‘a librettist’? Would I be able to process the feedback in a way that would benefit the project? But then I realised that, as opposed to traditional fiction (as it were), where I am responsible for every mark on the page, with a collaborative work such as a song-cycle there is a team, and every member of the team is required to take the project to the next stage.

Which is where we are at now.

There have been many frank and open (but always loving) email exchanges, and some generous colleagues who attended the creative development performance have sent me emails that described their experience of Homesong, which were most hopeful. While I won’t detail here the areas of the work that need to be addressed, it comes down to – and perhaps with any writing project this is inevitably the case – intent, precision, and impact on the audience. I would be lying if, despite my doubts, I told you that I am finding this next stage daunting. The guts of the work are present; it is about revealing more of the heart. And, thankfully, I am not alone in this task.

So, where’s my paper copy of the libretto and a red pen?

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