"And birds fell dead upon our neat back lawn
from poisoned skies, while dogs sought unsure refuge
behind our hosed down walls.''
- From The Enemy Comes to the Gates Bearing Fire by David Nourse.
Among the millions of words written about the Canberra bushfires of January 2003, it's the personal stories that are the most enduring.
But there are also those stories that we'll never know about: stories of people's lives that were progressing - either happily, humdrum or in chaos - and the effect caused by the events of that unthinkable day.
This idea of the Canberra bushfires as a crucible is at the heart of the opera From a Black Sky, which opens at the Street Theatre on September 20. Composed by Sandra France, with a libretto by Helen Nourse, the work is supported by the Centenary of Canberra, and is directed by Caroline Stacey.
''In the same way that metal is forged through fire, individual and community character can be forged through catastrophe,'' Stacey says. ''It's only when we're tested that we know who we are.''
Both composer and librettist were determined that the opera not be a documentary-style work. ''We didn't just want to write an opera about the Canberra bushfires,'' Nourse says. ''That narrative had already been well and truly told over the years. Instead, we wanted to use the fires as a setting in which to place four characters, each with their own personal dramas, in the midst of those two days.''
The story of From a Black Sky begins on the morning of January 18, 2003, in Canberra's Weston Creek. We meet David (played by tenor David Rogers-Smith) and Amelia (soprano Rachael Duncan) whose marriage is under severe strain from financial worries and infidelity. Then there is the scheming Sophie (mezzo-soprano Judith Dodsworth) who makes no attempt to hide lustful feelings for her friend Amelia. Meanwhile Tony (baritone Dom Bemrose) carries a guilty secret about the way he has treated his good mate David. By the time the bushfires reach their suburb in the afternoon, their complicated lives are laid bare.
The work began life some five years ago when France, a music teacher at Erindale College, invited colleague and friend Nourse to write the libretto for an opera she was developing. Both agreed that the 2003 bushfires would make a suitably dramatic setting.
They also knew that audiences are sometimes wary of contemporary opera, so they were determined to make the work as engaging as possible.
It's a stunning score but fiendishly difficult to learn. But our conductor, David Kram, is very skilled in making sure that the language is heard.
France was awarded an ACT Creative Arts Fellowship to develop the opera. The Street Theatre, through its Hive development program, later provided assistance with the libretto, including the services of leading dramaturg Peter Matheson.
Much of the libretto was written first, no mean feat for Nourse, an opera lover but - by her own admission - totally inexperienced in writing for the form. To this, France would add her score then discussion would ensue with lyrics being refined, repeated or rearranged. The result is a libretto which is spare and poetic.
''I wanted to be economical so as to give the music time to wrap itself around the words,'' Nourse says.
''When the music is added to the libretto, the whole work comes alive.''
''Many modern operas lack the melody and sense of recognition that you hear in more traditional operas,'' France says. ''So, by focusing on a strong sense of melody and harmony, I wanted to address any expectation that the work would be inaccessible.''
And she has offset this lyrical approach with passages of minimalism, especially during the scenes of mounting tension as the bushfires approach and the lives of the four self-absorbed characters begin to unravel.
''It's a stunning score but fiendishly difficult to learn,'' admits Duncan, who has enjoyed an impressive operatic career in Europe. ''But our conductor, David Kram, is very skilled in making sure that the language is heard. It's not a matter of hammering out every word in a sentence - that's not what we do when we speak. It's about paying attention to the rhythms of the verse and stressing the correct words.''
The production features an ensemble of 12 musicians, including two percussionists and a quintet of strings matched with some wind and brass, who are situated in the centre of the stage.
''The action takes place around them, reflecting the fact that the music is central to the production,'' Stacey says. ''Designer Christiane Nowak's set is impressionistic. It can represent, at different times, a shopping centre, a house or an office.''
From a Black Sky has also had the advantage of several creative developments, including small-scale performances, in Canberra and Melbourne in its journey over the past three years. The opera has been refined as a result and now includes a chorus, comprising a vocal ensemble from Erindale College and Arrawang Primary School chorus.
''This is the only locally written opera that is part of the Canberra Centenary program,'' Stacey says. ''It's what the Street Theatre is about: exploring our milieu, listening to what audiences are asking for and responding to them.
''Staging a modern opera in Australia these days is a considerable achievement in itself. It's thrilling to put a contemporary new work on the stage. And even more so when it is by a composer and a librettist who are from Canberra and which showcases a large number of local creative artists who are working in this form.''
One of these artists is librettist Nourse's husband David, a local poet, part of whose poem The Enemy Comes to the Gates Bearing Fire provides a gentle coda at the end of Act II:
'' … We stayed, like them,
and gambled that the fire would pass us by -
the Lord be thanked for looking after fools.''
From a Black Sky, at the Street Theatre from September 20 to 22, 7.30pm with 4pm matinee on September 22. Tickets: $35 (full price); $30 (concession). Bookings: 6247 1223. For further information, see thestreet.org.au.