The Weight of Light. Music by James Humberstone. Words by Nigel Featherstone. Baritone: Michael Lampard. Pianist: Alan Hicks. Director: Caroline Stacey. The Street Theatre and The Goulburn Regional Conservatorium. The Street Theatre, March 3-4. thestreet.org.au.
Former Canberran Nigel Featherstone says when he was first offered the opportunity, in late 2013, to write the words for what would become the song cycle The Weight of Light, he turned it down.
"I didn't think I had the skills to be a librettist - I'm a prose not a poetry writer," he says.
But Paul Scott-Williams, the director of the Goulburn Regional Conservatorium, persisted.
"He was very keen to make art song relevant to the region and relevant to current concerns...He pointed out that I've lived in Goulburn since 2010 and have an awareness of the community, that my most recent novella, The Beach Volcano, is about a musician and I have a lifelong love of music.
"Words and music are the two things I adore."
Scott-Williams introduced him to composer James Humberstone from the Sydney Conservatorium of Music and convinced him they would be a good working team.
Featherstone came up with three story sketches and they settled on one to take further. Now the work, directed by Caroline Stacey, sung by baritone Michael Lampard and played by pianist Alan Hicks, is about to premiere at The Street Theatre, where it underwent creative development.
In The Weight of Light an Australian officer is on leave from his latest tour of Afghanistan and returning to his family's farm in Crookwell in the Southern Tablelands for some much-needed rest.
"He has a dark secret about something that happened while he was serving in Afghanistan," Featherstone says.
"What he doesn't know is that his family is also carrying a dark secret about something that happened at home."
And there will be more than one piece of unexpected, life-changing news for him on this fateful trip home in what Featherstone calls a story of what happens when "A man of war meets the full force of family."
Featherstone says during the development process they tried a few different approaches to telling the story - multiple points of view and having an omniscient narrator for example - but settled on the simple directness of having one singer and one point of view.
"The other wonderful thing is it can be toured and performed in simple venues."
Featherstone says he enjoyed his first outing as a librettist and would love to do it again. He says he was aware that he "needed to leave room for James as a composer" in the creation of the work and says their collaboration went well.
"We respected each other's opinions ...It was a joyful process."
Baritone Michael Lampard, 31, was last in Canberra a few years ago for an Art Song Canberra recital. He's recently been performing in a Melbourne production of Wagner's Tristan and Isolde but will now be doing something quite different: a short. chamber-sized modern vocal piece rather than a sprawling large-scale 19th-century opera. He's researched the role of the soldier by reading interviews with returned servicemen in order to empathise with the character of the soldier in the songs and better convey the emotion to the audience.
"It's a unique work," Lampard says. "It's given the banner of a song cycle which in traditional classical music has a distinct meaning but this work is quite pointed theatrically.
"It offers the performers opportunities to interact physically with the environment on a different level."
Usually, he says, song performances are simply "stand and deliver" but in The Weight of Light "there's a lot of acting, staging effects and lighting - it's totally unique in that respect".
Also unusual are some of the sounds written to be performed as part of the work, with Lampard and Hicks sometimes plucking the strings and striking the piano, for example. He also uses his throat to create some unusual vocal effects
"It's a unique sound world for the piece," Lampard says. One of the things he particularly enjoys about performing new music - apart from the fact that, as here, he can have the opportunity to be the first to perform a work - is that "If you go into it full bore and give it some time, the results can be so profound."
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