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A man crouches and casts a cockroach-shaped shadow

Feature

Brian Howard traces the history of Metamorphosis

On the opening night in Melbourne of my first opera (Inner Voices) by the Victoria State Opera in October 1979, Graham Cox (assistant to VSO’s musical director, Richard Divall) came up to me in the bar and said he had an idea for my next opera. I half listened as he started talking enthusiastically about Kafka, beetles and Steven Berkoff. Another opera?

Some weeks later, when I was in Paris, I read the Kafka novella and decided Cox’s enthusiasm was well founded. However, tracking down the Berkoff adaptation, at that time unpublished, took many letters to London; a copy finally reached me in Lund, Sweden, where I was spending the northern spring of 1980. I read the Berkoff version several times during those months and decided it had to become the libretto for my next opera.

A photograph of composer Brian Howard

Composer Brian Howard. Photo courtesy of Wildbird Music.

Following further correspondence, the VSO agreed to commission the score of Metamorphosis from me, and in April 1981, I met Steven Berkoff in London and discussed the evolution of the libretto with him. I started sketching the opera in the southern spring of 1981 in Melbourne. However, for most of 1982 I was engaged in writing other works, so Metamorphosis remained as that folio of sketches for almost a year.

Writing here, there and everywhere

It was in late December 1982 that I moved into a wonderful house on Fairy Bower in Sydney, overlooking the Pacific Ocean. It was there that I really began to write to the opera. By late February 1983, I had completed the first major part of the score, but again writing stopped when I flew to Adelaide for five weeks to conduct the Singers’ Company production of Inner Voices. From Adelaide I flew to London in March for Anthony Besch’s production of the same work with the New Opera Company. From London I went to France and began writing again in Provence: first staying with friends at Venasqué, near Avignon, and then in the Ventoux Mountains near Malaucène. I returned to London for six weeks and stayed in a house behind Portobello Road in Notting Hill, where I wrote much of scene three.

In June, I flew to Melbourne to complete the score. During the weeks that followed, I also conducted the premiere of my A Fringe of Leaves for Musica Viva Australia in the Melbourne Concert Hall, with the Australian Chamber Orchestra and Melbourne Chorale Chamber Singers and flew to Sydney to conduct a workshop with the Seymour Group. The month before the opera opened in Melbourne, I had eight copyists working on the parts. One of the copyist’s girlfriend drove bits of the score around in her station wagon and collected the parts, while I acted as mission control from a Carlton telephone.

From the 1983 premiere to performances in 2018

In September 1983, Graham Cox conducted the premiere of Metamorphosis with the VSO in a production by Nigel Triffitt, with a young Lyndon Terracini in the role of Gregor Samsa. Since that first season in 1983, Metamorphosis has been staged by The Australian Opera in Sydney in a production by Graeme Murphy, by WAAPA in Perth in a production by John Milson, by NORPA in Lismore as a theatre work with choreography by Michael Hennessy and in concert as part of the inaugural season of Victorian Opera in Melbourne conducted by Richard Gill.

In 2018, Opera Australia revisits the work in a bold new production staged in two intimate venues: the Opera Australia Scenery Workshop in Surry Hills and the Merlyn Theatre at the Coopers Malthouse.

Metamorphosis in a nutshell

Kafka's intriguing story of change, horror and what makes us human, with an inventive contemporary score by Brian Howard and libretto by Steven Berkhoff.

What happens in the story?

Gregor awakes one morning and something is wrong. He is worn out from work and his ungrateful family – but this is more than exhaustion. He has transformed into a dung beetle. Gregor’s family grapple with their horror and confusion as he works out how to live in his new skin.

See it if you like ...

Supporting work by Australian artists; contemporary art, dance or opera, Kafka.

Sounds like

Brian Howard’s score is percussive, inventive and courageous. Twelve musicians and six singers ratchet up the horror and pathos of this work: a story of social alienation in a modern, inhuman world.

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