Opera Australia 2024, Review: Watershed: The Death of Doctor Duncan

By Gordon Williams
(Photo credit: Keith Saunders)

It felt like a significant event – Friday, June 14’s remounting by Opera Australia of the 2022 Adelaide Festival hit, “Watershed,” about the 1972 murder of Adelaide University law lecturer, Dr. Ian Duncan. This revival in the Sydney Opera House spoke to the success of the work at its first airing. Surely it had resonated in Adelaide, where the tragic events took place, but how would this work, described as an oratorio by its creators – Brisbane composer Joseph Twist, Sydney and Melbourne librettists Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas respectively, and Sydney director Neil Armfield – fare in its transfer to Sydney? You could expect a certain amount of predisposition towards the subject matter, given the size of Sydney’s gay community and the fact that this story looms so large in Australia’s history of gay rights. There had been open weeping during the Adelaide performances, and “Watershed” would receive a standing ovation on opening night in the Sydney Opera House. Ultimately, everyone could find their own moving moment in this work.

“Watershed” is about the drowning of Dr. Duncan in Adelaide’s Torrens River, the banks of which were a well-known ‘gay beat’ in the 1970s. According to the coronial report, the murder was perpetrated by “persons unknown,” but it has long been thought that they were members of the South Australian police. Soon after Duncan’s murder, Adelaide’s morning daily The Advertiser ran an editorial which read “Legalise Homosexuality.” The controversy eventually resulted in a government, led by progressive hero Don Dunstan, passing the first legislation in Australia to decriminalize homosexual acts in 1975. Thus, Dr. Duncan’s murder could be considered a ‘watershed’ moment in Australian politics.

What sort of opera, or oratorio, would this material furnish? Certainly, it was one that sparked memories and galvanized extra-musical interest. Facebook contained reminiscences by people who were in Adelaide at the time and whose lives were touched by the event. A timeline published in the program booklet accompanying an article by historian, Tim Reeves, was chilling in its real-world resonance: “1973, September 19: Peter Duncan [later, Attorney General] introduces dramatically different 1973 bill into House of Assembly; November 21: Bill fails by one vote in Legislative Council…” The librettists in their program note testified to having experienced homophobia. Emotionally charged, then, even before the show began! But what promised to be an emotional experience turned out to also be a very effective piece of theater – an oratorio, claim the creators, but one enlivened by intelligent stage movement and sufficiently informative back-projections. These were of newspaper stories and images of the benign scene – the riverbank where the events took place – to escape any sense of concert-mode staticity. It negotiated the spectrum from musical theater to opera incredibly successfully. The choreographer was Lewis Major and video designer Sean Bacon. The director of “Watershed” was Neil Armfield, whose works have previously been reviewed by OperaWire – Pinchgut Opera’s “Platée” in 2021, and The Met’s production of Brett Dean’s “Hamlet” in 2022.

Primarily, “Watershed” benefitted from an engaging, ear-beguiling score, and a powerful libretto that was by turns raw and uplifting. Composer Joseph Twist has had his work performed by Moby, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, Chanticleer, and The Wiggles, among others. Winner of the 2013 ASCAP Jimmy van Heusen Award, his music was immediately appealing and apt for every incident. He acknowledges the influence – “tinges” – of Britten, Bach, Adams, and Sondheim. I thought I heard Bernstein and Reich in there as well. But what mattered was that the music served the drama and was frankly impressive in its discovery of music even in prose – a marimba pattern keeping up the tension beneath the dry words of a coroner, for example – but also melodic shape extracted from prose when sung.

Part of the success of the score lay in its constantly-refreshing metric modulations, skilfully managed by conductor Brett Weymark. It was as if Twist already had his ears attuned to the track structure of some projected CD, guaranteeing the audience an impression of the music that they could take away with them. It is worth noting that Twist was described in the program as “Composer and Orchestrator,” a sign of the range of interest he could extract from an ensemble comprising only a small number of strings, two percussionists, a keyboardist, and a guitarist. The powerful text by playwright Alana Valentine and novelist Christos Tsiolkas (author of “The Slap”) was intended to be ‘radiant’ – hence the ‘oratorio’ appellation, perhaps – and it achieved this while being at times blunt and pungently realistic. The performance came with a language warning, but some of the old Australian expressions such as “Too right” – which is (or was) used by a certain vintage of Australian – were just plain moving. Amazing how a word like “poofter” could transport us back to the 1970s and the hostility of pre-Dunstan Australia. Perhaps it is not as common now?

One of the most striking features of the oratorio was the ease with which the work could move between opera and musical theater through well-judged transitions between speech, dialogue, arias, and choruses. This suggested, perhaps, that these two genres are realistically points on the same continuum. The musical tension and release enriched a sometimes straightforward documentary-style recounting of events. The latter is witnessed, for example, when the narrator declares, “Duncan is not yet in the water…”

“Watershed” is ostensibly an oratorio, the dramatic form usually performed without stage movement: but movement enlivened this space. Dancer Macon Escobal Riley, representing the drowning man, and a narrator – the Lost Boy – played by actor and musical theater artist Tomáš Kantor, moved freely across the stage. So too as did a fresh-voiced tenor Mark Oates as Duncan/Dunstan, and authoritative baritone Pelham Andrews as whistle-blower vice squad officer Mick O’Shea/police officer/ lawyer. The drowning man, splashing through a moat onstage, created one of the most radiant moments in the whole work. During the ending, ripples created by Riley’s movement as he was drawn up out of the water were reflected on the proscenium, drawing us all into contemplation, realising that he and Kantor had kissed – finally and with finality. Singers appeared lightly mic’d, such that they could deliver the work’s occasional dialogue clearly without forcing anything.

Some of the most affecting moments were provided by the chorus prepared by Paul Fitzsimon and Michael Curtain. Especially powerful was the sequence early in the show where the date of Dr. Duncan’s drowning is given – May 10, 1972 – and chorus members interject with other dates – presumably instances of other bashings. But the chorus also acted – at times affecting mockingly camp gestures – and had some of the most pungent lines, including presumably the perpetrators’ disclaimer: “We thought all faggots floated / No homos in the Ark.” Twist’s choral writing seemed especially rich and varied. “I would never describe myself as a homosexual,” sings Oates and two women soloists from the chorus respond, “But no priest would give you communion.” Oratorio then, but an element of upbraiding traditional Christianity. There was even an acknowledgement of the Aboriginal owners of the lands around the Torrens River – the use of the traditional name for the river, ‘Karrawirra Parri’ – all tying in, it seems, with a sentiment that “there’s a space in our lands for your name.” The text hits home, with other recognizable Adelaide place-names such as Gawler and Semaphore receiving mention.

A documentary-style structure obliged the creators to move on after the passing of legislation since, in real life, there was a New Scotland Yard investigation that concluded there were inadequate grounds for prosecution. There was the danger here of anticlimax. But individualized lines toward the end, arguably the most moving in the entire work, broadened out the significance of Dr. Duncan’s murder and South Australia’s subsequent public policy change to the wider community, “I’m the archivist who read your case…” and showed the power of colloquial rhyme, “I’m the priest who’s no longer devout / I’m the police diver who dragged your body out.”

Broad appeal may be timely. As Armfield says in his program note, “the forces of reaction are gathering – we wonder, in spite of Marriage Equality and various state-led recognitions of equal rights, just how far this country has come from institutionalised homophobia.” Twist in his program note hopes that “the diversity and accessibility of ‘Watershed’’s music will afford future performances by choirs of all kinds, so that we may continue to share in this important story that touches us all.” He should get that wish.


ReviewsStage Reviews