Sidney: Composers! A call to arms

Sydney Morning Herald, Australia
March 26 2004

Composers! A call to arms

Current events in Australia are crying out to be expressed in music,
Tony Stephens learns.

John Haddock believes that modern composers in the classical
tradition should turn their attention more to current affairs.
“Classical musicians should take their eyes off Beethoven for a
while,” he says.

“The pop music world used to comment on things that concerned them
about the modern world but that doesn’t happen much now. There are
opportunities for classical composers.”

Haddock saw an opportunity with the sinking of the SIEV X in the
Indian Ocean and the rescue of asylum seekers from fishing boats in
Australian waters, including the “children overboard” incident before
the last federal election.

Angered by the whole unhappy episode in Australian history, the
composer wrote the libretto and music for an aria, See My Children
Fly, which he says could come from a modern opera.

He wrote it with a particular singer in mind, the Armenian-born
soprano Arax Mansourian, who feels as passionately about the issue of
asylum seekers as Haddock does.

And tomorrow the Sydney Youth Orchestra joins the musical stand on
the refugee matter when See My Children Fly has its premiere in a SYO
concert at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre in Penrith.

Mansourian sings the role of an Afghan woman fleeing with her
children from war-torn Afghanistan. She sings of her journey and the
death of her children, using the metaphor of flight drawn from the
age-old Afghan passion for kite flying.

Do not hold my hand.
Do not touch me tenderly,
Or look upon me
With the sad eyes of a stranger.
Do not welcome me.
Do not invite me in.
Do not lock me up
with the detention of your charity.
I am lost.
I am illegal.
I have nothing,
not one thing.
No visa,
no life,
no family.
Here behind the wire
and the dirt
and the mandatory detention.

“The female concerned, her life and the death of her children is my
own creation,” Haddock says. “But the sinking of the SIEV X, in
October 2001 in the Indian Ocean, and the rescue of asylum seekers
from the fishing vessel Olong by the frigate HMAS Adelaide in the
same month is very real.”

The SYO artistic director, Thomas Woods, says the new piece is one of
the most important works to have its premiere in Australia in many
years. “John’s superbly crafted music conveys an emotional, artistic
response to what has come to be described as the refugee crisis. The
artistic angle provides the human element – and allows us to identify
with refugees as people.

“Arax Mansourian is a world-class soprano with a mature,
sophisticated voice, and John has written a work that demonstrates
her abilities to the fullest.”

Haddock put the aria idea to the soprano while working with
Mansourian when she sang the lead role in Tosca last year.

“He gave me the libretto and I thought it beautiful and emotional,”
she says. “And he gave me the music. I liked it.

“John is an emotional person and I’m emotional. A critic praised my
singing in Verdi’s Requiem but said it was unfortunate I was
emotional. How could you not be emotional in Verdi’s Requiem?Anyhow,
I’m proud to be singing John’s aria.”

Haddock joined the Australian Opera in 1989 and has worked with most
leading opera conductors over a wide repertoire. His opera Madeline
Lee won an Australia Council development grant in 1999 and will be
performed for the first time at the Sydney Opera House in October.

Madeline Lee is about a World War II bomber abandoned in the Libyan
desert and the men who set out to recover it. Haddock wrote it with
Michael Campbell, and Michael Lewis and Christopher Lincoln will sing
the leading roles. “It’s about men isolated and facing up to their
past,” Haddock says.

Mansourian, formerly a leading soprano with the Yerevan State Opera
in Armenia, has performed the title role in Aida, Leonora in Il
Trovatore, Mimi in La Boheme, Nedda in Pagliacci, Liu in Turandot,
Desdemona in Otello, Leonora in La Forza del Destino, Elizabeth in
Tannhauser, Santuzza in Cavalleria Rusticana and the title role in
Katya Kabanova. Her daughter, Shoushan Petrosian, is a pop singer in
Armenia and her brother, Tigran Mansourian, a composer. Another
brother, Mher, is an artist in France.

Tomorrow’s concert will also feature Bernstein’s Overture to Candide
and Rossini’s La Boutique Fantasque, both of which are part of the
SYO’s repertoire for their tour to Italy in July.