Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan (review)

Opera-Australia-Mark-Oates-Tomáš-Kantor-Opera-Australia-Chorus-and-Pelham-Andrews-in-Watershed-The-Death-of-Dr-Duncan-photo-by-Keith-SaundersAlthough it received only four performances, Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan will probably be the most important and talked about production staged by Opera Australia this year.

The subject matter; a gay bashing in Adelaide 50 years ago which led to the drowning of an Adelaide academic, George Ian Ogilvie Duncan in the Torrens River and the eventual decriminalisation of homosexuality in South Australia, the first Australian state to do so, obviously rekindled deep emotions among many in the audience for whom that event was life-changing.

Written as an oratorio by Joseph Twist, and superbly interpreted by the Opera Australia Orchestra and sung by the Opera Australia chorus, both conducted by Brett Weymark, Watershed has been given a stunning operatic staging by Neil Armfield.

Incorporated in every scene of Armfield’s staging, via the extraordinary video design of Sean Bacon, were the words of Librettists Alana Valentine and Christos Tsiolkas. These words are often confronting, uncompromisingly sexually explicit, but always deeply poetic.

From the remarkable first image; the body of a young man suspended high above the stage: then later, when in a vivid re-enactment of the assault on Duncan, the young man is flung out over the audience by his attackers before being left to drown; the effect is both horrific and unforgettable.

The elegant setting by Ailsa Paterson consists of a rectangular raised platform in front of which a pool representing the Torrens River runs the entire width of the stage. On either side of the platform the Opera Australia Chorus, costumed appropriately in contemporary everyman clothes, were seated behind soloists Mark Oates on one side, and Pelham Andrews on the other.

On a large screen behind them, shadowy video images of newspaper reports, people involved in the events including the perpetrators, together with idyllic scenes of the Torrens river, supported by the dramatic lighting design of Nigel Levings, provided the perfect atmospheric frame for the soloists who portrayed the actual events, leaving the chorus to comment on factors influencing community attitudes at the time.

Opera Australia Macon Escobal Riley Opera Australia Chorus and Pelham Andrews in Watershed The Death of Dr Duncan photo by Keith SaundersMacon Escobal Riley, recorded in the program simply as Dancer, represents Duncan’s body. He spends almost the entire opera suspended in mid-air, lying stationery in water, or being man-handled by various characters. It’s an extraordinary endurance feat which he manages with remarkable grace and skill.

Although Duncan was the victim, the central character, known as Lost Boy, was superbly sung and compellingly performed by Tomas Kantor. It is Lost Boy who discovers Duncan’s body, which also represents the many unnamed victims of similar treatment. It is also Lost Boy who expresses the emotions of those who are left to mourn.

Mark Oates, who plays Duncan and South Australian Premier, Don Dunstan, makes an impressive Sydney Opera House debut bringing a fine voice and stage presence to his characterisations. He has an excellent adversary in Pelham Andrews who portrays former vice squad officer, Mick O’Shea, as well as a policeman and a lawyer.

In his composer notes, Joseph Twist reveals that he incorporated tinges of Bach, Britten, Adams, Sondheim, Billy Joel, Pink Floyd and heavy metal bands, into his score. This may account for its accessibility especially towards the end where the audience is gifted with an exquisitely haunting ear-wig melody destined to become the calling card which represents this opera.

Judging from the almost hysterical response of the first-night audience, this will not be the only time Watershed is likely to grace the stage of the Joan Sutherland Theatre.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan
Joan Sutherland Theatre – Sydney Opera House, Bennelong Point (Sydney)
Performance: Friday 14 June 2024
Season: 14 – 16 June 2024
Information and Bookings: www.opera.org.au

Images: Mark Oates, Tomáš Kantor, Opera Australia Chorus and Pelham Andrews in Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan – photo by Keith Saunders | Macon Escobal Riley, Opera Australia Chorus and Pelham Andrews in Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan – photo by Keith Saunders

Review: Bill Stephens OAM