Notes from Underground

chamber opera after the novel by Dostoevsky (90 minutes)

Libretto by Pierce Wilcox

first performances by Sydney Chamber Opera
17th -23rd February
2011, Cellblock Theatre, Sydney
Sydney Morning Herald Review
Limelight Magazine Review


Scene 1 ‘I am’

Scene 6 ‘I want’ – ‘Love is’

Scene 4  Nekrasov poem & viola d’amore solo

Scene 5 Liza extract ‘Let me out to live in the world’ – ‘It was a dancing party’

Scene 7 ‘I’

Mitchell Riley- ‘Aboveground’ Man; Morgan Pearse- ‘Underground’ Man
Nicole Thomson & Anna Yun- Liza (soprano and mezzo-soprano)
James Wannan- Viola d’amore solo
Sydney Chamber Opera Orchestra conducted by Jack Symonds


To represent with mere musical notes the existential acuity of Dostoevsky’s ideas was the primary challenge implicit in realising this piece, though as the composition unfolded I found much more than scathing nihilistic brutality in the text. There is humour (dark, to be sure), compassion and even a (brief) moment of real Romantic connection. The fact that the Man’s ideals had to be decimated and shown to be hollow was something I very consciously considered in ‘operatic’ rendering: through means both literal and metaphorical, the music annihilates its own language.

In general, the musical and temporal separation of the ‘Aboveground’ and ‘Underground’ versions of the Man gradually closes throughout the piece, until a union of material and purpose is attempted in the final scene. Though the seven scenes are distinct in their construction, there are a large number of unifying musical elements representing character, character development and ideas. The stylistic means to achieve this are wide-ranging: there are just as many passages of (idiosyncratic) tonality as there are of quartertonal harmony. ‘Symphonic’ development in opera is a contentious structural issue, but one I feel is necessitated especially by the iron-clad logic of the ‘Underground’ Man’s arguments- hence such musico-dramatic conceits as the strict Sonata form that shapes Scene Six. Tonally, compassionately yet dialectically it forces the Man and Liza apart.

The concept of etiolated ideals is, however, the locus of the piece and the one against which I deployed an arsenal of ‘negative’ developmental techniques. However, all things must wither from a point of prosperity or nescience, and that is precisely how I conceived the path the music would take over a ninety minute span. The ’emergence’ out of language for both the Man and Liza is particularly important in understanding the interpretation of Dostoevsky I have come to hold: that our self-hope and self-destruction are held in a perilous balance by a fractured set of ideals.


Cast and production team for ‘Notes from Underground’
Composer back row, sixth from left


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