State Opera of South Australia have initiated an ambitious program: Lost Operas of Oz, presenting Australian operas which have had little exposure since their premieres in the latter half of the 20th century. First on the list is Boojum!, premiered at the 1986 Adelaide Festival in the presence of Queen Elizabeth II. She must have liked it for it is said she went back stage to congratulate the cast and crew. At the heart of ‘Boojum!’ is Lewis Carroll’s familiar nonsense poem The Hunting of the Snark, about a motley crew sailing out to hunt a fictitious animal which, should it turn out to be a Boojum, one will “softly and suddenly vanish away, and never be met with again”.

Adam Goodburn (Rev Charles Dodgson) © Soda Street Productions
Adam Goodburn (Rev Charles Dodgson)
© Soda Street Productions

Librettist Peter Wesley Smith and twin brother composer Martin (it includes a song about twins) have created a hard to define, not quite opera, not quite musical, which conductor Warwick Stengårds describes as “wonderfully undefinable… a vocal masterpiece which glides easily between several genres… with exotic harmonies and complex cross rhythms”. Woven into the Snark story are references to other Carroll works, to the private world of Anglican deacon Charles Dodgson (whose nom de plume was Lewis Carroll), to his attraction to young Alice (of Wonderland and Looking Glass fame), and attempting to imagine what his thoughts might have been. It took me on a mind-bending journey through a dark mirror. Director Joseph Mitchell calls it ‘a “memory play” from the mind of Charles Dodgson who, in older age, reflects upon his life, considering his inevitable death, and consequently trying to come to terms with his unresolved internal conflicts. He has created a production with a bright and breezy nonsense first half, morphing into what becomes a rather dark and depressing denouement.

Staged in the Dunstan Playhouse at the Adelaide Festival Centre (where the acoustic is not ideal) designer Simone Romaniuk has built a clever set as a place in Charles Dodgson’s imagination, with a chessboard-floored cubby house, the place where Dodgson writes his poems and stories and where he creates his characters raised above a playground including a fort and a roundabout “to anchor the characters in a partial reality”.

Brock Roberts (Lewis Carroll), Katrina Mackenzie (Alice) and Adam Goodburn (Rev Dodgson) © Soda Street Productions
Brock Roberts (Lewis Carroll), Katrina Mackenzie (Alice) and Adam Goodburn (Rev Dodgson)
© Soda Street Productions

Interestingly tenors Adam Goodburn plays the Reverend Dobson and Brock Roberts plays Lewis Carroll, while sopranos Katrina MacKenzie sings young Alice and Joanna McWaters sings Mrs Hargreaves, the adult Alice. The two versions of the same person become crucial to the power of the opera, and their fascinating duets enhance and enrich it.

I was very impressed with the smooth, velvet soprano of Joanna McWaters, wearing a glamorous fur coat (she doubled as the beaver in the Snark crew), the clarity and timbre of her voice empowering. She sought the answer to what a Snark might be, and also a Boojum. She excelled with Katrina MacKenzie as together they sang “My Knight in Shining Armour”, two Alices, one remembering the other reflecting on their feelings for Dodgson, McWaters strong as she reminisced, MacKenzie sweet and full of the moment as they shared that he was “Bewitching, enriching our ev'ry day lives, So clever whatever his dreaming contrives”.

Hunting Chorus © Soda Street Productions
Hunting Chorus
© Soda Street Productions

Poignant and moving, too, was the duet of Goodburn and Roberts ‘“’m Old, Like Father William”, contemplating Dodgson’s life, reflecting he has been “a poor old Baker, with nothing to bake to take to [his] Maker”. The beautifully clear diction of baritone Joshua Rowe as the Bellman, who carried a blank map and did not seem a particularly competent sea captain, was impressive. He was at his best in the second act Jubjubby, a sort of variation on Jabberwocky, as he attempted to keep the Crew’s spirits up.

Catherine Campbell, as Cora the Bootmaker with a “chip on her shoulder [like] a thirty-foot pole” always sang sweetly and even looked happy by opera’s end. Jolanta Kudra was the soft voiced White Rabbit with large pink ears, perched atop the fort (only rare rabbits can perch). Jeremy Tatchell (Al, the American) and Norbert Hohl (Carl, the Russian) gave distinctive performances.

State Opera, having just concluded a Winter School for young singers and actors chosen from applicants across Australia, had a uniquely talented, versatile chorus. They popped up in unexpected places, and cleverly made a wall of black which set up the inevitable bleak conclusion. Dodgson, who replaced the Baker in the Crew, is absorbed by the Boojum mid-sentence. Thus the performance ended as in the words of TS Eliot: “not with a bang but a whimper”.

****1