Professor provides libretto for opera on Daisy Bates

November 9, 2012

Murdoch University Emeritus Professor in History Bob Reece has provided the libretto (words) for a new opera, Daisy Bates at Ooldea.

Premiered by the Sydney Conservatorium of Music on October 19 – 20, the work features music by composer Anne Boyd AM and tells the story of one of Australia’s most iconic post-Federation characters.

Known as Kabbarli (‘grandmother’), Bates lived in a tent at Ooldea Siding on the Trans Australian Railway for 16 years, from 1919-1935, providing care for Aboriginal people and acting as an amateur anthropologist.

“After working in Western Australia and Fowler’s Bay in South Australia for 14 years, she went to Ooldea as self-appointed protector of Aboriginal women and girls, who she felt were being preyed on by itinerant white workers,” Professor Reece said.

“Daisy fed them, looked after them, performed some basic health care and collected a fairly substantial amount of information on their languages, genealogies and customs – much of which has been used since in native land title claims.

“At the same time, she was a polarising figure, who for all her good deeds, alienated people with her disdain for those she called ‘castes’ – anyone of part-Aboriginal descent – and for her firm belief in the inevitable physical and cultural extinction of the Aboriginal people. She was a truly complex character.”

While the opera’s story is grounded in fact, its narrative compresses three key events into two days, including a visit by the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and the appearance of fundamentalist rival Annie Lock, who set up a mission nearby.

Professor Reece said he had become involved in the project after a mutual friend passed his book Daisy Bates: Grand Dame of the Desert to Professor Boyd.

“I met Anne in Sydney in early 2010 and mapped out the basic structure of the opera – the scenes and narrative – and then went our separate ways,” Professor Reece said.

“I worked on the libretto over about three months, and it came out surprisingly easily, in part, I think, because I already knew the characters quite well. I got them into dialogue and knew what they would say – or in this case, sing.”

Professor Reece attended dress rehearsals in early October, working with Professor Boyd, Indigenous artistic director Alice Haines and a cast including WA activist Graham Merritt, who plays ‘King’ Nabbari of Ooldea.

The success of the opera has Professor Reece looking to the next project, which he thinks may be grounded in WA.

“I’d like to do something about the end of whaling in Albany in 1978. There is a story in the conflict between whalers, environmentalists and townspeople, and maybe the music might simulate the sound of whales,” he said.

In the meantime, Professor Reece said plans were in the works to promote Daisy to the opera companies of SA and WA in hopes of a future re-staging.

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