New Australian opera based on THE SPARE ROOM by Helen Garner to receive second development workshop

Monstrous Theatre has just announced an upcoming second development of a new Australian opera, THE SPARE ROOM, an adaptation of the beloved 2008 novel by iconic Australian author Helen Garner. The opera is composed by Dr Jane Hammond and the libretto by Theresa Borg. The first full draft of the piano-vocal score will be workshopped the week of March 11 for presentation to an invited audience at Victorian Opera’s Horti Hall in Melbourne. The cast includes celebrated Australian singers Antoinette Halloran, Adrian Tamburini, Natalie Jones, Carrie Barr, Belinda Paterson and Uma Dobia, with musical direction by Victorian Opera’s Head of Music, Phoebe Briggs. Coady Green plays piano and Ella Ferris joins as Assistant to the Creative Team.

­­An epic emotional journey through matters of life and death, THE SPARE ROOM is a rich tragi-comedy that investigates a tender, affectionate and laughter-filled female friendship in times of wild grief, anger and loss. The story centres around Helen, who lovingly prepares her spare room for her friend, Nicola, who is coming to Melbourne for three weeks to receive a treatment she believes will cure her terminal cancer. From the moment Nicola staggers off the plane, Helen becomes her nurse, her guardian angel and her stony judge as they negotiate an unmapped path through Nicola’s bizarre therapy.  The workshop is possible due to the generous support of Stuart Maunder and Victorian Opera.

Helen Garner said:

My novel The Spare Room was inspired by the worst weeks of my life: when I cared for a beloved friend who had terminal cancer. In her terror of dying, she had fallen prey to a charlatan, a so-called ‘healer,’ who swindled her out of thousands of dollars and subjected her to meaningless, excruciating treatments. Of all my books it has had the broadest reach outside Australia: it has been translated into a dozen languages. Of the many readers who have responded to it, an overwhelming number spoke with personal emotion about the helpless rage and love that can possess a person in that particular caring role. I was very taken aback when several critics (all of them, I noticed, men of my generation or older) reproached me for the anger that runs through the book. Many, many women who confessed to having experienced that rage spoke of it in a whisper, as if it were illegitimate, or shameful. When I sat down with Theresa Borg to discuss her wish to adapt the book, I was moved by the depth of her understanding of it. She had immediately grasped the meaning—and the legitimacy—of the rage that flows under the narrator’s pained love for her dying friend. She recognised in it an existential suffering that in no way negated the sincerity of the loving service and care. Listening to her, I realised that a psychological knot such as this would be absolutely at home in an archetypal musical form like opera.

Dr Jane Hammond remarked:

Helen Garner’s fearless honesty and story-telling genius also comes with a formidable international reputation. When offered the opportunity to collaborate with Theresa Borg in crafting Helen’s masterpiece, The Spare Room, into a music theatre work I was at once excited and terrified but I knew it was a journey that I had to take. The material is confronting, honest, and intensely poetic. It has been an unspeakable joy to hear Helen’s words, so Australian, with Australian rhythms and phrases, sung by wonderfully skilled Australian singers.” Librettist Theresa Borg is also a producer of the play: “The three-way intuitive connection between Helen, Jane and I has been integral to the development of this new Australian piece. Helen’s poetic text naturally lends itself to lyrics and Jane has responded to the libretto with soaring, compelling, accessible and melodic music that privileges Helen’s text and will have our audiences laughing and crying by turn.. I am hugely proud that Monstrous Theatre has created this thrilling opportunity to elevate the life experiences of senior women in a musical tradition usually reserved for ingenues, courtesans and princesses. THE SPARE ROOM is a contemporary opera made by contemporary women.

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Gabi Bergman

Gabi Bergman is a Melbourne-based performer and educator, and is the current Deputy Editor-in-Chief of She holds a Double Arts degree in Theatre Studies and Film/Screen Studies and a Master of Teaching (Secondary Education). Gabi has always been an avid lover of theatre, specifically musicals, and spends way too much money than she’d like to admit on tickets. Her most prized possession is her crate of theatre programs.

Gabi Bergman

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