Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

The Dalmatian: First Australian Opera by a Woman

Academic journal article Australian Journal of Music Education

The Dalmatian: First Australian Opera by a Woman

Article excerpt


Whilst Australia has produced several world-renowned opera stars and many fine singers, conductors and producers, it is not a country with a strong history of operatic composition. (1) Despite this, local productions of well-known Australian operas such as Richard Meale's (1932-2009) Voss and Bret Dean's (b.1961) Bliss have demonstrated Australians' interest in home-grown operatic composition and in encouraging composers to embrace this form. This interest that began one hundred and sixty-six years ago. In 1847, Isaac Nathan (1790-1864), wrote Don John of Austria, Australia's first opera. English born and of Polish descent, Nathan left London under difficult circumstances (2) and came to New South Wales in 1841 where he developed a successful musical career. Don John of Austria had an initial week of performance but since then only the overture seems to have been played. (3) Fifty-eight years later the first opera by an Australian woman was written and performed, Mona McBurney's The Dalmatian. McBurney had migrated from the Isle of Man (4) to Australia in 1880 on the ship 'Potosi' (5). After significant musical training on the Isle of Man, McBurney's musical development was nurtured in Melbourne and in 1905 she completed her opera.

The Dalmatian is a particularly interesting opera not only because it is the first opera to be written by an Australian woman but because it is the product of a very energetic period for Australian women musicians when opportunities were heightened and women's work was given more encouragement and support than in the previous century. The particular social circumstances that existed in this period which encouraged women musicians to pursue their work, was the perfect environment for a modest and shy woman like McBurney to develop her talent. Links to a modern Australian society that endeavours to be more socially inclusive are apparent. The current Australian Federal Government's Social Inclusion Agenda (6) aims to provide people with the opportunity to learn, work, engage with their community and be able to speak out about issues that affect them and reflects ongoing social changes in Australia. In McBurney's era, major social changes were also taking place, which heightened the opportunities for women musicians. For McBurney, great opportunity occurred because of a congruence of circumstances.

To contextualize the discussion of The Dalmatian and the significance of McBurney's achievement, there will be a brief overview of Australian women in music and operatic composition. This will be followed by a brief look at the era in which McBurney was composing from a musical perspective, with a focus on the social changes that drove the development of more socially inclusive attitudes toward women.

Overview of Australian women in music and operatic composition

Australian women have always been an active part of Australia's musical history. Whilst it is acknowledged that Australia's Indigenous communities had been engaging actively with music prior to white settlement, this paper will limit its discussion to the musical development and activities of women post-white settlement. Many examples of successful female composers, performers and music teachers can be cited to support the notion that a plethora of musical work has been accomplished by Australian women. At the time that McBurney was composing, other women such as Florence Ewart (1864-1949) were also actively working as composers. Ewart was only a moderately successful composer, and as a consequence her work has since been mostly forgotten. Born in London, Ewart wrote six operas, the first Ekkehard whilst still in her homeland. (7) After migrating to Australia Ewart wrote her second opera, The Courtship of Miles Standish (1930), which was produced in 1931. (8) This opera was performed at the New Conservatorium of Music and at Melbourne University Conservatorium. She also wrote the operas Mateo Falcone (date unknown), Nala's Wedding (date unknown), A Game of Chess (date unknown: only exists in fragments) and Pepita's Miracle (1945). …

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