AH programme note for the BLISS world premiere programme

An invitation to write the libretto for a new opera is a rare thing; planning and executing a new piece is a vast undertaking, but an essential one for the art form’s survival. In the case of BLISS the offer to me was irresistible as the circumstances seemed ideal: a great opera company, a challenging subject and a formidably talented composer writing his first opera.

That invitation came to me early in 2007 and, more intrigued than daring to be scared by the magnitude of the responsibility, I set to with the book and, after reading it several times, began making minimalist notes describing the events and the thoughts of the characters, hoping all the while for some kind of osmosis to siphon them into my psyche. I needed to re-fashion them for an operatic setting which could remain faithful to Carey’s original. I had to decide what was important, what drove and maintained the momentum of the drama, what could be left out, what had to remain and which extra moments we might retain to contrast and point up the main story; in short, every syllable of the libretto had to be there for a good reason; I had to get to know the characters so well that that they would start to speak – or rather sing – to me.

What has emerged is of course directly inspired by that wonderful, colourful novel; it has been distilled, reordered, taken off the page and morphed into words to be heard and to be sung; some characters have modified names – Joel = Johnny, Bettina = Betty, Honey Barbara = Honey B – all for practical, aural, reasons; some scenes take place in a different order, others are expanded and extended. Much is missing; Harry’s and also Betty’s parents were discarded at an early stage as they could only drag the story backwards. Though there are no set-piece `numbers’ in a novel, the episodic nature of this one seemed to demand contrasted scenes containing musical numbers separated by conversations (aka recitatives) to speed the drama from one situation to another – a method of opera composition that has survived pretty well for over 400 years. In fact BLISS seemed to tick the boxes of traditional opera quite extraordinarily; the libretto seemed to progress quite easily from moments of action to moments of reflection e.g. from heart attack to quintet in the opening scene and from bantering duet to a moment of stillness with Nurse’s pathetic aria in the asylum. Somehow the whole piece began to emerge almost of its own accord.

Early in the process Harry’s three arias, as Songs of Joy, fulfilled a commission to Dean from Sir Simon Rattle for the concert celebrating his return to the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra in October 2008. Writing these contrasting texts for Harry Joy at an early stage gave me an opportunity to consider our central character and to anchor him into the drama, and it was a privilege to write them specially for Peter Coleman-Wright. For the Sonnet that became the opera’s finale, I dared put Carey on the back burner and looked to Milton for a new style – our ending of the story is different to the book, and it needed something `other’ and poetic as well as final.

I certainly had more fun than I expected trying to find out what Hell was like by looking through Dante’s Divine Comedy; but Act Three was by far the hardest act to write. Life in an asylum (I worked as a music therapist and had some experience of mental hospitals in the 1970s) and in a home where the family breaks apart (another experience of my own), crowned by total meltdown, proved to be emotionally challenging. Of course I don’t know how all the agonising joys and sorrows of BLISS will affect our audience, but I do know that opera is an art that, using resources beyond the reach of mere language, reflects human behaviour terrifyingly truthfully; facing that so closely has been a profound experience.

In the opera-writing process the words are, ideally, in place before the composer starts writing the music. In this instance, the composer already had a lot of music ready in his head as Dean had, for a long time, nurtured the dream of writing an opera based on Carey’s first novel. He had even written an orchestral piece, Moments of Bliss, based on major events in the opera. So he was ready to pounce on the words like a tiger, and when it came to the composition it seemed to be a fluent process which I think is reflected in the momentum of the piece. It may have been an unexpected bonus that we came to the task from opposite poles; I am a Pom, had never read the book and came to it completely freshly, so pulling musical ideas out of the scenario, like rabbits out of hats and offering them to Brett as a shop assistant might offer this shirt or that – ‘surely Sir you’d prefer a trio to a quartet here?’ was fun. He always knew which choice to make, and thus he was the perfect editor for me: after our first meeting in London in January 2007 and a day in Berlin in May, we met again in January 2008 in Melbourne, a few weeks after I had completed the first draft of the libretto, and hammered it into shape over ten days of high-octane, exhausting and exhilarating work in which no thought, scene or syllable escaped close scrutiny from us both.

The genesis of BLISS has been a genuine collaboration; the libretto wouldn’t be what it is without the help of the director, conductor, singers, music staff and, most crucially, the composer himself. I have no doubt that I shall look back on the making of this opera as an opportunity I wouldn’t have missed for the world, indeed I can’t resist saying that for me it has been – Bliss.


Bliss – Dean

‘the libretto is brilliantly fecund…. Amanda Holden’s text is one of the opera’s strongest features…’

‘… first novel by Peter Carey, skilfully made into a libretto by an English past master of the trade….’
Sunday Times

‘Dean has an… acute ear for words and Amanda Holden’s confidently unadorned lyrics… deserve the respectful attention they receive.’
Observer – on Songs of Joy

‘Holden’s text…. an ideal framework for Dean’s score.’

‘Bliss… good news for anyone who believes in opera’s future.’
Daily Telegraph

Bliss is the first opera by the Australian composer Brett Dean. Its inspiration was the first novel by Peter Carey, the Australian novelist and twice Booker prize winner.

The work was commissioned by Opera Australia and its premiere took place at the Sydney Opera House on 12 March 2010. The production, by Neil Armfield, was designed by Brian Thomson with costumes by Alice Babidge, and conducted by Elgar Howarth. Peter Coleman-Wright created the role of Harry Joy, Merlyn Quaife his wife and Lorina Gore his muse, Honey B.

The production – which received eleven nominations for the opera in Australia’s annual Helpmann awards – went from Sydney to Melbourne and then to the Edinburgh Festival in September. A second production, directed by Ramin Gray and conducted by Simone Young – who commissioned the opera when she was at Opera Australia – opened at the Hamburg Staatsoper on 12 September 2010.

AH: I drafted the libretto in 2007 and the music was swiftly written the following year. Dean had been planning the opera for some time and had already written an orchestral suite – Moments of Bliss – examining key moments in the narrative, premiered in 2004. As Dean was also commissioned by Sir Simon Rattle to write a piece for his concert with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in Liverpool on 2 October 2008, he and I wrote  Songs of Joy, three arias for the main protagonist – Harry Joy – for this occasion before completing the rest of the opera.

Bliss, Programme cover, Sydney 2010

The opera’s finale – Song of Joy 3

Sonnet (after Milton)


At evening mortal memory takes its course
and settles in time’s capsule, neatly locked;
and yet the stings of sorrow and remorse
remain, reminders of a past that shocked.

With my existence humbled by the trees,
contented here, I toil for my queen
to nurture perfumed blossoms for her bees
until the day I vanish from the scene.

And when at last I take that final breath
and disappear eternally above,
it will be just a passing breeze, this death
that carries me away from my true love.

If you would seek salvation, remember this:
a life in Hell can still aspire to BLISS.

Lorina Gore in Bliss, Opera: July 2010

see also:

Articles & Talks for AH programme article and radio broadcasts; Songs & Sacred re. Songs of Joy

Bliss was broadcast on 16 April 2011 by BBC radio 3. The performance was taken from the Edinburgh Festival September 2010 performances by Opera Australia and the BBCSO