Opera portrays the complex life of Daisy Bates at Ooldea

19 October 2012

Graham Meritt and Anne Boyd at Daisy Bates's campsite in Ooldea while researching for the opera.
Graham Meritt and Anne Boyd at Daisy Bates's campsite in Ooldea while researching for the opera.

She was married to three men simultaneously, including Harry 'Breaker' Morant, and accused of reinventing her humble past. She provided food and first aid to Aboriginal communities, and yet she deplored the people she called "half-castes". She believed Aboriginal people were a dying race, yet she learnt dozens of Indigenous languages and the linguistic and other information she recorded has been used in Native Title cases.

It is not surprising the complex character of Daisy Bates has inspired Anne Boyd, a composer and professor at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, to create an opera based on the 16 years Bates lived alone in a white tent at Ooldea Siding, on the newly built Trans Australian Railway.

The world premiere of Daisy Bates at Ooldea will be staged over two nights this weekend (19 and 20 October), with opera and music students at the Conservatorium taking on the roles of performers and orchestra. The libretto has been written by historian and Bates scholar Bob Reece, and artistic direction is by the Aboriginal performer and music producer Alice Haines.

Bates was 60 years old by the time she came to Ooldea in 1919, but she had already spent half a lifetime living with, and writing about, Aboriginal people in remote parts of Australia. At Ooldea in South Australia, where desert Aboriginal people had fled to escape the drought, she was known as Kabbarli (Dreamtime 'grandmother').

Ooldea's Aboriginal community, like Indigenous people across Australia by then, was also plagued by European diseases. "She looked after the sick and dying, and she particularly wanted to protect Aboriginal women from what she called 'low whites'," says Boyd.

Meeting with Boyd in her small modern office at the Conservatorium before one of the show's final rehearsals, she is dressed in an all-white cotton pant suit. All she needs is a broad brimmed straw hat and she could step out into the desert to meet Bates any minute. Bringing Bates to life has in fact been Boyd's obsession for the last three years. She has joined a devoted club of enthusiasts fascinated by the woman who was born Margaret Dwyer in Ireland in 1859.

"Daisy is an awesome human being. She did good and she did bad - she is just an extraordinary woman and a wonderfully operatic character because she was so complex," Boyd explains. "To have lived in the harshness of those conditions in a tent, where in summer it goes up to 50 degrees, is remarkable."

Over the years Bates "picked up dozens of languages and spoke very good Pitjantjatjara," Boyd says. Bates supported herself and her work with the Aboriginal community writing journalism about her experiences. But her "amateur ethnography was sneered at by professional anthropologists," says Boyd.

Her opera telescopes key events that took place during her Ooldea years into two and a half days, starting with the whistlestop visit by the Prince of Wales (later to become briefly King Edward VIII) at Ooldea Siding, where he announces he will make Bates a Commander of the British Empire. The confrontation between Bates' friend Nabbari, an Anangu elder and the country's Aboriginal 'King' - "this is our land", he sings - and the European royal, forms the climax of the opera's first act.

"She was very class conscious and she was a total snob," says Boyd. The railway fettlers who were camped at Ooldea, and who perform the role of a Greek chorus in the opera, call her a "battleaxe". In contrast, her relationship with Nabbari is much more respectful.

Daisy Bates (centre) lived at Ooldea Siding on the newly built Trans Australian Railway for 16 years.
Daisy Bates (centre) lived at Ooldea Siding on the newly built Trans Australian Railway for 16 years.


The opera's second act is more quiet and contemplative, and takes place that night at Bates' campsite. In a long aria Bates tells her life story to a visiting journalist, Ernestine Hill, and tries to explain why she has stayed in the desert so long. Nabbari - played by Graham Merritt, a member of the stolen generation who has acted with the Western Australian Theatre Company - arrives and tells them both the story of the making of the Southern Cross.

"I feel certain it was Daisy's understanding and acceptance of Aboriginal cosmology that sustained her spiritually in her desert home," writes Boyd in the opera's program notes. "She was a keen observer of the stars and knew the stories of sky heroes that watched over her as well as her Aboriginal friends."

The opera shifts to the following morning, when the missionary Annie Lock arrives at the campsite with news that she has come to establish a Christian mission at Ooldea Waters. "The missionary lady, Annie Lock, provides comic relief in what is a very, very serious story," says Boyd. The well-resourced Christians have financial support from the government, as well as the backing of the fettlers, and Bates realises her work is finished.

But the opera quickly takes a more optimistic turn when the journalist Hill returns waving a telegram from the Adelaide Advertiser offering her a generous commission to come to Adelaide to write her life's story. Bates' excitement at the promise of a way out is mixed with sadness at having to say goodbye to Nabbari and Ooldea.

Although the events depicted are compressed, all of the stories and characters are true. Librettist Bob Reece is an emeritus professor in history at Murdoch University, and it was his biography of Bates that led Boyd to approach him to work on the opera.

"Daisy's reputation suffered at the hands of misogynist anthropologists who dismissed her as an amateur," writes Reece, who is working on an opera for the first time. "Aboriginal people were also offended by her belief in their inevitable physical and cultural extinction". In the opera Bates sings: "Soothe their pillow is all we can do."

Boyd says, "She is a complex character and her contribution is something we are still trying to figure out."

Bates was born into a humble Irish Catholic family. Her early life was marked with tragedy when both her parents died, leaving her to be raised by relatives. A photo of a young Bates on the cover of Reece's biography shows a strikingly beautiful dark-haired woman, whose soulful eyes and rounded lips contrast with nose made up of strong, straight angles.

At 23 she emigrated to Australia where she married the poet and horseman Breaker Morant. She married twice more, and had a son, whom she left in Perth when she returned to the UK to work as a journalist.

It is not hard to see how Boyd might be drawn to Bates. She too suffered an early tragedy when he father died and she was sent to live with an aunt and uncle on a Central Queensland sheep station near Longreach. It is here, at the age of eight, that Boyd started writing music. And it was her experience of the Australian landscape that had a profound influence on her future as a composer.

"It is the spirit of that landscape that is always driving me forward", Boyd explains. "The country has been a mother to me." But it is the experience of working on this latest work that appears to have filled a missing piece of a puzzle for her. Working with the director Alice Haines, whose background includes working on tours of the original production of the musical Bran Nue Day, and Graham Merritt, the actor who plays Nabbari, has given Boyd a new way of seeing the country - and her work.

Initially Boyd was considering casting a Con student in the central role of Nabbari, until Haines told her the crucial role had to be filled by an Aboriginal person: "Straight away I realised of course she was right", recalls Boyd.

Boyd made field trips to Ooldea with Merritt. Their party slept under the stars in a campsite near where Bates had lived and met with the local Indigenous communities in the Maralinga Tjarutja lands, learning about their history and gaining permission to use their stories and archival photographs. Footage of the field trips, taken by Japanese film maker Hideki Isoda, has been incorporated into the production.

It was only after these trips, getting to know the country where the story unfolded, that Boyd felt that she could write the music for the opera. "Something that is missing to me in European culture, something that is in Aboriginal culture, is their understanding of the land, which is the very essence of what we can be as Australians," says Boyd.

"If we want to tell Australian stories authentically we need to work in partnership with Aboriginal people." Boyd believes the only way to do this is the "two ways" method - by which she means new Australians working in partnership with Aboriginal Australians.

"And if Aboriginal people are generous and help us to understand, that is what helps us to become more attuned to the spirituality of living in Australia."

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