David Hobson as Michael and Joanna Cole as Lindy. Photographer - Branco Gaica ©
There is plenty of material for a riveting opera in the story of Lindy Chamberlain,
a plain-spoken Australian woman who was convicted in 1982 of killing her infant
daughter while camping with her family. For some seven years her case mesmerized
the Australian public, which largely howled for her blood. She was later exonerated,
and the crowd turned on the police and prosecutors, who were shown to have manipulated
evidence. Through it all, Lindy stoically maintained her innocence. Meryl Streep
played her in a film, "A Cry in the Dark," most famous for the line, "The dingo's
got my baby."
Oh yes, it's a juicy tale. It's easy to see why Opera Australia wanted to make
an opera of it. The core audience here Down Under already knows the story and
still has a visceral response to it. The incident took place at Uluru, known
to the rest of the world as Ayers Rock, a mystical place that swirls with aboriginal
legends. Think of the musical scene setting. The story pits a lone, largely
unsympathetic individual against a howling mob, a dynamic that recalls Peter
Grimes or perhaps Rigoletto. It worked for Britten and Verdi, but it doesn't
work for this non-Australian. Maybe you had to be there in the 1980s to experience
the emotions the piece tries to trigger.
On opening night, I was painfully aware of too many missed opportunities. The
music rushes through a nice evocation of something called a butcher bird, which
lives around Uluru. I wanted to hear more, but the composer didn't trust her
music to carry a scene for long, or perhaps just wanted to get on with the story.
The whole piece is less than two hours long, so it's not like there wasn't time.
It doesn't help that the orchestra is reduced to and the sets are equally sparse.
Aside from Lindy herself, strongly sung and portrayed by soprano Joanna Cole,
the rest of the characters are weakly drawn. Her husband, sung by tenor David
Hobson, never has a scene to explore why he's such a zero. The police and prosecutors
are meant to form a sort of ad hoc Greek chorus, but they are portrayed as buffoons.
The same singers also represent the Australian public, but they are cardboard
cutouts, hardly comparable to the courtiers that taunt Rigoletto or the villagers
who hound Grimes. There is little emotional drama because the mob is only a
That said, there are some high points, notably a transcript-faithful rendering
of Lindy's court cross-examination and an uplifting finale, a monologue for
Lindy. In both instances we see Lindy rising above her detractors, and the music
finally grabs our lapels. Henderson's bio says she admires Prokofiev above all
20th-century opera composers. One could recognize how she modeled recitatives
and scenas after his, but where Prokofiev set melody against piquant harmonies
and Henderson employs occasional dissonances in her resolutely tonal music,
they were rough rather than piquant.
Ultimately, the missing link in this sincere effort is that neither the music
nor the characters succeed in weaving a spell of evil around Lindy. She can
rise above her detractors too easily, and the effect is cheap. The prosecuting
counsel, played by tenor Barry Ryan, finally provides a dramatic foil for Lindy
in the cross-examination scene, but the words that do it come from the transcript
of the actual trial. We might have had a more powerful opera if the composer
and librettist had set up that scene by providing her with better words and
In real life, Australian friends tell me, Lindy was a more equivocal character
and the Chamberlains ended up apart, destroyed by the traumatic events. But
whether Lindy was really as noble as she is portrayed shouldn't matter, should
it? Opera brims with characters who are not what they were in history, all in
the search for emotional truth. Without that, in the end, "Lindy" strikes me