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Some of the group of astronomers and Indigenous artists gathered at sunset at Boolardy Station. (Photo by Dr Megan Argo. Curtin University.)

Combining Italian opera and Indigenous Dreaming stories, a new performance to be staged in the Murchison region of Western Australia is the latest ambitious project of Italian-Australian composer Aaron Carpenè.

Domenico Gentile
Published on
Wednesday, February 13, 2019 - 16:15
File size
23.42 MB
12 min 48 sec

The stars are the setting for a new opera production by conductor/composer Aaron Carpenè and director Stefano Vizioli, which will seek to bring Italian and Indigenous storytelling together in the Murchison region of Western Australia.

The piece will blend the 1651 opera La Calisto by Italian composer Francesco Cavalli with the culture and music of the Wajarri Yamaji people of Western Australia amid Murchison’s Square Kilometre Array (SKA) radio-telescope.

“It is almost a crazy idea,” says Carpenè, “but there are many common links in the [Indigenous and Italian] stories, the main one being the stars."

Francesco Cavalli’s opera La Calisto tells the story of the nymph Callisto who, according to Greek mythology, was turned into the constellation Ursa Major

As a widely told Dreaming story across Australia, The Seven Sisters is the Wajarri Yamaji people’s contribution to the opera. That tells the tale of seven sisters whowhile running away from a man, leap into the sky to save themselves and become the Pleiades the Taurus constellation.

“I realised that the Dreamtime, Greek mythology and modern astrophysics have the Universe in common,” says Aaron Carpenè. “We gather information from it to explore where we came from, where we are and where we are going."

The astrophysics Carpenè mentions come into the equation in the show’s staging amid the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) telescope in the Murchison region. Currently under construction, the SKA is an international project studying the formation of the oldest stars and galaxies with the aim of providing insight into the Universe’s development, indeed, the story of the universe.

"For me this unique project extends my collaboration with [Wajarri author] Charmaine Papertalk Green and the Indigenous artists of Geraldton and the Mid West into new territory,” says Professor Steven Tingay, Executive Director of the Curtin Institute of Radio Astronomy at Curtin University.

“We have been working collaboratively on the connections between Indigenous astronomy and modern astrophysics for a decade. In that time we have developed a wonderful relationship and achieved some amazing things together. 

“Working with Aaron and his team now on a cross-cultural opera will push us with new challenges… To me these projects encapsulate the principles of Reconciliation in Australia and it is my joy and privilege to work with Charmaine and the artists to advance these principles," adds Tingay.

But there is a word of caution from professor Tingay: "We are in the early exploratory phase and the timescales to do anything on the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory are long."

This is shared by Aaron Carpenè, which comes as no surprise.

Kids on the oval at Mullewa waiting for the Sun to set so that they can use the telescopes to look at the stars and planets.

“The radio-telescope is gathering information that goes as close as possible to the Big Bang, therefore at the beginning of time and the Universe, says Carpenè. “My aim is to create a synergy between the radio-telescope, Aboriginal ancient culture and Venetian opera. All bound together by the stars.”

The Wajarri Yamaji People have embraced the project and are actively contributing and participating in its development, in particular poet-writer and community leader Chairmaine Papertalk Green.

The astronomers and Indigenous artists examining one of the antennas of the Murchison Widefield Array (MWA).

Aaron Carpenè studied at the University of Western Australia and years ago moved to Venice to study at the Conservatorio di Venezia.  He is not new to pioneering cross-cultural opera projects such as this, having combined Bhutanese and Japanese traditional music with European operas in Opera Bhutan and Japan Orfeo.

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