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2015/01/30

Work of the Week – Stewart Wallace: Harvey Milk

On 7 and 8 February 2015, Stewart Wallace’s opera Harvey Milk will receive its Australian premiere at St Kilda Town Hall in Melbourne in a concert performance by the Melbourne Gay and Lesbian Chorus under the direction of Kathleen McGuire. The performance is part of the Midsumma Festival, an annual three-week celebration of LGBT culture that was established in 1989.

The opera, based on Michael Korie’s libretto, follows the life of Harvey Milk, San Francisco’s first openly gay public official elected in 1977. It was commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, New York City Opera and the San Francisco Opera, and received its world premiere in Houston in 1995. Ultimately the price of Milk’s commitment to equality was his life. After his death, schools and squares were named in his honour, and Sean Penn paid tribute to his career in the Oscar-winning movie “Milk” in 2008.

Wallace composed a score drenched in contemporary styles of music including jazz, rock and Broadway showtunes. His music does not shy away from harsh dissonances either, which are meant to draw attention towards a subject which is as important now as it was then. The response of the press showed he was right to take the risk:

Harvey Milk contains moments that are touching and zany and contemporary in ways that we are used to on the stage but hardly ever encounter in the opera house. And as it reaches its tragic conclusion, the opera suddenly feels both wrenching in its pain and heroic in its politics. At these moments Harvey Milk seems to open possibilities for a vital, risk-taking musical theater, free from the oppressions of tradition, good taste, and Masterpiece Theater restorationism. – David Schiff (New York Times)