The Call of Aurora ~ an opera about love, death & madness.
Music & Libretto by Joe Bugden
Salamanca Arts Centre
77 Salamanca Place
Thursday 25th August
Friday 26th August
Saturday 27th August
[ Duration is ca 90 mins + interval ]
The Call of Aurora
Music & Libretto by Joe Bugden
Directed by Lucien Simon
Musical Direction by Johanna Bostock
Set Design by Nicole Robson
Lighting Design by Louise Goich
Cast (in order of appearance):
Christopher Bryg as Sidney Jeffryes (the mad wireless operator)
Phillip Joughin as Douglas Mawson
Nick Monk as Xavier Mertz
Grace Ovens as Paquita Delprat (Mawson's fiancee)
Michael Kregor as Cecil Madigan
Nathan Males as The Ghost of Robert Falcon Scott
Zoe Fitzherbert-Smith as The Spirit of Aurora
Rosemary Holloway ~ flute
Derek Grice ~ clarinet
Damien Holloway ~ viola
Brett Rutherford ~ cello
Jamie Wilson ~ vibraphone
The Call of Aurora is supported by the Commonwealth Government via Festivals Australia and by IMAS, and is presented as part of the 2022 Australian Antarctic Festival
The Call of Aurora:
an opera about love, death & madness
In December 1911 the SY Aurora departed from Hobart Harbour for Antarctica. Heading this expedition was Douglas Mawson, a geologist, who had previously been to Antarctica with Ernest Shackleton. But on this expedition, despite having been invited to accompany Robert Falcon Scott to attempt to be the first men to reach the South Pole (an invitation that Mawson declined, of course), Mawson chose to lead on his own expedition to undertake scientific exploration on the Antarctic Continent.
The SY Aurora arrived at Commonwealth Bay in January 1912, and Mawson and his crew set to work in the remaining summer months to build their huts, and establish their main base and outposts before winter – and the complete darkness that would come with it – arrived.
During that winter of 1912 the men would have busied themselves with the many and necessary preparations for the respective scientific expeditions that each party would embark upon in the late spring of 1912. Their plan was to go out as parties of three or four, leaving base camp in October or November, and to all be back in time for the Aurora’s return in January 1913, when they would board for their trip back to Hobart.
In October 1912 Mawson and his party, which comprised Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis, along with their team of huskies pulling three sledges containing tents, food, and other provisions, headed out for what they expected to be a 500 miles and three month expedition.
For the first 300 miles or so, thing went well enough, until Ninnis suffered frost bite on one of his fingers, which, in his reluctance to bother Mawson with, ultimately became septic. When eventually Ninnis, so affected by his poisoned finger, became of no use in pulling his weight, Mawson decided to ditch one of the three sledges and some of their provisions, and pack what he believed was necessary onto the two remaining sledges, re-assigning the dogs into two teams.
As Xavier Mertz, some way out front of the first sledge (on which Ninnis rode as an incapacitated passenger, and in front of Mawson’s second sledge) realised that they were all perilously close to the soft drift that had only that night before covered what he knew just then to be a crevasse, Mertz raises his hand, as a signal to go no further.
But it was already too late.
The first sledge, pulled by the best team of dogs, and carrying the dogs’ food, some of the ‘man food', many of the provisions - and Belgrave Ninnis - had completely disappeared down a deep crevasse.
Going to the edge of the crevasse, Mawson and Mertz could hear the strangling cries of the dangling dogs, but could see nothing, and despite their calls – for almost three hours – heard nothing of Ninnis. They fed their longest rope down the crevasse, but it was too deep.
Just like that, they had lost one companion, the best dogs, food and much of their provisions. Mawson had no choice but to turn back for camp, with the last remaining sledge and those dogs, lucky enough not to have fallen to their deaths.
My Chamber Opera, “The Call of Aurora” begins here.
With no food, at all for their dogs, Mawson boils up pieces of leather to soften it, then throws it to their dogs for something to chew on. When one dog can go no further, and drops from exhaustion and starvation, it is shot and butchered, and Mertz and Mawson feed on it to sustain them on the journey of 300 miles that lay in front of them. After boiling upon the dogs’ bones and consuming the jelly soup they make from it, Mawson throws the bones to the remaining dogs to fight over and chew on.
As they waste nothing of the dogs, Mawson and Mertz of course, fry and consume the huskies’ livers ( which turns out to be catastrophic). Unbeknownst to Mawson and Mertz, husky livers in particular, are rich in vitamin A, which, when ingested in certain quantities, and without other minerals and vitamins, such as vitamin C to balance and neutralize the body’s contaminants, becomes toxic. It is Mawson’s honorable intention to eat no more than does Mertz, despite Mawson being a much bigger man than Mertz, that results in Mertz’ vitamin A poisoning becoming fatal.
Mawson is now all alone, and, although himself, severely incapacitated from vitamin A poisoning, commences his epic solitary march - still hundreds of miles back to base camp; a march that comes to be known as one of the most heroic and inspiring tales of determination and survival.
Act Two tracks the winter of 1913. The Aurora has left behind a search party, which includes a number of those who were amongst Mawson’s party during the winter of 1912 – but also includes one newcomer; Sidney Jeffryes, who had travelled on the Aurora to meet and collect the Mawson expedition, but agreed to stay behind as part of the search party. When Mawson has sufficiently recovered to be introduced to Jeffryes back in the Hut, he realises that he needs no introduction (“for he had turned this man down before” in his application to be part of the original crew). Mawson again recognises something in Jeffryes’ eyes that unsettles him.
Whereas during the winter of 1912 the crew had the preparations of the coming spring expeditions to work on, during the winter of 1913 it is a very different experience. There is nothing to do throughout to complete darkness of winter, except wait until the Aurora can return in December of the following summer.
What was to be a successful 12 month expedition has turned into a tragic two year imprisonment in darkness – and with a madman!
Running parallel to this is the fact that Mawson receives news via the wireless that Roald Amundsen had reached the South Pole first. Amundsen announces his victory to the world from Hobart. Being of British stock, this is hard enough for Mawson to bear – then some time later, he receives the crushing news that the bodies of Robert Falcon Scott and all of his crew have been found. Mawson’s whole being is tested again, as he struggles to balance scientific and historic achievements with the loss of life that clearly comes with such achievements. Sidney Jeffryes’ madness is becoming a problem, and yet, he is the wireless operator, and holds a position of significant power. It is only Mawson’s love for his fiancée Paquita, that once more, – albeit ever privately – keeps Mawson going.
In Act Three Sidney Jeffryes is more aware of Mawson’s fragile state. The deaths of Robert Falcon Scott and his entire team become the catalyst for Jeffryes to opportunistically taunt Mawson about the deaths Ninnis and Mertz under his command. In an allegorical setting, Jeffryes (who came to believe that he was Jesus Christ, and upon his return to Australia was committed to Ararat Mental Institution in Victoria) takes on the role of Tormentor and Tempter, revealing to Mawson 'a future that might be', but only if Mawson will choose to alter history, and to re-write Ninnis and Mertz as heroes and as having made significant scientific discoveries.
“Come on Mawson. It’s not that bad.
There’ll be more than enough glory to go round.
Take all you need – all you can eat - and distribute the rest amongst us dogs.
And, if you throw the bones generously, Mawson, you can make Ninnis & Mertz our heroes.
Just embellish the results. Amend the records. Polish the data and make them shine.
Make it so Ninnis and Mertz were central to significant findings.
Act Three is the culmination of Jeffryes’ madness, and Mawson’s struggle with what he is responsible for – in the past, the present, and his future.
Mawson contemplates what his options might be so far as dealing with Jeffryes in this place where laws are vague and largely unwritten. But Mawson knows that the day will come when he will look certain persons in the eye and state what really happened during those dark years at the bottom of the world.
If at first The Call of Aurora seems to be a standard 19th Century hero's tale, it is certainly more than that. In the end, The Call of Aurora is as much about Sydney Jeffryes, the mad wireless operator who, during 1913 begins to believe he is Jesus Christ, and as that, the true medium through which the divine truth is communicated from God to Humanity. I think through people like Sidney Jeffryes we are reminded how history favours the heroes and victors, how history discards or silences those that threaten its autonomy, and perhaps through this we, the observers, might be sufficiently provoked and required to question what we're told to believe, to reconcile the contradictions in what we accept as truth and what we reject.