Inspired by the infamous "body in the boot" case, the murder of Maria Korp in 2005, composer Gordon Kerry describes Midnight Son as an opera of "classically grand themes", a tale of how great love and passion can go horribly wrong, leading people to lose control of their emotions and their lives.
In February 2005, Maria Korp, a 50-year-old mother of two, was found unconscious and close to death in the boot of her own car, dumped near the Shrine of Remembrance. Doctors later declared that further treatment was futile and recommended her feeding tube be removed. She died on 5 August 2005, almost six months after going missing.
Tania Herman, the mistress of Maria Korp's husband, Joseph, was later convicted of attempted murder, while Joseph himself was also accused of helping to plan the attack. He never faced trial, committing suicide on the day of his wife's funeral, a sorry end to a sordid episode.
Or not quite the end. Ever since, the case has been the focus of consistent tabloid curiosity, with books, television dramas and newspaper features appearing right through until the present. When news emerged last year that an opera using on the facts of the case had been written, there was concern about how this treatment might further trivialise the gravity of the crime.
These concerns were not without some justification. Even back in February of 2005, while his client was in police custody, Joseph Korp's lawyer complained about the way in which the media was portraying the story, pleading that the case "is not a soap opera. It's real life and a tragic situation."
Kerry, however, insists that this treatment is an opera without the soap, calling it a more nuanced exploration and claiming that none of the characters are tabloid caricatures, but rather "fallible human beings".
Nowra has also considerably altered the story, changing the names of the characters and trying to make the story universal rather than a true crime retelling.
But though there may have been changes, those elements of the story that fixated reporters and readers alike are still there: the internet dating site where the killers met, the swingers parties that may or may not have happened, the lonely young widow in need of emotional and financial support, the overwhelming personality of the married man, strangulation in a suburban carport and the body in the boot.
The idea to set this story to music came first from Nowra. "I was fascinated by the case," he explains, "but thought nothing of it as material for a play or opera until Gordon and I were paired to write an opera."
Because the facts of the story will be so familiar to the audience, especially in Melbourne, Nowra and Kerry decided to arrange the story backwards. "We didn't want to have the audience, who know all the grim materials already, just gritting their teeth just waiting for the inevitable," says Kerry.
"What we've tried to do is avoid the despair that ends most modern operas," agrees Nowra. "We have tried to see it as a story about loss, tragic loss."
Keen to assuage the fears of those for whom the words "contemporary opera" might be synonymous with "difficult listening", Kerry declares that this opera has "plenty of tunes".
"Musically it's clear and simple," he explains, "so that the audience can hear the story, and hear the passion."
Nowra agrees, saying of the score, "These characters are not very good at expressing themselves but Gordon's wonderful music gives us a sense of their emotional states."
Written for five singers with an orchestra of nine, slightly smaller than a Benjamin Britten-style chamber orchestra, this work can be seen as a sequel of sorts to last year's How to Kill Your Husband (And Other Handy Household Hints), the adaption of Kathy Lette's bestseller by Alan John and Timothy Daly, which Victorian Opera also staged at the Malthouse. It is the marriage of accessible classical music with material that the public has already proved itself fascinated with.
Kerry believes there is great potential for opera to frame contemporary stories in new and entertaining ways. He points to the work of Jake Heggie in the United States, and an opera like Dead Man Walking. "These are operas are reaching audiences with new stories."
"I like how modern operas are attempting to deal with contemporary events," says Nowra. "I think the idea of opera being part of our contemporary world and commenting on it as one of the most exciting developments in opera and I think it appeals to a generation who do not want opera to be precious and old-fashioned."
Although better known as an actor, Nicki Wendt is making another foray into directing, while Ollivier-Philippe Cunéo is conducting. The cast includes Antoinette Halloran as Marisa Clark, Dimity Shepherd as Clara and Byron Watson as Ray Clark.
Later this year Gordon Kerry, who previously had success as a composer for opera with Medea: A Chamber Opera in Five Scenes, is the Musica Viva's feature artist.