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Jean Lee was the last woman to be hanged in Australia, in 1951. Her life was a complex pattern of bad choices, abuse and negligence; she is not a wronged woman in any simple sense, but nor did executing her solve anything, let alone confirm her guilt for murder or the accuracy of the police investigation.
Jean Lee is escorted to the City Watchhouse on November 8, 1949, <BR />by Detectives Ronald Kellett and Cyril Currer Jean Lee is escorted to the City Watchhouse on November 8, 1949,
by Detectives Ronald Kellett and Cyril Currer
courtesy Newspix
Music theatre, music film

Andrée Greenwell chooses strong subjects for her music theatre works: gluttony, suicide, murder, the hard lives of early 19th century white Australian women and, in Medusahead, a decapitated soprano.

Sweet Death, an opera for Melbourne’s Chamber Made, has a heroine who gorges herself to death on gourmet pastries and sweets. Conceived and composed by Greenwell to a libretto by playwright Abe Pogos, it was based upon the novel by Claude Tardat, premiered at the 1991 Melbourne International Festival of the Arts and was broadcast on ABC radio in 1992.

Medusahead, described by Greenwell as “a video opera clip for decapitated soprano and 3D animated snakes” was made at the Australian Film and Television School in 1997. Composed and directed by Greenwell it screened nationally and internationally and was purchased by Kunst Kanal, Germany.

The haunting staged concert work, Laquiem: Tales from the Mourning of the Lac Women, based on writings from Kathleen Mary Fallon, premiered at The Studio, Sydney Opera House in 1999. It was memorable for the range of voices and musical forms it brought to Fallon’s texts, merging them into a collective meditation. Greenwell adapted Laquiem to the screen in 2002. Ravishingly shot in 35mm with Dolby Digital Surround, it screened at film festivals in Australia and around the world and also on SBS TV.

Greenwell’s Dreaming Transportation, Voice Portraits of the First Women of White Settlement at Port Jackson (2003) was a larger, if still intimate work, virtuosically deploying folk and classical idioms and rich imagery from Australia’s past. A Sydney Festival commission for 6 singers, 7 musicians and digital projections, it was based on Jordie Albiston’s Botany Bay Document. Greenwell directed all aspects of the production as well as composing the music. After its launch at the Paramatta Riverside Theatres it enjoyed a season at the Sydney Opera House, a radio account for the ABC, In Studio-Dreaming Transportation, which won the Prix Marulic in Croatia in 2004, and the title song was awarded Best Classical Song at the MusicOz Awards, 2003.

Jean Lee

Greenwell was inspired by Jordie Albiston’s poems about Lee’s life and death, but cautious as well. “I was a bit frightened by the material and it took me a year or 2 to come at it. Eventually I thought, it’s scary but I can go there.” Greenwell had studied with Albiston at the VCA in the 80s where they both played flute. She set Albiston’s wonderfully spare and often imagistic poems to music for her wonderful Dreaming Transportation.

What Greenwell finds attractive about Albiston’s poems is that they are “texts that suggest an open form, that allow me to compose colourful music, use eclectic techniques and set up meanings through juxtapositions between words and music and between episodes.” What was particularly attractive about the Lee story “was its emotional power. Music allows you to approach difficult territory that other forms don’t.”

I ask if The Hanging of Jean Lee is a test of empathy, will its audience if not sympathise actually come to understand something of what the woman is going through. “That’s the razor’s edge of the piece, Jordie hates what Lee did, the bad choices she made, but there’s empathy.” What Jean Lee endures for her crime, Greenwell says, makes the material very operatic, especially the waiting to be hanged.

Musically, Greenwell made a firm decision not to go down the roads of nostalgia or re-creation. “There is nothing of the 40s or 50s in it. Nor do I use jazz, I don’t understand it and it’s not true to me or to Jordie’s language.” That said, “there are beatnik and Nick Cave-ish touches, moments like Weill and Brel. There’s more rock’n’roll than anything I’ve done. It’s a work for an extended rock band.”

Greenwell has taken 30 of the 50 poems on Lee by Albiston and ordered them in collaboration with the Melbourne playwright Abe Pogos. As well she committed herself to research and was helped by Don Trebl, co-author with Paul Wilson and Robyn Lincoln of Jean Lee, the Last Woman Hanged in Melbourne (Random House, 1997), who gave her access to his research. As well, “the Victorian police were enthusiastic and gave permission for use of Lee’s prostitution charge record.”

Also aiding Greenwell is experimental filmmaker Janet Merewether who revealed a flair for the melding of documentary, recreation and fantasy in her award-winning Jabe Babe (RT 68, p18). Merewether is “advising on image development and stylistic cohesion, drawing on a range of visual techniques similar to the music.” Unlike Dreaming Transportation, which featured enveloping moving imagery, The Hanging of Jean Lee will mostly use still images, many of them fascinating photographs and clippings from the period.

Dan Potra will design the set, Tim Maddock will direct the performers and Greenwell will oversee the production which features 4 strong, idiosyncratic vocal and stage presences: Max Sharam (ex-Sydney, now New York), Hugo Race (orginal Bad Seeds member, now with True Spirit in Europe), the renowned Jeff Duff and actor and backing singer Josh Quong Tart (All Saints). The format, says Greenwell, “will be staged concert, not a narrative journey but an emotional exploration using music and text, not all of it sung, so that the poetry can stand on its own.”

Jordie Albiston’s works include Nervous Arcs (Spinifex,1995), Botany Bay Document: A Poetic History of the Women of Botany Bay (Black Pepper, 1996), The Hanging of Jean Lee (Black Pepper, 1998) and The Fall (White Crane Press, 2003).

Andree Greenwell, The Hanging of Jean Lee, Sydney Opera House, Aug 2 - 6

RealTime issue #73 June-July 2006 pg. 34

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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