New show Watershed to premiere at the Sydney Opera House

opera australia dancer man opera stage rain watershed

The recipient of five-star reviews and emotional standing ovations at its sold-out premiere season at the 2022 Adelaide Festival, Neil Armfield’s acclaimed opera Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan will make its Sydney debut with Opera Australia in June.

An operatic oratorio, Watershed is based on the tragic true story of the 1972 drowning of Dr. George Duncan, a University of Adelaide law lecturer, the alleged police cover-up, and the subsequent public outrage that followed. With New South Wales marking the 40th Anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality this year, the Sydney season serves as a timely reminder of the appalling series of circumstances, the horror, and the heartbreak that ultimately led to South Australia becoming the first Australian state to implement homosexual law reform.

Director Neil Armfield explains, “We commissioned Watershed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Duncan in Adelaide, allegedly at the hands of off-duty members of the SA Police vice squad engaging in their habitual practice of ‘teaching the poofters to swim’. (Adelaide) Festival audiences found it a shattering experience: at the end of each performance many remained in their seats, not able yet to go out and look down through their tears to Karrawirri Parri – the River Torrens – where this act of casual murder took place. It’s a vocal work of stirring and glorious beauty. In the wake of the recent NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into gay and transgender hate crimes, and the consequent shadow that fell on our police, this couldn’t be more relevant to us in Sydney today.”

Armfield leads a team of acclaimed artistic talents in this thrillingly physical oratorio featuring powerful choral music, solo voices, and dance. Starring Australian tenor Mark Oates and bass Pelham Andrews both reprising their roles from the 2022 season, along with multidisciplinary performer Tomáš Kantor and WAAPA-trained Macon Escobal Riley and the Opera Australia Chorus. Multi-award-winning author Christos Tsiolkas and playwright Alana Valentine fuse press clippings, inquest transcripts, private correspondence, and monologues spanning five decades of anti-gay violence to craft a searing libretto. Designers Alisa Paterson, Nigel Levings, Jane Rossetto and Sean Bacon recreate the simple but effecting scene by Adelaide’s River Torrens, with Joseph Twist’s luscious, transcendent score played by the Opera Australia Orchestra under the baton of one of Australia’s foremost choral conductors, Brett Weymark.

Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan promises to be an extraordinary testament to a turbulent chapter in Australian history, whilst also heralding the indomitable spirit of those who fought for justice and reform. As the haunting echoes of the past merge with the powerful performances and evocative music, this oratorio extends far beyond the boundaries of traditional opera, leaving an indelible mark on all who witness it. The Sydney debut is not just a tribute; it’s a call to remember, reflect, and continue the journey towards equality and inclusivity.

Tickets and info for Watershed