Fregmonto Stokes

31 October 2012

There are those who label Australian history as boring and cringe-worthy. Others simply don’t want to confront the racist nation of our history books. But for Fregmonto Stokes this is what makes Australian history worth revisiting. As the writer of the newest Union House Theatre production 1938: An Opera, Fregmonto and his team bring to the stage the untold stories of our past.

 The year of 1938 commemorated one hundred and fifty years of settlement in Australia. Yet as the colonists celebrated, Aboriginal activists were mourning the loss of their land. In retaliation to the celebrations, activists Margaret Tucker and William Cooper organised the first major Aboriginal protest. Meanwhile, other activists were imprisoned and forced to perform in a re-enactment of Governor Phillip’s landing. This day became known as the Day of Mourning and its untold story has become the foundation for 1938: An Opera.

Fregmonto discovered this story during a university summer subject in Yorta Yorta country on the Murray. “I found that story of political activism and resistance pretty fascinating,” he recalls. “The fact that this story had a weird theatrical element to it as well inspired me to start researching and writing the opera.”

Since then, it has been an incredible journey. Fregmonto acquired a mentor, Lou Bennett, a Yorta Yorta singer and songwriter who taught his summer subject alongside Wayne Atkinson. “Lou has advised me on Yorta Yorta translation and community protocol, so it wasn’t just outsiders coming in and writing a story,” he says.

The play also collaborates with international students from Hong Kong and Southern China, as well as students with an Italian heritage. In presenting Tucker and Cooper’s story of challenging white oppression, 1938: An Operacreates an alternative history where the Aboriginal activists team up with Chinese Communists and Italian Anarchists—something that didn’t happen in reality. “The justification for that,” says Fregmonto, “is by imagining alternative pasts we can imagine alternative futures.”

This has presented quite a challenge for the cast and crew, with four languages included in the opera. Co-composer Ashlee Clapp has had to “semi-learn” Cantonese to translate the language into music. Because it is a pitch-based language, singing a Cantonese word in a different note changes its meaning. “It’s quite a complicated process!” Fregmonto chuckles nervously. Yet he is ecstatic with the way his collaborators have taken this project on board. “We have songs where they’re singing in Yorta Yorta, Cantonese, Italian and English simultaneously. It sounds pretty amazing with an orchestra behind it.”

Writing these stories into an opera was a deliberate decision for Fregmonto. “When Australian’s think about the ‘30s, they might have a little bit of an idea about the Stolen Generation and retired ANZAC heroes, that sort of thing,” he says. “To bring out these other stories in an exciting and engaging way I hope would inspire people to look into that a bit more.”

But how do you address such a sombre past with singing and dancing? “Opera is inherently dramatic and it can also be an interesting satirical vehicle,” Fregmonto says. Audiences experience this with a song called ‘White Australia’, a jazzy number about the White Australia Policy. Fregmonto hopes that it will be funny and disconcerting.

With 35 cast members, 15 in the orchestra and a large production crew, this student opera has become quite grandiose. “At the same time it’s a satirical opera so it’s undercutting that grandiosity and pomposity,” Fregmonto comments. “Some parts of it will be quite raw, but that will only add to its power.”

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