Written by: Stephen Mould
On the 24th of February of this year, John Haddock passed away from complications following surgery for appendicitis. He was 64 years old and had worked on the music staff of Opera Australia for 32 years, half his life. John’s work was of a scope and nature so wide and deep that it is no simple matter to give a sense of the extraordinary contribution he made to the musical fabric of The Australian Opera/Opera Australia, and to the artform generally. John was a fine pianist, possessing wide-ranging skills that he employed in the service of coaching singers, allowing them to experience and grasp the sound world of the orchestra that they were to sing with; it was often said that John played ‘like an orchestra’ (or two).
John also had a finely trained eye – he had studied conducting, and it was clear that he understood opera scores from the mindset of a conductor, although he never conducted an opera performance. John’s eye was trained to watch the conductors he worked with like a hawk. The most expert conductors he encountered had his undivided attention and enjoyed his uncanny ability to render their musical conceptions, conveyed by physical gestures, into concrete sound. Lesser-skilled conductors were greeted with a somewhat frustrated version of how John believed the music should be performed. He was a hungry autodidact, who read deeply on many subjects, who tirelessly dissected the background and significance of each opera that was assigned to him. His search for depth and meaning in the great operatic works that he engaged with was exceptional and could not be grasped by all.
The operas that John most admired possessed a reality for him that he urgently needed to share – his perceptions, however, not infrequently fell on deaf ears, to his great chagrin. John loved language, word, numerous languages, but particularly Italian, and he travelled to Italy to immerse himself in the culture and uncover more of its secrets. John enjoyed an extraordinary working partnership with the Italian coach of Opera Australia, Renato Fresia, which endured for over twenty years, until Renato’s death. Renato was an inspirational force to John, both personally and professionally, always encouraging him to deepen his coaching expertise still further through a more intimate knowledge of the Italian language.
John’s core repertoire was of the Italian opera of the long nineteenth century – Verdi, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Mascagni. I wish I had asked John who meant more to him – the works of Puccini or those of Verdi. I suspect it was Verdi. John’s repertoire interests however were wide, embracing works that painted the world of opera large and wide, and intense and searing. Wagner, some Strauss, Britten, Prokoffiev and Shostakovitch. I particularly remember his intense playing of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, under the baton of Richard Hickox.
John championed many emerging singers during his time with Opera Australia – challenged them, supported them, and occasionally bewildered them, as they struggled to conceptualise the almost unattainably high standards that he demanded of them. John was also one of the best – organized, exacting and reliable – backstage conductors I have ever encountered. In an area where mishaps and unfortunate outcomes are the source of many insider opera-jokes, John always ran a tight ship, and many audience members would have unwittingly experienced John’s expert work, cueing canons, playing offstage organs and taking charge of powerful, unseen forces of brass players.
The passing of someone who worked almost exclusively behind the scenes in the otherwise high-profile world of opera may have gone largely unnoticed to the opera community at large. John, however, is an exception in that, in mid-life he emerged as a composer of great accomplishment. John had studied composition at university but was discouraged by an unsympathetic teacher, a circumstance which caused him to turn towards the world of conducting and then opera. It was some years before the creative world of composition called again, and when it did, John saw fit to create nothing less than a full-scale opera. He was always hard at work with many projects, and although his friends were aware that he had the tenacity and drive to write an opera, few considered that it might reach the stage, let alone the stage of the Sydney Opera House.
That all changed in 1999, when he was awarded an Australia Council development grant, and scenes from Madeline Lee were presented in a workshop. Exceptionally for the work of an untried composer, the successful workshop gave Opera Australia the confidence to present it in their mainstage season in Sydney, in October 2004. John described the gestation of Madeline Lee as follows:
In the early 90’s I was looking around for a suitable operatic subject, when I saw a TV film concerning the crash and subsequent discovery of a missing WWII bomber. The subject captivated me. Immediately I saw its potential for operatic treatment, but I wanted to find a different angle from the patriotic one taken by the American writers. It wasn’t until I suffered a personal trauma myself, a few years later, that I understood what to do.[i]
The libretto was John’s own work, developed with the dramaturgical assistance of Michael Campbell. Tom Woods conducted the première, and describes Madeline Lee as an
‘unusual piece. The cast is entirely male, and indeed, mostly ghosts. The only female in the cast is the crashed plane, Madeline Lee. But within this seemingly barren setting, John discovered a wealth of lyricism, something that from his everyday personality, I had not expected to find … for me it was a revelation to discover that the inner world of John’s music revealed warmth, tenderness and beauty.’[ii]
Woods notes particularly the strength of the vocal writing, which he describes as ‘truly exceptional. Unlike so many operas … Madeline Lee really stands out in this regard and shows both John’s lifetime study of Verdi and the depth of his internal emotional world.’ This view is echoed by bass-baritone Warwick Fyfe, who sang the role of the Major when Madeline Lee was restaged by the State Opera of South Australia in 2019. Fyfe identifies, in addition to the influence of Verdi, that of Britten and Wagner as influential to John’s conception of vocal writing, noting that ‘the physical, vocal demands of his work felt Wagnerian … huge, vaulting powerhouse creations.’[iii]
Exceptionally, Madeline Lee received not only a mainstage prèmiere with a major opera company, but also a subsequent production with the Stat Opera of South Australia, where its significance was confirmed, 15 years later, a rare achievement for an Australian opera. Following the production of Madeline Lee, John produced further works in other genres, although the voice always played the central part. A cycle of songs, Towards Solitude, set to prison poems by Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984) were composed for, and premiered by Warwick Fyfe, who described the work as consisting of ‘monumental pieces, making demands which reminded me of singing Rigoletto or the Holländer.’ Soprano, Nicole Youl recorded an extended, 21-minute concert aria for which John had written both the lyrics and the music – ‘See My Children Fly’. This work was recorded with the West Australian Symphony Orchestra in a single take. Youl recalls that ‘all were so moved, so devastated by the work that it was decided that the playing, the singing could not be bettered with more takes, you would lose that hard hitting impact with more refining. The orchestra and I were in tears and absolute wrecks.’[iv]
John’s late-career development as a composer came hand in hand with a mellowing in his being, and many colleagues have described a gradual shift in the previously forbidding, serious person who could be challenging to work with, whose compositions revealed to them another dimension that they had hardly experienced previously. Tom Woods characterised John as an ‘intensely private person’ who possessed a ‘famously prickly personality that wavered between strict schoolmistress and jester, with seemingly little in between.’ Woods also described a tense moment in the rehearsals of the fight scene in Madeline Lee in 2004, which was eventually resolved, causing John to smile. Woods recalls ‘I remember it because he rarely smiled. He laughed manically sometimes, but it was the first time I’d seen him with a genuine, heartfelt, warm smile on his face. It struck me at the time how unusual it was, that someone could write a fight between two men that was so beautiful and so lyrical.’ Warwick Fyfe recalled learning to ‘prize his eccentricities and way of expressing decided views which brooked no argument’ so that eventually ‘I discovered just how formidable an artist he was. Being on the wrong side of his unselfconscious bluntness occasionally was a price worth paying to be in the presence of such a seething, ever-active mind, steeped in so much reading and allied to a protean, creative talent.’
In recent years, John started work on a further opera, which, like Madeline Lee, went through a lengthy gestation period. Originally titled Kokoda, the opera passed through many revisions and eventual rewriting, this time with John working alone on both libretto and music. Finally, The Track emerged, a work set in Queensland of the 1930’s. The general theme of the work could be generally described in the same words that John wrote about his first opera: ‘It’s about men isolated and facing up to their past.’[v] The Track is an intense, dark work, that plumbs the psychological and existential depths of the characters’ psyches. John often referred to a traumatic incident in his life – where he witnessed the Port Arthur Massacre in 1996 – as a catalyst which allowed him to find a way forward for the writing of both operas. The themes explored in The Track include John’s youthful involvement with Charismatic Christianity, redemption, and a brave confrontation with the darker sides of humanity. From my conversations with him about the work, it emerged that many of the strands running through the libretto were deeply personal.
Sadly, John did not live to hear this work reach the stage. He died just days before the first orchestral reading of the score was to take place with the Australian Opera and Ballet orchestra. The work was completed, however, late in 2020 and following a workshop, Opera Australia agreed to stage its première. In view of the impact of COVID pandemic upon the arts in Australia, details of the new production are at present uncertain.
Vale John Haddock, a deep-thinking and occasionally defiant pianist, coach, composer, quintessential man of opera, searcher, colleague and friend.
“If anyone tells you that opera is an irrelevant, obsolete art form with no place in contemporary culture, don’t waste time arguing – just send them to see MADELINE LEE. …Composer and librettist John Haddock with the help of Michael Campbell, has fashioned a compelling and haunting work about the power of memory and how it affects our lives. Haddock and Campbell’s lyrical and elegiac libretto is so good that, at times, it rises to the level of poetry. Haddock’s music is …capably written and his grasp of orchestration assured, and he colours the music with variety and imagination.
Madeline Lee is an important achievement in Australian Opera and deserves to become a regular feature in the operatic repertory. — Murray Black, The Australian 15 October 2004
Stephen Mould, 5 June, 2021.
[i] https://stateopera.com.au/the-history-of-madeline-lee-a-minute-with-john-haddock/ Accessed 9 May 2021.
[ii] All quotes from Tom Woods are from email correspondence with the author, 3 May, 2021.
[iii] All quotes from Warwick Fyfe are from email correspondence with the author, 3 May 2021.
[iv] From Facebook post of Nicole Youl, 25 February 2021.
[v] https://stateopera.com.au/the-history-of-madeline-lee-a-minute-with-john-haddock/ Accessed 9 May 2021.