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THE SPARE ROOM opera was first workshopped in January 2023 with the assistance of the Australian Government through the Australia Council for the Arts, its arts funding and advisory body, and the generosity of  Monash University Performing Arts. A second workshop will take place in March 2024 with the support of Victorian Opera. 



THE SPARE ROOM tells the story of Helen who lovingly prepares her spare room for her friend, Nicola. Nicola is coming to Melbourne for three weeks, to receive treatment she believes will cure her cancer. From the moment Nicola staggers off the plane, Helen becomes her nurse, her guardian angel and her stony judge as they negotiate an unmapped path through Nicola’s bizarre therapy.

The caring experience central to THE SPARE ROOM has not yet been explored on the musical stage. Helen and Nicola’s epic emotional journey through matters of life and death and the escalation and compressing of their conflict inside a narrow domestic setting lend themselves to dramatic musicalisation. Through song, Helen, the novel’s narrator voice - jam-packed with self-scrutiny, compassion and humour, is offered the opportunity to soliloquise. Elevating the lived experience of two women in their early sixties inside a tradition where senior women are seldom considered contenders for mainstage presentation will be received as a timely innovation for our audiences. Our cast and creative team look forward to exploring and experimenting with notions of female rage in a genre usually reserved for adventures in romantic love. 

THE SPARE ROOM has relevance as a metaphor for these pandemic times, where the acceptance, or not, of Western medical science has become a flashpoint between friends and family members. The peaks and troughs of Helen and Nicola’s arguments around matters of faith and science and trust and cynicism, and the persistence of their friendship offer ways through irreconcilable difference in these difficult times.


"My novel The Spare Room was inspired by the worst weeks of my life: when I cared for a beloved friend who had terminal cancer. In her terror of dying, she had fallen prey to a charlatan, a so-called ‘healer’, who swindled her out of thousands of dollars and subjected her to meaningless, excruciating treatments. Of all my books it has had the broadest reach outside Australia: it has been translated into a dozen languages. Of the many readers who have responded to it, an overwhelming number spoke with personal emotion about the helpless rage and love that can possess a person in that particular caring role. I was very taken aback when several critics (all of them, I noticed, men of my generation or older) reproached me for the anger that runs through the book. Many, many women who confessed to having experienced that rage spoke of it in a whisper, as if it were illegitimate, or shameful. 

When I sat down with Theresa Borg to discuss her wish to adapt the book, I was moved by the depth of her understanding of it. She had immediately grasped the meaning—and the legitimacy—of the rage that flows under the narrator’s pained love for her dying friend. She recognised in it an existential suffering that in no way negated the sincerity of the loving service and care. 
Listening to her, I realised that a psychological knot such as this would be absolutely at home in an archetypal musical form like opera. 


This is why I’ve handed the book over to Theresa Borg and Jane Hammond. I’m prepared to trust them to create a form rich enough to convey tender affection and laughter as well as the wildness of grief and anger and loss." 

Helen Garner



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