The lyrical world of Dorothy Porter is more likely to celebrate lesbian detectives and bisexual astronomers than Christian visionaries.

Arthur Stace, however, was no ordinary missionary. The reformed alcoholic and Christian took to the Sydney streets for 37 years chalking the word Eternity on the footpaths, a message so iconic it was inscribed in metal on Sydney Harbour Bridge for the millennium New Year’s Eve.

When asked by composer Jonathan Mills to write the libretto for a chamber opera about Stace’s life, Porter couldn’t say no.

It’s a very strange story, Porter said and one she felt was very Sydney.

For my last scene I have him at the Gap jumping into -˜eternity’. But it’s not suicide, it’s literally a jump into -˜eternity’, she said. Writing the libretto is in a way my love song to Sydney: I’m very homesick for Sydney, often.

The Melbourne-based poet is best known for her dyke detective verse novel The Monkey’s Mask, but her work on The Eternity Man is her second opera libretto. The first, also a collaboration with composer Jonathan Mills, was The Ghost Wife, a critical hit for both.

The Eternity Man has had a more rocky history. The work premiered in London last year at the Almeida Theatre as part of a competition for new opera works. The opera was joint winner -“ yet not all the London critics were enthusiastic.

One always wants universal praise, Porter laughed. I mean all three operas were very contemporary and got a bit of a drubbing. I think that’s what happens to contemporary music.

But there were some things about the production that I certainly would have done differently -¦ There’s one scene where I have the character of Arthur Stace wandering through a gay beat and having male lovers’ voices duetting through him, and that was always a problem staging that in London.

It’s almost fiendishly impossible to suggest this: a lone evangelical hobo having these male lovers’ voices take him over in this timeless duet of lust, she said.

It seems Porter is the perfect librettist for the piece after all, a writer happy to embrace the many worlds of Stace’s everyday existence. (Characters in the London production included a Darlinghurst brothel keeper, female freaks at the Easter Show, female convicts and a gaggle of Kings Cross drag queens.)

In keeping with the chamber opera’s gritty underbelly, the Sydney production has seen some imaginative casting, including Christa Hughes as Stace’s sister.

I’m thrilled to bits, Porter said. I’m a huge fan of Machine Gun Fellatio so I’m delighted and I think she’ll be a great Myrtle. That was another problem I think we had with the London production: it was just a little too polite. It just needs a little bit of the brass and arse, which is at the core of my libretto actually and Jonathan’s music.

I want something a lot gutsier and a lot more vulgar; a lot more Sydney for this production, she said. The spirit of Sydney, heaven and hell, spinning on the same coin.

The Eternity Man is playing at the Studio, Sydney Opera House, on 20, 21, 24 and 26 January at 8:15pm. Phone 9266 4890 or visit www.sydneyfestival.org.au for more information.

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