An ephemeral profile of Lindy Chamberlain coats the Opera Theatre’s scrim, dwarfing the chiaroscuro of a human Lindy (Joanna Cole). Cradling the child Azaria, this Lindy sings of the safety of ancient caves, of this remote and sacred land, and the warmth of motherhood.

Just as quickly as the orchestra begins to infuse the artificial space with that elusive theatrical mood, the conductor Richard Gill has halted the action. The curtain behind Cole has failed to rise in time enough to allow Michael (David Hobson) and Aidan (Karl Goodman) to be seen and heard upstage. It is less than a week before the opening night of the new opera, Lindy.

The word surreal is bandied about so carelessly, but it fits here like a melting glove. Some such moments are deliberate -“ Miriam Gordon-Stewart haunts the chorus of the vengeful Australian public as The Spirit of Azaria. Some are accidental. With breaks in rehearsals, Cole jokes affectionately with Jennifer Bermingham -“ who plays her warden. Even creepier, Cole once allows the head of her Azaria doll to drop.

Since the public announcement of Lindy last year, I have defended the idea of an opera about the Chamber-lains in the face of gentle mockery and sometimes disgust. It could be a great opera, I argued: the story is about an angry mob, a dead child and a defiant mother. As long as the operatic Lindy is less stoical in her personal expression, then the opportunity exists for a ripping aria or two.

Now, visiting rehearsals, I see hints of a Grand Guignol gem. Of course, the angry mob on Friday night might also be in the audience, peering through the opaque scrim of what might be cultural cringe, or anger, or even a little guilt.

Lindy opens on 25 October and runs until 2 November at the Sydney Opera House. Phone 9250 7777 or visit www.sydneyoperahouse.com for bookings.

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