Sydney Opera House is set to play host to the world premiere of a brand-new, queer rock opera: 'Bark Of Millions’.
The production, from celebrated artists Taylor Mac (Lyrics) and Matt Ray (Composer), will be presented as part of Sydney Opera House's 50th Birthday Festival, and is an electrifying collision of performance, live music, and drag spectacle.
What's more, 'Bark Of Millions' features an astounding 55 original songs – one to mark each year since the landmark Stonewall Uprising – in an exploration of humanity through a queer lens.
It's a transformative, joyful experience, revelling in the queer worlds built over the last half-century, where queerness is not a remote concept orbiting a straight society, but rather its own centre. The title is inspired by an Ancient Egyptian creation myth and the sun deity Ra, who was both male and female, and travelled on a sailing barque.
In ways, 'Bark Of Millions' is also a continuation of the creative team's previous work, 'A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music', and the cisgender/heterosexual nature of most of the setlist for that show inspired them to create something that grew the queer canon of music.
Because queer history and human history are one and the same.
Here, Composer Matt Ray chats with us about the show.
This is a world premiere performance! Tell us a little bit about the show.
When Taylor and I were working on our 'A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music' show, which was a show entirely of cover songs, we noticed there were very few songs about queer people in the lexicon of American popular music. So the main idea was to write a lot of songs that honor and connect us with our queer antecedents. The show itself has music in a variety of styles, though most song styles are centred around my experience growing up immersed in American traditions (rock, jazz, folk, blues). We have 15 different voices that perform as lead singers in the show, which gives the audience a chance to fall in love with these spectacular people throughout the performance. There is a nine-piece band that accompanies the vocalists, and that band is made up of some of my favorite NYC musicians, most of whom have been collaborating with us for many years. It’s really a thrilling format.
What would you say the main message of ‘Bark Of Millions’ is?
The main message (from my perspective) is that queer people have always been here. We didn’t burst into existence with Stonewall. We’ve been a part of the human story from the most ancient of times.
Matt Ray - Image © Amy Touchette
How did it all begin and how did you get involved?
Taylor Mac and I have been collaborating since 2009. We’ve worked on a number of large-scale theatre pieces together. We had written a jazz opera called 'The Hang' during the lockdown period of the pandemic, and while working on that we had experimented a bit with writing some more rock-oriented material. At some point I started receiving lyrics in my inbox, perhaps one new song per week, and I began the process of writing the music for the show. So, pieces of the show were constantly emerging from Taylor’s genius mind, and I was setting the prose to music. What a thrill to compose for these brilliant lyrics and poems constructed with such great rhythm, cadence, thoughtfulness, and soul.
There are 55 original songs! What sorts of themes and topics does the music cover?
The songs explore the entire range of the queer experience: Joyfulness, dancing, dark thoughts and actions, humour, humanity, togetherness, aloneness, sex, gender, meditation.
Which song is your favourite of the bunch, if you’d have to pick one?!
This seems to rotate weekly, but right now I’d have to say 'Prosymnus', which deals with the Greek myth of Prosymnus and Dionysus.
You’re working alongside Taylor Mac. What’s this been like?
It’s rare as an artist that you find a collaborator with both a depth of thought and depth of humanity, who is also deeply skilled and a willing learner. It’s been quite a fruitful and sweet friendship and working relationship. I think we challenge each other, help each other grow as people and artists, and I like to think we are building community with everything we do. I’m proud of the work we’ve done and grateful to know Taylor.
Taylor Mac and Matt Ray - Image © Ves Pitts
It builds on the same motivations as previous project 'A 24-Decade History Of Popular Music’ which you also worked on with Taylor. How does it do this?
Well, our motivation is always to bring people together and crack them open a bit. Taylor likes to make big work for that reason — to give us enough time in the theatre with an audience to transcend entertainment and dig for something deeper. My motivation as a composer is to get you as the audience to lean in, at the same time as we on stage are stretching out towards you. And we want to put our art in the hands of performers who are conducting some kind of divine energy.
As Music Director/Composer, what has been your biggest challenge with ‘Bark Of Millions’?
My biggest challenge has been how to translate my vision for each song onto the music page, and then into the rehearsal room. It’s easy to get caught up in the musical language of your own head, but putting music on a stage requires many steps of translation: From the brain to the composer’s instrument, from the instrument to the page, from the page to the performers, and from the performers to the audience. Through the process of translation it’s imperative to keep an open mind, shift when necessary, and also believe in your original idea enough to continue to advocate for the work itself. It’s a big project with this many songs.
On the flip side of that, what’s been the most rewarding thing to come from it so far?
To be able to hear my music come to life with spectacular queer voices and queer bodies.
Why should people see this show?
To be hypnotised, entranced, overjoyed, to question us, to consider with us, to breathe with us, and to vibrate their bodies with us.
'Bark Of Millions' plays Sydney Opera House 18-20 October.
This story originally appeared on our queer sister site, FROOTY.