Peter Carey writes dark stories.

The Australian novelist, who won his first Booker Prize for Oscar and Lucinda in 1988 and his second in 2001 for The True History of the Kelly Gang, doesn’t shy away from the turmoil inherent in Australia’s history, pairing a rebellion against chronological narratives with a disregard for textbook tales of the past.

For theatre director and Opera Queensland artistic director Patrick Nolan, adapting Oscar and Lucinda – which was also made into a film in 1997 starring Cate Blanchett – was a rare chance to grapple with an uncomfortable story. “Oscar and Lucinda is one of the great stories to have emerged from the history of Australian storytelling,” the director tells Broadsheet.

It’s a love story between two obsessive gamblers – and the story’s namesakes – Oscar Hopkins and Lucinda Leplastrier. Their bond only becomes stronger when a life-changing bet is made between them: that Lucinda won’t be able to build a cathedral of pure glass and have it delivered to the outback in time for Good Friday.

“[Carey] not only takes these ideas of chance, faith and destiny and tells a really beautiful love story between two people. In a more nuanced, big-picture way, he also tells a story about the establishment of Australia as a European settlement on an Indigenous continent,” Nolan says.

To take on the ambitious task of retelling this story for a new audience, Nolan is reunited with Sydney Chamber Opera [SCO], resident company at Carriageworks.

“I really admired the work that [SCO’s artistic director] Jack Symonds and [SCO’s principal artistic associate] Huw Belling were doing,” Nolan says, citing them as two of the key creative drivers behind Sydney Chamber Opera. “They’re interested in opera as an art form that can tell stories with contemporary music in a way that I think no other company in Australia is doing.”

Having produced work internationally, as well as for every major city in Australia, Nolan is always looking to push the boundaries of the operatic form. “I think opera needs that sort of shaking up and I think opera needs to look at itself and say, ‘Well, how can we tell stories in ways that are different?’”

A co-production and co-commission of Sydney Chamber Opera, Opera Queensland and Victorian Opera, Oscar and Lucinda will be conducted by Jack Symonds, designed by Anna Tregloan, with music by Elliott Gyger and libretto by Pierce Wilcox. Nolan says that the team has been focused on how opera has the unique potential to present “a whole other side” to a well-known story.

“It's not about just retelling the book on stage, it’s really about being inspired by the book to tell a story,” he says.

Oscar and Lucinda is a two-act chamber opera, scored for six singers and an orchestra of 16. Jessica Aszodi and Brenton Spiteri will play the title roles in this production, supported by an ensemble cast – each of whom will be rising to the challenge of playing multiple characters.

Opera may have a reputation as inaccessible or old-fashioned, but Nolan wants his work to constantly challenge these assumptions, especially in drawing in younger audiences: “Opera is anything but dull,” he says. “It offers a glimpse of excitement, imagination and originality.”

He points out that opera is so often misunderstood in what it has to offer as an art form, too. “Its DNA allows itself to present you with an experience that is unlike nothing else,” he says. “It incorporates all the other art forms: music, storytelling, acting ... It’s all there. In combining those elements, it creates an experience that is like no other.

“These days, especially, where we are saturated with so many different forms of entertainment – and so many of them are also so alike – to sit with a live audience in a theatre and hear music that has never been heard before … that’s a gift.”

Oscar and Lucinda is playing at Carriageworks July 27, 29–30 and August 1–3. Tickets are $35 + booking fee.

More details and tickets here.

This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Carriageworks.