Is this the gate?

Is This The Gate Adelaide Festival 2024Adelaide Festival. Nicholas Lens and JM Coetzee. Elder Hall. 8 Mar 2024


Elizabeth Costello is a fictional character — a celebrated Australian writer, aged 66, who is famed for the feminist perspective of her early, first novel. She is devoted to writing but is distanced from her family and has difficulty when communicating her beliefs to others. It seems that her reputation doesn’t quite match who she is, or thinks she is.


Nobel and dual Booker prize-winner JM Coetzee’s novel is written in a partly documentary style and includes Costello’s CV, which confused some readers — in his introductory remarks at this concert, celebrated novelist Peter Goldsworthy told of an incident when he was asked if he had met the famous Australian writer, Elizabeth Costello. The form of Coetzee’s novel invites the reader to reconsider the nature of the novel itself.


Costello has disagreements with her family members over important moral questions, so that the novel is also an invitation to readers to consider those moral issues and their own actions.


Belgian composer Nicholas Lens has composed a full-length opera based on Coetzee’s novel, entitled Costello in Limbo (Elizabeth Costello at the Gate), the libretto for which has been devised by Coetzee. Lens has also created an excerpt from the opera, entitled Is this the gate, for performance by a chamber ensemble and a vocal soloist, and this excerpt is based on passages from the latter part of the novel when Costello has passed away. These are perhaps the most important passages of the novel, as they concern the judgement of one’s life and achievements and the question of an afterlife.


Costello is interrogated by a panel of judges (not St Peter) who demand to know her beliefs — it is on her beliefs that she is judged. This is a message not only to other novelists but to all of us. She is permitted a glimpse of the afterlife, and the text of the prologue is as follows:


Straight out of Kafka!

Straight out of Kafka!

Not the light that Dante saw in paradise.


The nature of the afterlife, or her likely afterlife, is thus characterised by reference to other writers. Implicitly, we understand the world and establish our moral and philosophical compass by reference to writers and their writing.


In the final part of Is this the gate, Costello defends herself with:

I believe what I am.

I believe that what stands before you today is I.

I am!


This absorbing performance of Is this the gate was a world premiere, and Adelaide was privileged to host it. Coetzee and Lens also made introductory remarks and spoke of how the opera was developed. The excellent ensemble comprised Judith Dodsworth, voice, Elizabeth Layton and Helen Ayres, violins, Stephen King, viola, Thomas Marlin, cello, Matthew Kneale, bassoon, and Michael Ierace, piano, and the libretto was shown on screens.


The music is generally turbulent and discordant. The composer gave detailed instructions on the performance of each section, for example, Part 8 What have I seen? is marked “Come camminare sul ghiaccio sottile – Come un rapido piccolo tifone – Di nuovo, come camminare sul ghiaccio sottile – Di nuovo, con una certa goia” (Like walking on thin ice – Like a swift little typhoon – Again, like walking on thin ice – Again, with a certain joy).


Ensemble members briefly sing at one point, and first violinist Elizabeth Layton quietly announced Costello’s death at the beginning. Soprano Judith Dodsworth was magnificent as the troubled Costello, and Elizabeth Layton and bassoonist Matthew Kneale were outstanding, with Kneale’s bassoon creating a nicely inflected parallel voice.


This tantalising taste of Lens and Coetzee’s opera was delightful, but the entire opera must be heard, and it is greatly to be hoped that it can be produced here in the near future.


Chris Reid


When: 8 Mar

Where: Elder Hall, University of Adelaide

Bookings: Closed