top of page


Music & Concept: Mary Finsterer
Libretto: Tom Wright

World premiere - January 2017

Presented by Sydney Chamber Opera and Sydney Festival with Ensemble Offspring

Inspired by the life and demise of Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano.

Conductor: Jack Symonds

Director: Janice Muller

Set& Costume Design: Charlie Davis

Lighting Design: Matt Cox

AV Design: James Brown

with Mitchell Butel, Jane Sheldon, Simon Lobelson, Andrew Goodwin, Anna Fraser & Jessica O'Donaghue 

****  The Age

****  Butel captivates as flawed Renaissance physician in Finsterer's new opera. Limelight Magazine  

****  Astonishingly engaging, a highly memorable and haunting experienTimeout.

Janice Muller made a virtue of simplicity. Inventive, engaging, stimulating and moving, Biographica is an outstanding new opera. t deserves regular performances as well as a permanent place in the repertory. The Australian


Biographica review: Mary Finsterer and Tom Wright's story of Gerolamo Cardano.

Sydney Chamber Opera, Ensemble Offspring. 

Carriageworks. January 7

Reviewed by Peter McCallum


To the Renaissance mind, music was not so much an art form as a cosmology, combining with arithmetic, geometry and astronomy to make the quadrivium of liberal arts considered essential to higher thought. Heard music was but a manifestation of the harmony of body and soul, and of the universe.Composer Mary Finsterer and librettist Tom Wright revive this ancient affinity for the modern age in their opera, Biographica, a meditation on the 16th century mathematician and physician Gerolamo Cardano.

The work juxtaposes his lofty intellectual world and far-reaching professional influence, with his messy, flawed family life, to create an image of humanity's contradictions. Rather than write pastiche Renaissance polyphony, Finsterer's score recreates the Renaissance sound world with modern musical codes, using imaginative instrumentation, scattered modernist textures, and instrumental figuration of the sort exploited by minimalist Michael Nyman, to animate, transform and sometimes subvert the glistening vocal sonorities from an outstanding cast of singers.

Its most musically interesting elements are Finsterer's ear for original, dramatically appropriate instrumental and vocal combinations and the way musical processes intersect with mathematical ones, in a collision of the sensual and the rational.


Although the story dwells in the realm of the mind, there is an instinct for narrative and refreshing the dramatic tone at key moments with new sounds and situations.

The opening scene, Horoscope, creates an arresting and imposing opening using gongs, beautifully edged concordant vocal harmony and splashes of chaotic colour from the instruments.

In Scene VIII, Lock of Combinations, the chorus "explains" the mathematics behind Cardano's invention of the combination lock, in textures that spiral like intersecting spheres.

For the final scene, Finsterer recreates a Renaissance dance with raucous woodwind and percussion intrusions, like a grimly realistic dance of death.

Mitchell Butel, in the spoken part of Cardano, creates a sharply drawn, dark and deeply thoughtful persona of an ambitious intellect trying to survive in a world strung between the intrigues of the age of Machiavelli and the superstitions of the Inquisition. Soprano Jane Sheldon as his mother, sings with focused convulsive expression of his caesarean birth in a plague year, reimagining the Renaissance and early Baroque arioso style, while Jessica O'Donoghue, creates a parallel moment of expressive force as his daughter dying of syphilis.

The third take on the fate of women is given to mezzo soprano Anna Fraser, poisoned by the son Giambattista. Simon Lobelson, in this role and as the ailing archbishop sings with firm smoothness while tenor Andrew Goodwin as the kleptomaniac other son, Aldo, sustains pure expressive tonal evenness.

Janice Muller's direction is simple, direct and effectively lit by Matt Cox. The AV blend could have tolerated more edge in the amplified spoken word to cut through the swirling musical sounds that always threatens to overwhelm their rationality.

Conductor Jack Symonds controlled the balance of iridescent purity and gritty noise in the sound to create an aural equivalent reminiscent of Oscar Wilde's image of a person lying in the gutter staring at the stars.






















Review: Biographica (Sydney Chamber Opera, Sydney Festival)

by Angus McPherson

★★★★☆ Butel captivates as flawed Renaissance physician in Finsterer's new opera.


Bay 20, Carriageworks, Sydney
January 7, 2017

Sydney Chamber Opera’s Biographica opens on Renaissance physician and mathematician Gerolamo Cardano plotting the day of his death on an astrological chart, a death knell of gongs and drums accompanying his calculations. A colourful genius in a time when science and mysticism were intrinsically interwoven, Cardano wrote treatises on medicine, mathematics, games of chance – including how to cheat at them – and dreams. It is his life and writings that inspired Australian composer Mary Finsterer’s first opera, with a libretto by Tom Wright, receiving its world premiere at Carriageworks as part of this year’s Sydney Festival.

Finsterer tells the story of Cardano’s life through a series of vignettes, as the composer explained to Limelight, “it’s like a visit to a great portrait gallery, full of different paintings – but all depicting the same person.”

Actor Mitchell Butel is captivating as Cardano, and it is his striking intensity that holds the show together. Butel himself doesn’t sing, but is supported by an ensemble of five who serve as both chorus and cast of characters. As narrator, Butel’s eyes burn into the audience while Cardano’s mother (Jane Sheldon) sings a shopping list of ingredients for the 16th-century DIY abortion that fails to prevent his birth. Sheldon’s soprano is crystalline, keening in the high register, her lower register guttural with grief.

Butel conveys Cardano’s passion for mathematics and medicine with an animated vigour, and his coldness to his children with a brutal lack of concern. As his syphilitic daughter Chiara lies dying – Jessica O’Donoghue’s voice rich and lamenting over Rowan Phemister’s harp – Cardano relates the symptoms of her disease to the audience as if delivering a medical lecture. He is arrogant and uncaring as his son Aldo – Andrew Goodwin with his polished-bronze tenor – is imprisoned for theft.

The emotional climax of the opera comes as Cardano’s favourite son, sung with bleak disdain by Simon Lobelson, poisons his unfaithful wife, Caterina – a crime for which he will be hanged. Mezzo-soprano Anna Fraser is an arch, knowing Caterina, her full, characterful mezzo a stark contrast to Lobelson’s cold, smooth baritone. Despite the high quality of the singing, however, this scene feels overly long and somehow fails to deliver the emotional punch toward which the opera has been building. Butel’s animated performance reaches a feverish crescendo in the penultimate scene, as Cardano is once again excluded from the College of Physicians in Milan, his theories on medicine becoming lost in his theories on the universe.

Though Finsterer’s score, expertly delivered by Ensemble Offspring, conducted by SCO’s Artistic Director Jack Symonds, is derived from Renaissance music, it is more than merely pastiche. Contemporary inflections and sounds creep in subtly at first – shimmering harmonics adorning more conventional Renaissance melodies – but with increasing intensity. Serial elements – reflecting Cardano’s own mathematical experiments – lend the music a more complex, menacing patina as the work progresses. The music is almost relentlessly ominous, accompanying Butel’s dialogue with a pulsing, film-music intensity or ramping up the anxious mood with glittering, ethereal chimes.

There are few moments of lightness in this opera, though the fourth scene – in which Cardano treats the illness of Archbishop John Hamilton in Edinburgh – exploits the ironies of archaic medical treatments such as leeching, bleeding, starving the patient and lighting a fire under the bed, with Cardano’s calls for sterility laughed off as quackery.

The chorus/quintet piece Lock of Combinations is the highlight of the opera, the five chorus members describing the mechanics of Cardano’s invention in Latin as three-dimensional plans and diagrams spiral against the back of the stage, part of James Brown’s slick, sensitively rendered AV design.

Director Janice Muller takes full advantage of the deep performance space of Bay 20 and even with the EO musicians taking up a significant part of the stage it never feels claustrophobic. Scene changes are quick and organic while Matt Cox’s lighting design is clean and effective. Charles Davis’ set and costume design is sparing but functional, the dark costumes contributing to the sombre aesthetic.

Biographica is a dark, vividly realised portrayal of a fascinatingly intelligent yet flawed character. The 12 scenes that make up the opera combine to paint a remarkably effective portrait of Cardano, thanks in no small part to Butel’s enthralling performance. Though the segmented structure dampens the dramatic momentum of the story at times – and a focus on Cardano’s ideas means Wright’s libretto tends to favour dialogue over drama – Finsterer’s score thrums with energy throughout, making this a worthy addition to the Australian operatic canon.






Sydney Chamber Opera kick off their year with a new Australian opera based on the life of Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardan. Few really good plays have ever been written about scientists, so a new opera about a 16th century mathematician was always a courageous venture for Sydney Festival. How many people would go to Carriageworks hoping to hear binomial coefficients sung?

Fortunately Gerolamo Cardano (1501-76) was no pencil-pushing nerd: he didn’t just contribute to probability theory, he gambled and fought with criminals, and was also an innovative physician. There was plenty of drama in the life of this Italian early-Renaissance man, and it’s presented beautifully here.

Mary Finsterer’s Biographica is structured not as a strictly chronological plot but rather a sequence of 12 scenes, some dealing with specific events such as births, illnesses and deaths, others more like reflections on Cardano’s big concerns: humanity and the cosmos.

Astonishingly engaging is Scene VIII, a description of a combination lock invented by Cardano, in terms precise enough for a patent application, sung with clockwork accuracy and dynamo power, together with finely illustrated animated projections by James Brown. This now commonplace device becomes an object lesson on abstract numbers determining physical reality, and resonates in our period of smartphones and Wikileaks. The polymath Cardano also pioneered many basic theoretical concepts that became indispensable in modern engineering, including negative and imaginary numbers. 

Tom Wright’s gutsy yet finely crafted English and Latin libretto booms through five excellent soloists: Jane Sheldon, Simon Lobelson, Andrew Goodwin, Anna Fraser and Jessica O’Donoghue. Every one of these is worth lining up early for – so you can get a seat close to the stage; you may be amazed by the strength and quality of these voices. 

The main role of Cardano is spoken not sung, but MItchell Butel acts it so well that we feel we are joining him in a critical review of a life that was extraordinary while far from perfect; sharing his struggle to make sense of a harsh and complex world that is changing in ways that are creative and destructive. Cardano’s worldview now seems half-recognisable, half-weird: one foot is in the 16th century,with its earnest astrology, primitive bloodletting and superstitious humours, but the other is advancing towards now-routine principles in science and medicine. 

By analogy, the composer Finsterer draws deep from the medieval minstrel origins of Renaissance music, but links up with intervening periods and contemporary art music styles, delivering highly appealing yet substantive fabrics for every scene. It succeeds paradoxically by being both palatable and unsettling, like the tale it carries.

Conductor Jack Symonds executed Finsterer’s score precisely with his proven Sydney Chamber Opera players; eminent guests from Ensemble Offspring, including Claire Edwards and Zubin Kanga, raised the number of instrumentalists to not even a dozen, yet the vast space of Bay 20 was filled with profoundly impressive sounds.

A triumphant level of achievement is what Sydney has come to routinely expect from the SCO; this premiere of a much-anticipated work by a professor from Monash University shows they are now a significant national cultural asset.  Director Janice Muller and designer Charles Davis bestowed the 12 tableaux with a Rembrandt look at Target prices, delivering a highly memorable, even haunting experience.

This is an exemplary achievement for the Sydney Festival: new, fresh high art that will be enjoyed by a wider audience than any accountant would have predicted.





January 9, 2017


The life and work of the Italian Renaissance polymath Gerolamo Cardano (1501-76) was rich in incident and achievement. Brilliant accomplishments in the fields of mathematics, science and medicine brought him fame and fortune across Europe.

Yet his later years were overshadowed by tragedy. His older son was beheaded for poisoning his adulterous wife, his younger son was a compulsive thief and his daughter died of syphilis contracted through prostitution. It’s a story ripe for operatic treatment.

Composer Mary Finsterer and librettist Tom Wright’s new opera Biographica is an episodic, 12-scene snapshot of Cardano’s professional and personal life. Its dramatic power largely derives from an intriguing double duality. Although an intellectual genius, Cardano is portrayed as being emotionally deficient.

In several scenes, he eloquently lectures the audience on his then cutting-edge views on maths, science, astronomy and humanity’s place in the cosmos. Elsewhere, he is an emotionally mute, detached observer.

In one scene, he coolly explains the symptoms of syphilis while his daughter, Chiara, writhes in agony on a straw bed. In another, his now-dead three children berate him for his lack of love. His response is to walk away. So articulate and erudite in his intellectual pursuits, Cardano is virtually devoid of emotional intelligence.This conflict is cleverly represented by Biographica’s second duality. Cardano is portrayed by a non-singing actor while a quintet of singers represents his tragic family members. It was a brilliantly realised conceit.


As Cardano, Mitchell Butel was a compelling and commanding presence. Inflecting every phrase with meaning and purpose, he captured his character’s astounding intellect and his difficult and volatile personality.

By contrast, the vocal quintet successfully balanced beauty of sound with the need for expressive intensity, thereby conveying their characters’ emotional pain and despair.

Finsterer’s music proved to be as eclectic and wide-ranging as Cardano’s intellectual pursuits. Scored for a chamber ensemble of strings, woodwinds, keyboards and percussion, Biographica’s complex yet crystalline textures, evocative instrumental colours, intricate rhythms and Renaissance-inspired vocal writing resulted in an absorbing, appealing soundworld.

Director Janice Muller made a virtue of simplicity. Using only a few props, Charles Davis’s period costumes and Matt Cox’s atmospheric, predominantly spotlit lighting designs, she ensured each scene made its impact before swiftly moving on. This kept the focus on the action while simultaneously capturing its intensifying power.  Inventive, engaging, stimulating and moving, Biographica is an outstanding new opera.  It deserves regular performances as well as a permanent place in the repertory.

bottom of page