Olive Pink Opera – the story
The Olive Pink Opera, performed under the stars in the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, explores and celebrates the last decade of Olive’s extraordinary life as a painter, anthropologist, botanist, and social activist on behalf of the Warlpiri and Arrernte people of the Alice Springs region.
Olive, who was born in 1886 and died in 1975, devoted her life to Central Australia, recognising the special qualities of its people and its flora. In 1956, she was granted permission to establish her hut and a garden on land that is now the Olive Pink Botanic Garden, and in 1962 she employed a Warlpiri man, Johnny Tjampitjinpa, to help with work in the garden.
The opera begins with a welcome to country and the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir singing a blessing Jesu Ngananala (‘Jesus Stand Among Us’), which is an invocation to the ‘Creative Holy Spirit’. This leads into Olive’s Dream when her nemesis, Ted Strehlow, makes an unwelcome appearance alongside her dear friend and mentor Daisy Bates, with whom she spent time in 1927 at Ooldea, an Aboriginal community in remote South Australia.
Strehlow grew up at the Hermannsburg Mission and, as a linguist, collected songs and information about sacred ceremonies of the Aboriginal people. He regarded Olive as an obstructive, unqualified anthropologist who, as a woman, could not possibly have had access to secret men’s knowledge.
The dream scene concludes with the final verse of Jesu Ngananala.
“A transformative arts experience and a new version of opera”
Act 2 celebrates Olive’s relationships with the people of Alice Springs, particularly its children. It commences with the chorale, Myatja altimani mununi minala, which introduces the rhythmical nature of horses’ hoof-beats. The inspiration for this was an incident when a group of ‘Gap Kids’ let a mob of horses into her garden, which caused havoc, after which Olive chased the children with her saltpetre gun.
Her friends, botanist Des Nelson and his fiancée Pat Colley, are welcome visitors and bring native plants for the garden she is establishing. Olive explains that some plants are dead because the person she has named them after has fallen out of her favour; another plant, named for Sir Paul Hasluck, continues to be watered as he supported the establishment of the garden.
After farewelling her tea party guests Olive wanders through her garden and sings her final soliloquy as she reminisces about her life and watches the sun set over the MacDonnell Ranges. As a fitting finale for a life passionately lived, a lamenting shakuhachi leads into the final chorale by the Central Australian Aboriginal Women’s Choir which then fades into the night sounds of the garden.
Johnny Tjampitjinpa continues to tend the plants.
The Olive Pink Opera is the second of Anne Boyd’s trilogy of music theatre works on significant Australian women – Daisy Bates, Olive Pink and Annie Lock – all of whom worked closely with Aboriginal people. In 2019, Anne received funding from the APRA AMCOS Art Music Fund to compose the Olive Pink Opera.
Anne’s music is strongly influenced by landscape and Aboriginal and Asian traditions of storytelling.
The opera exemplifies her collaborative ‘two-ways’ approach to storytelling. Anne, a graduate from the University of Sydney and the University of York, is an award-winning and prodigious composer who has enjoyed a distinguished career as a music educator.
As a pioneering woman in academia, she has been a strong advocate for women’s equality through her leadership roles at the University of Sussex, as the Head of the Department of Music at thebUniversity of Hong Kong, and as the first Australian and the first woman to be appointed Professor of Music at the University of Sydney.
Anne continues to compose, run ultra-marathons, often to support important community causes, and work with communities to promote inclusion and reconciliation through music.
Stories about Olive Pink
Seventeen fascinating oral history stories, told by people who interacted with Olive during her life,
can be listened to here.
The story of Olive Pink, an artist, activist and gardener, is told through her association with flowers in this wonderful book by Gillian Ward. The book tells her life’s history and showcases many of her wildflower paintings.
The 248 page book, in full colour, is available from Olive Pink Botanic Garden.