This June, the Sydney Opera House will bear witness to a powerful narrative of tragedy and resilience as Neil Armfield’s critically acclaimed opera, Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan, makes its highly anticipated Sydney debut with Opera Australia. Having garnered five-star reviews and emotional standing ovations during its sold-out premiere season at the 2022 Adelaide Festival, Watershed arrives with a formidable reputation and a poignant story.

An operatic oratorio, Watershed delves into the tragic true story of Dr. George Duncan, a University of Adelaide law lecturer whose 1972 drowning at the hands of off-duty police officers and the alleged subsequent cover-up sparked public outrage. This event, shrouded in horror and heartbreak, ultimately led to South Australia’s pioneering homosexual law reform. With New South Wales marking the 40th anniversary of the decriminalisation of homosexuality this year, the Sydney season serves as a timely reminder of this harrowing episode and the long journey towards justice and equality.

Commemorating the 50th anniversary of Dr Duncan’s death

Director Neil Armfield explains the deep emotional impact of the work. “We commissioned Watershed to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of Dr. Duncan in Adelaide, allegedly at the hands of off-duty members of the SA Police vice squad engaging in their habitual practice of ‘teaching the poofters to swim’. Festival audiences found it a shattering experience: at the end of each performance many remained in their seats, not able yet to go out and look down through their tears to Karrawirri parri – the River Torrens – where this act of casual murder took place. It’s a vocal work of stirring and glorious beauty.”

The Sydney premiere of Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan comes at a moment of significant reflection, particularly in light of the recent NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into gay and transgender hate crimes, which has cast a new shadow over the police force. “In the wake of the recent NSW Special Commission of Inquiry into gay and transgender hate crimes, and the consequent shadow that fell on our police, this couldn’t be more relevant to us in Sydney today,” says Armfield. 

An exceptional team of artistic talents

Armfield leads an exceptional team of artistic talents in this thrillingly physical oratorio, which features powerful choral music, solo voices, and dance. Australian tenor Mark Oates and bass Pelham Andrews will reprise their roles from the 2022 season, joined by multidisciplinary performer Tomáš Kantor and WAAPA-trained Macon Escobal Riley, along with the Opera Australia Chorus.

The libretto, crafted by multi-award-winning author Christos Tsiolkas and playwright Alana Valentine, weaves together press clippings, inquest transcripts, private correspondence, and monologues spanning five decades of anti-gay violence, resulting in a searing and impactful narrative.

The production’s visual and auditory elements are masterfully brought to life by designers Alisa Paterson, Nigel Levings, Jane Rossetto, and Sean Bacon, who recreate the evocative scene by Adelaide’s River Torrens. The Opera Australia Orchestra will perform composer Joseph Twist’s luscious and transcendent score under the baton of one of Australia’s foremost choral conductors, Brett Weymark.

  • Watershed: The Death of Dr Duncan at the Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House
  • Evenings at 7.30pm, June 14 and 15
  • Saturday Matinee at 12.30pm June 15
  • Sunday Matinee at 2.00pm June 16
  • Purchase tickets here