Monique DiMattina gives Stella Miles Franklin a new life – and a jazz voice

By Andra Jackson

Jazz pianist Monique DiMattina‘s Stella, a musical in the making, is an ambitious project aiming to chart the life, tribulations, and triumphs of one of Australia’s most celebrated female writers, Stella Miles Franklin. Its terrain is wide-ranging, covering family relationships, the struggles to become published, the monotony of life on the land, the marriage path, feminism, the early campaign for women’s rights, the attempt to establish a career in another country, literary relationships as well as a world war and the emptiness of personal loss. It is a huge canvas that it endeavours to depict through music, lyrics, acting, stagecraft, and costuming.

Stella, which was performed for three nights (and one afternoon) in October at Brunswicks Jazz Lab as a work in progress, is fortunate to have many strong points going for it including most importantly, DiMattina’s composing skill and lead performer as Stella, Alma Zygier’s outstanding voice as a singer and also emerging flair as an actress. They were ably backed by some of Melbourne’s finest musicians, including Fem Belling, who brought extensive experience in musicals to her depiction of a range of characters as well as her musicianship. Actor Darcy Kent deftly handled several roles as Franklin’s father and as a narrator of different historical backdrops.

For DiMattina, this project is a labour of love and her fascination and admiration for Franklin show through. Much research has gone into this work, one I first heard her reveal as still at the concept stage, a few years ago at Melbourne’s Kelvin Club. Back then it was presented in a song she had penned with engaging lyrics that she sang, accompanying herself on piano. Since then the concept has expanded to include a storyline, cast, and band.

DiMattina has come up with a score that has immediate appeal. The songs and interludes she has written draw on influences from a range of genres including Irish, Latin, and also Serbian for the World War setting.

One of the pieces that was most captivating was an opening work that had a strong sense of the countryside to it. It has a pastoral elegance exquisitely conveyed by Kalina Krusteva on the cello, and Xani Kolac, Esther Henderson, and Fem Belling on the violins.

The violin section: Fem Belling, Esther Henderson, and Xani Kolac. | Photo: supplied

But then there is a spirited dance and song from Adrian Perger on trumpet, and there is a wonderful blend of voices as Stella and her sister sing of their differing views of marriage and strong songs, such as ‘Native Flower’.

Had just the music and singing been recorded for a CD (or more fashionable vinyl) I would have happily taken that home, especially with the ornamentations from Sam Lemann on guitar and the solid steering of Ben Robertson on bass.

Stella now has a dramaturgist in Emily Goddard. There are several dramatic devices that are effective. There is the interaction between Franklin’s mother, played by DiMattina at the piano, and Stella. There is the character of Vida Goldstein, who comes in and out of the story to mark different stages of Franklin’s life. She is played by Belling and draws ready laughs at times but there is a need to make sure she doesn’t slip into a caricature.

Monique DiMattina and Emily Goddard | Photo: Supplied

Some of the other musicians such as Ben Robertson take on other characters and this is most effective as the stage would become very crowded otherwise. There are many humourous lines that have been worked into the storyline, such as ‘the only person with no ego is a dead one’. However when Stella’s mother admonishes her children not to put anything in their ears and the daughter imitates putting her elbow in the ear, that comes out as corny.

Most Australians know little of Miles Franklin beyond My Brilliant Career. DiMattina’s research and Alma Zygier’s convincing performance as Stella will hopefully reverse that.

I am not sure if Zygier has had acting training but she brought pathos, dignity, and humor to the complex role. Her singing was a delight, so compellingly delivered, including a rap-style number.

This work has obviously seized the Imagination of others with its various workshops, including this one, sold out. It also says much for the potential staging of Stella on the theatre circuit that it has continued to draw financial backing for its gestation period. What it needs now is some more fleshing out of its characters, particularly Stella’s mother and her complex relationship with her daughter.

Stay informed on the next performances of Stella: the Miles Franklin Story