With the theme of Melbourne Festival 2002 being “Text”, it seemed appropriate that the opening night should premiere an opera - Love in the Age of Therapy - with a libretto by playwright and novelist Joanna Murray-Smith. Her every line is manicured but the plot about the impressionable middle-aged remains fluff.

Two middle-class couples and a pair of star-crossed Generation-Y-ers find true love through passion by swapping partners. In response to the question –“Who cares?’ – the answer is “Not the writer” who becomes so bored with her creations that she transfers their self-discoveries from dramatisation to a voice-over supplied by a homeless person. This bagman also throws away one-liners because the fable fails to generate mirth. The director, Patrick Nolan, put more effort into moving furniture than in motivating the performers. For instance, the poet aimed his anger across the footlights, not at its target, the parents.

Paul Grabowsky’s orchestral score tracks the ennui of the text through what he calls avant lounge music. The aim is to supply the ambient sound emitted from streets and dwellings. Grabowsky’s soundtrack is far more taxing to perform than it listen to because its cacophony is that of everyday life in the modern world. To replicate this pastiche, he has drawn on the intricacies of musical invention, from the strictest counterpoint to the flexibility of jazz. Artifice is admirable when its purpose is larger than its own display. Amplification accentuates the absences.

Grabowsky’s vocal material is the strength of the piece. The love songs, both arias and duets, will outlive their context. On stage, they were doubly redeemed by the singers. As the bagman, Jon Jackson, could have stolen the show. His other-worldly falsetto delivered the irony missing from the text just as his dramatic talents supplied the wit. For verismo emotion, the evening pivoted on Richard Greager, the childless husband who adores his god-child Rebecca (Dimity Shepherd) and eventually wins her vanity. Despite the empathy he made the audience feel at the nobility of his restraint in not forcing himself on her, he left us several times sadder once his princess has bestowed her body. Kanen Breen overcame the improbabilities of his part as the 1960s Angry Young Poet operating in the 1990s..

As the 21 year old, Shepherd, was as lovely vocally as visually. The maturity of her acting created her character as a spoilt child.. Roxane Hislop brought a richness and warmth to her role as the second wife and therapist. She delivered an emotional vocabulary far wider than her subject’s repeated “Interesting” whenever presented with a personal revelation. The brilliance of ensemble was proof that Opera Australia may yet thrive if it casts beyond its pensioners.

Two nights later, Olivier Messiaen’s Turgangalila-Symphonie, performed by the Melbourne Symphony, is not as remote from the miscellany of Grabowsky’s score as the Tristan motivation behind that 1940s piece is denied by Murray-Smith’s trivialisation of passion. Messiaen’s composition was one of a trilogy of amatory epistles to the woman pianist who performed its massive keyboard parts, recreated here by Michael Kieran Harvey.

Harvey appeared the next night with his sister Bernadette Harvey-Balkus as one half of one of the three pairs of musical siblings. The others were Slava and Leonard Grigoryan, and Brett and Paul Dean. The concert concluded with his composition for electric, electronic and acoustic instruments – an eclecticism which would have appealed to Messiaen.

Exemplifying the theme of text, the director of the Queensland Theatre Company, Michael Gow, adapted Henry Handel Richardson's three-volume novel, The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. In the original, Mahony’s descent into madness and the devotion of his wife conveyed love in an age of incarceration. For the stage version, the protagonist appears as a Jodi Rich-like figure who is driven insane by under-rehearsed actors screaming banalities as they practice aerobics. Mahony-Rich is rescued from the poorhouse by Rodney Adler as an honest lawyer.

Oral tradition supplied the text for Fire, Fire Burning Bright which retells the local people’s memories of a massacre in north-western Australia. Humour threads through the forced march to destruction. Stages in the flight of their spirits are conveyed through dance. The world and the text are as one in this type of corroboree.

Test as spoken word comes into its own in the wooden heads of the marionettes from Tink’as New Dress. Canadian puppeteer Ronnie Burkett delivers almost 150 minutes of uninterrupted social wit and queer tenderness in a show which proves why arts festival remain essential.