(This article was originally published in the October edition of Classical Music)
There are so many different steps to creating an opera, each as exhilarating as the next: from choosing the story, to finding the right creative team, to hearing and seeing your vision come to life, it is as much a steep learning-curve as a magic act.
Earlier this year, the boss of Welsh National Opera David Poutney spoke at National Opera Studio’s presentation of contemporary scenes about his personal experiences of contemporary opera. He explained how important it is to choose the right story – one that will be enhanced by music rather than where the music merely confuses or intrudes. I agree completely. Some stories lend well to music and others leave you asking why anyone bothered setting them. Making the right choice of narrative is one of the most enjoyable aspects of commissioning a new opera. I have spent hours reading story after story, trying to imagine what it would be like brought to life through opera.
I believe great stories have the ability to take us anywhere in the world, and to escape into alternative worlds, if only for a short while. Sometimes we forget to let our inner child out to play, to let go and enjoy ‘the now’. I founded The Opera Story to be a company entirely devoted to new opera. I wanted to take us back to the time when we were read stories by our parent, to the escapism of childhood, but with a darker twist. I feel that living in a fast-paced world, and in a city like London, the need to find escape is more important than ever.
There are many aspects to what makes a story enjoyable. One thatactually the one that particularly interests me is the psychological journey of the characters, and the emotions generated by the relationships that lift the narrative off the page. This concentration of emotion is at the forefront of my thinking when I am choosing a story as a starting-point for a new commission.
Finding the right composer (sometimes more than one) is among the more challenging elements of commissioning a new work. Sometimes I feel that our familiarity with cinema leads us to compare and contrast our experience of a contemporary opera score with the overtly dramatic soundtrack to a film. Certain living composers like John Adams, Philip Glass and Jonathan Dove, achieve a real dramatic impact with their music, and in my eyes are paving the way for a new generation of composers who are embracing a more traditional, tonal style and extending it. This is along the lines of what I briefed for the commissioning of Snow, our inaugural production. In addition to selling out, it attracted funding from a variety of sources, including more than £7000 raised through the crowdfunding campaign. We performed the work in February at The Bussey Building, an old cricket bat factory in South London. The new work is based on the story of Snow White, but we wanted to tell the story from a fresh, and darker angle.
To do this, we looked into the folk tales that were circulating around Europe many centuries before the tale of Snow White that we know was created. The Libretto, the starting point of the opera, was created by J L Williams on that basis, and woven into a beautiful text that brings out the darker undertones in those tales. Since we had started with three different tales, we asked three different composers (Lewis Murphy, Lucie Treacher and Tom Floyd) to give each act its own musical language. The point was to have music that doesn’t ditract or detract from the story, but really enhance the themes and gives them another exciting and attractive dimention.
The process of hearing and seeing an opera come to life for the very first time is unique. Creating a finished product that combines so many people’s thoughts, ideas, expertise, and unending effort, is what contemporary opera is about. This kind of collaborative project is an exceptionally trying and tiring process, but the results more than justify the laborious process. Opera is so much more than one person’s creation. So much passion and talent, as well as blood sweat and tears, all become worth it when a seed of an idea you had three years ago turns into a reality that exceeds even your own expectations.
The Opera Story’s next new commission will be based on the Goldilocks story, performed from 26 February to 8 March at the Copeland Gallery in Peckham, South London. Visit http://www.theoperastory.com