Breathing new life into a familiar story (by Zoe Palmer and Rebecca Hurst)

Creating a new opera based on a very old and familiar story is an opportunity fraught with both danger and delight. How to create something surprising, meaningful, rather than a pastiche of all the other Robin Hoods that have made their way onto stage and screen? How to move beyond the long shadows cast by Errol Flynn, Mel Brooks, and Kevin Costner? How to ensure that our Robin was more than just another man in tights? We set to the task of re-casting the story of Robin – re-thinking his struggles, relationships, inner and outer worlds to help us bring contemporary resonances and tensions to this timeless story.

Although there is no proof that Robin Hood existed as a historical figure, as a folk hero he has had a long and adventurous life, first entering popular culture over 600 years ago. To begin, we looked at traditional ballads that, since Medieval times, told tales of Robin Hood and his band of Merry Men. We knew from our first conversations that there were certain themes we wanted to explore within our story: loyalty and brotherhood; land rights and questions of power, justice and morality. We wanted to create a libretto firmly rooted in the old tales, but which offered a vital and contemporary retelling. As we talked, sketched maps, and sent the early rough drafts back and forth a new take on ancient themes emerged. Sherwood Forest became the Greenwood, an ancient forest encroached upon by a crowded and polluted city, a contested space and battleground between the gullible, playful but manipulative and feast-loving Lord of the Greenwood, Robin Hood, his idealistic sister Marian, and a ruthless property developer.

Having spent four years as doctoral student researching folk tales and enchanted landscapes, and writing a collection of poems that explores these themes, Rebecca was delighted to be invited by Zoe to collaborate on the libretto for a new Robin Hood opera. Unexpectedly, and responding to personal events out of her control, she spent her post PhD summer travelling back and forth between Texas, Massachusetts and the north-west of England. Zoe too was working between the UK and U.S. at the time and so it was that whilst navigating between two countries in varying states of flux and uproar, we found a respite of sorts in our creation of the Greenwood, and in the trials and tribulations of the characters that inhabit this imaginary realm.

This stage in the process, when the music is written and rehearsals are just getting underway, is utterly thrilling. We are curious and excited by the prospect of what’s to come – how has the work ignited Dani’s imagination? How do the musical forces, the colours, textures and rhythms of the world she has created serve the drama? We can’t wait to hear her score come to life. And we’re equally excited to see how Polly’s creativity will be brought to bear in the production – our early discussions together with her and Hamish were invaluable and helped steer our course through the development phase of the work.

It takes many heads and hearts -as well as guts and sheer determination – to bring a new opera to life. We are grateful to have had this opportunity to work as part of such a dynamic all-female team and extend our thanks to everyone who shared their thoughts and insights during the process. We hope you enjoy our opera in three courses.

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