Thoughts on writing music for a new opera (by Dani Howard)

Writing a full-length opera is something that for a long time, I felt would only happen at a much later stage in my career. I was immediately taken by this opportunity given by The Opera Story to develop a work on the famous tale of Robin Hood, one of which I have always loved.

Coincidentally, just prior to my first meeting with The Opera Story, I had just been involved with the estate of the legendary film composer Michael Kamen as an engraver/orchestrator, and had just completed working with all the hand-written manuscripts of the film score written for the 1991 Kevin Costner film “Robin Hood Prince of Thieves”, and somewhat felt very close to this particular story at that point in time. Admiring the music to this movie so much, and knowing it in great detail, I certainly felt  a sort of pressure to create not just an operatic version, but a version that was refreshing, relevant and new, whilst doing justice to this ancient tale.

To me, the main difference between this project and all of my other work was the sheer length. A 90-minute opera is significantly different to the 2-15 minute pieces I have been used to writing. The only way I can describe this difference, would be like that of writing a short story versus a novel. The volume of music that was to be created (which ended up at 381 pages) was both daunting and exciting to me. As a composer who predominantly works both on paper and in my head whilst composing, holding the mental space structurally for a 90-minute long production was a huge challenge. The only way to tackle the length and scope of this work was to break it down into Acts, Scenes, pages of libretto, and often even single stanzas at a time. I began highlighting all the ‘major moments’ from the libretto. I decided what I wanted to focus on, and worked out the sections that needed to be moved through at a faster pace. I then spent a lot of time thinking about each character, what they represent, and how I felt they should be
characterised musically.

With a background of composing predominantly instrumental music, dealing with the extra dimension of text was very exciting, and allowed the story-telling to really be at the fore-front. Luckily, the libretto I received written by Zoe Palmer and Rebecca Hurst, was incredibly intuitive musically. It immediately presented musical ideas that were then brought through the entire opera, as well as the instrumental sections. They very cleverly integrated rhythmic passages, which I would say is something very central to my compositions, and this allowed me to really explore my own musical language within the landscape of this particular opera.

Being a terrible singer myself, it was very interesting to work through my ideas on the keyboard whilst singing. Strangely enough I had a lot of fun in the process, but was relieved to hear it sung by the professionals in the first rehearsal!

Having completed the process now, it has certainly been a journey. It also only recently dawned on me the immense level of skill required of the singers, to not only perform the work well vocally, but to memorise it in its entirety, as well as act on stage. Although I have always known this in theory, it came as quite a realisation when really looking at the size of the score, and knowing it is a brand new piece for a premiere. For that I really take my hat off to opera singers.

As simple as it sounds, the only way to learn how to write an opera is to write one. I have learnt a huge amount throughout the process, and feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity. I am grateful to The Opera Story for all that they do – and cannot wait to see it in full force with set-design, staging, lighting and costume. Bring on opening night!

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