Thoughts on composing Pandora’s Box (by Alex Woolf)

My highest priorities as a composer are to create and to collaborate. Increasingly I’m finding that the most rewarding projects are those in which these two impulses are inseparable. In this spirit, working with the incredibly talented team at The Opera Story to bring Pandora’s Box to life has been very special indeed.

At the heart of Pandora’s Box is the tangled web of relationships within a group of five friends. This network of trust and deceit, secrets and half-truths, is of course ideal dramatic fodder for any opera. Moreover, it strikes me as positively dripping with musical possibility, and so I’ve been guided at every turn by the relationship of these characters to one another when constructing the score and determining how the music should unfold.

There’s a tension throughout the opera between each character’s perception of their own autonomy and the reality of their interdependence as a group. Musically, therefore, moments of clear delineation between characters rub up against passages where their identities seem totally intertwined. The bigger personalities of the group throw their musical weight around, whilst less assertive characters risk being musically subsumed by others. 

Initially, Paxton – as host – dominates the musical landscape: his guests occupy not only his home but his musical space too. Just as the tone of any party is determined by its host, it is Paxton’s music around which the rest of the opera grows. The more self-effacing characters – Clem in particular – arrive to the party with music that is far more malleable and easily absorbed by other more dominating figures. When Clem does begin to open up, however, so too does her music, allowing her ample space to define and assert herself fully. Conversely, Marco – arriving late and immediately monopolising proceedings – quickly moulds the musical landscape in his own image, and has no trouble trampling all over the music of others, often exploiting it for his own ends.

Gameplay is another aspect of this opera rich with musical promise. As the characters embark on their traditional game of Monopoly, the score begins to mimic its intriguingly hypnotic, almost ritualistic nature. As relationships between characters begin to unravel, the game nonetheless seems to hold them all in place, and so this is where the score is at its most binding: the music, like the game, acts as something of a neutralising force, seeking to maintain a smooth surface until a rupture becomes inevitable. With the abstract Pandora’s Box and the literal Monopoly box both hanging heavily over the opera and acting as dramatic catalysts here, it seemed appropriate to evoke another box – a music box – in much of this more mesmeric music.

In composing Pandora’s Box, I feel that my most important job has been to conjure a musical world for these characters that’s as inherently collaborative as the process of creating it has been. In such a close-knit grouping, none of these characters can exist in a vacuum; they are borne out of, propelled by, entangled with, and reliant upon one another, and I’ve sought to ensure that their music behaves in exactly the same way.

Alex is the composer of Pandora’s Box, The Opera Story’s fourth commission.

Note: The planned performances of Pandora’s Box were cancelled due to the health crisis, but we were able to produce a full video recording of the piece on the last day of rehearsals. This will be premiered on YouTube on Sunday April 26th at 8pm UK time. It is a pay-what-you-can event: please donate to the fund we set up to support the artists at to receive the link.

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