Saturday, 16 February 2019

An obsession with Norse myths: composer Gavin Higgins introduces his new opera The Monstrous Child

Rehearsal image from The Monstrous Child  © ROH 2019 photography by Stephen Cummiskey
Rehearsal image from The Monstrous Child 
© ROH 2019 photography by Stephen Cummiskey
The Monstrous Child is a new opera by composer Gavin Higgins and librettist Francesca Simon which premieres at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio (the first opera in the newly re-furbished theatre) on 21 February 2019, conducted by Jessica Cottis with Marta Fontanals-Simmons in the title role. A first opera for both Higgins and Simon, the text is adapted from Simon's own darkly humorous book, The Monstrous Child, written for teenagers and young adults. I recently met up with Gavin in a break from rehearsals to find out more about the opera and about how it came about.

Francesca Simon is the author of the Horrid Henry books, but she has also written three books for teenagers inspired by Norse mythology, including The Monstrous Child. Gavin had read the book and felt that it was 'very operatic', and co-incidentally he describes himself as 'obsessed with Norse mythology'. He finds the world of the Norse myths so very different to that of the Greek ones, which he describes as feeling very privileged whereas the Norse gods are prone to more human traits such as dying.

Francesca did not know much about opera, so she and Gavin went to see a few and Francesca quickly grasped that the libretto had to create something very like a picture book. For Gavin, a libretto should not be too poetic or too flowery and not too long, and in Francesca Simon he found a brilliant librettist. In fact, the two spoke virtually every day over the two and half years that it took to create the opera. But Gavin was realistic about the music too, taking care to not get in the way of the words at important moments.

Gavin Higgins
Gavin Higgins
But of course, there is a long journey to take from having an idea about an opera to getting it commissioned and performed.
Gavin was lucky that he had known John Fulljames, associate director of opera at the Royal Opera from 2011 to 2017, 'for ages' and the two had often talked about Gavin writing an opera. In a piece of remarkably serendipity, Fulljames also knew Francesca Simon unbeknownst to Gavin. So the suggestion for the opera The Monstrous Child developed, Kasper Holten, then director of opera at the Royal Opera, read the synopsis and after a three day workshop the Royal Opera commissioned the new piece with the idea of it re-opening the Linbury Studio.

For Gavin, opera is simply theatre and he feels lucky that the show is being directed by Timothy Sheader, artistic director of the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre, who cares about both the story and the music, so that the smallest details get thought about. But of course, this means that Gavin and Francesca have been also getting challenges about what they have written.

As a result of Gavin's Norse myth and Viking obsession, he regularly visits Iceland and was sending photographs back to designer Paul Wills, which became one of the inspirations for the designs. For Gavin, the process of creating the opera in the theatre has been a positive experience because everyone was listening to everyone else.

Not only was it Gavin's first opera, but it was the first time he has written a major work for voices and he admits that it could have been a disaster. But Gavin grew up in the world of brass bands, and finds that there are links (range, tessitura, breath control, phrasing) between brass instruments and voices. Moving into writing for voices did not seem too hard, it felt familiar. By the time he came to write The Monstrous Child Gavin had already written quite a bit for dance and ballet so that he felt comfortable writing for the stage, and his opera seemed an extension of this earlier work in the theatre.

Being based on a book for teenagers, The Monstrous Child is intended to be a family opera, not a children's one, aimed at teenagers and up, after all the opera is about a teenager (who happens to be the daughter of the Norse god Loki). It very much deals with teen drama and angst, and Gavin describes the piece as rather dark, with themes such as unrequited love, an outsider who does not fit in. It is a coming of age story, but about a person who is half human, half dead and a goddess!

Gavin assures me that it is also funny in places too, and with its use of puppetry the production is very theatrical, and Timothy Sheader has kept the style very pacey, which is good for younger audiences. Gavin points out that we live in a world where our attention is being grabbed all the time, this is very much a different mindset to audiences for earlier operas and Gavin feels that we need to tap into this without being crass. But he also admits that he is far too close to the piece to judge, and that he needs to trust the director and the team.

Gavin loves the collaborative nature of opera. He has just written a new piece for the BBC, a trombone concerto Book of Miracles which premiered on 13/2/2019 at the Barbican with Alexander Vedernikov conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra with soloist Helen Vollam (hear it on BBC iPlayer), and the process of creating this had been very much a solo affair, he has spent a lot of time alone. By contrast, creating the opera has involved a number of people, three or four minds crafting this artistic creation. It also requires him to let go, once the score is written it must be handed over to the director.

Finding the right story for an opera is a tricky process, Gavin talks about ideas which he felt 'this could make a good opera', but also 'this would make a better film. There is something about the over the top story of The Monstrous Child which seemed to speak opera, not to mention the links to Wagner's Ring Cycle! Whilst the piece is about the anxieties of a teenage girl who destroys her room, she actually destroys the world in the process so that The Monstrous Child is a family drama writ large.

So, having everyone singing makes complete sense. Gavin has included a few moments when there is no singing, just speaking and he admits that he has lifted this from Puccini and comments that he finds Puccini's operas a great inspiration. He mentions Suor Angelica which he feels is Puccini's best opera. The other composer whose operas have influenced Gavin is Benjamin Britten, works such as Turn of the Screw and Peter Grimes. Not just the pacing and the story-telling, but the evocative music; Gavin adds that you only have to hear the interludes from Peter Grimes you don't need a staging.

Grimes himself is a character whom it is hard to feel for, yet Britten makes us care about this anti-hero. This is something that Gavin has been thinking a lot about, as the leading character in The Monstrous Child is an angry and bitter teenager, not a particularly pleasant character, yet one he needs to make the audience care about.

Another concern is pacing and comprehensibility. When planning The Monstrous Child, Gavin and Francesca watched a lot of operas including contemporary ones (Peter Grimes, The Tempest and Wozzeck in one day!). Gavin points out that you cannot assume that people will know the plot (and the opera is being performed without surtitles), so he and Francesca have worked hard to ensure that audiences should 'get it'. If a piece of text is important, then Gavin was at pains to ensure the audience could hear it, taking care over things like the balance, and the tessitura of the vocal lines, yet needing to ensure that the music remains expressive.

In the book, the character Hel is talking to the reader directly, so Gavin has had to try and create this voice musically, though he admits that it is tricky writing 'sarcastic emo music'!

Gavin has enjoyed the experience of creating an opera, and feels that it is something that you cannot not go into wholeheartedly, and in fact he and Francesca are already talking about writing another opera.

Gavin Higgins
Gavin Higgins
Gavin grew up in a brass band family, many of his family members were in bands and his grandfather conducted one. Gavin used to do arrangements for his grandfather, and went to study at Chetham's School in Manchester, a specialist music school where Gavin was lucky to get a totally funded place (otherwise his family would have been unable to afford such an education for him).

Gavin moved into playing the French horn but was also interested in composing and wrote what he describes at 'crappy teenage music'. At the Royal Northern College of Music he studied French horn and wanted to be a horn player, but he was studying composition too and gradually his focus shifted. Once he had graduated, he spent two years working as an orchestrator, thrown in at the deep end this is how he learned his craft, working on film and ballet scores. He was then lucky enough to get a full scholarship at the Royal College of Music where he studied composition with Kenneth Hesketh.

He then went on to be composer in residence with the contemporary dance company Rambert, his first job out of college and his first job as a composer. And this was very much the springboard for his subsequent career. He has had two further Rambert commissions since then, and BBC commissions as well as the present commission from the Royal Opera House.



Gavin Higgins & Francesca Simon: The Monstrous Child opens at the Royal Opera House's Linbury Studio on 21 February 2019, with Marta Fontanals Simmons, directed by Timothy Sheader, conducted by Jessica Cottis with the Aurora Orchestra - see website.

Elsewhere on this blog:
  • Delightful harmonies: Carl Czerny's arrangement of Beethoven's Septet (★★) - concert review
  • Verdi in Oman: La traviata at the Royal Opera House, Muscat (★★) - opera review
  • Youth shines: Savitri Grier in Elgar's Violin Concerto - concert review
  • From play to opera: Marlowe's Edward II and Benjamin & Crimp's Lessons in Love & Violence - feature article 
  • A romantic at heart: I chat to violinist Sarah Chang about her forthcoming Cadogan Hall recital - interview
  • A jolly good show: Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at Welsh National Opera  (★★) - opera review
  • From the Pens of Women: Kitty Whately on her forthcoming Wigmore Hall recital & the challenges of bringing music by women composers to the fore - interview
  • Black composers series 1974-1978 - CD review
  • In the hell of a small town: Janacek's Kat'a Kabanova at the Royal Opera (★★) - opera review
  • Through an Eastern filter: Nathan Davis' striking dance-opera Hagoromo (★★½) - CD review
  • A very modern spectacle: Ponchielli's La Gioconda at La Monnaie  in Brussels (★★) - opera review
  • Home

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