Friday 18 September 2009

Towards a new opera

A couple of year's ago, when I was casting round for a new operatic project, an acquaintance sent me a copy of one of their one-act plays. It was a modern re-interpretation of a Jacobean revenge tragedy. It had the virtue of being a short play and needed only two actors. It chimed in with my interest in baroque opera and the ideas I had of creating a modern version of an opera seria. But my last performed opera, Garrett, had been a one-act two-hander based on an existing play and I was wary of treading the same ground again so soon. So I put the play on the possibles pile and turned my attention to other possible projects.

A couple of false starts later, I found that the opening of the play was still resonating with me. A man blindfolded and tied up, alone in a warehouse. I started to imagine an opening using a solo cello. Quite soon I had 5 to 10 minutes of rather promising music and seemed to have commenced a new opera.

Turning to the play, I found that if I was not careful the final piece would grow to large proportions, turning the leading baritone into a tiring marathon. Much judicious cutting has left me with a text skeleton which makes a viable libretto. (At a recent contemporary opera the librettist wrote wisely of how an opera libretto should always read as if it has something missing. Which it has of course, the music.)

I have introduced two extra roles, to provide a bit of traction and to give the two protagonists a rest occasionally. The two extra roles are chorus, a sort of Male and Female Chorus out of Britten by way of Palestrina.

There are arias in the piece, but these are generally short. As the original text is dramatic and propulsive, not to speak of suspenseful, I have tried to keep these qualities. I am still nervous about my vocal lines. I have a tendency to set text rather syllabically, I rather like this but generally the lack of melismatic passages has caused comment in the past.

But in a dramatic piece, you want to keep things moving. And, you want the words to be heard and comprehended. It's no good giving the soprano a high melismatic passage if the text she is singing is important. So compromises have to be made.

I am also aware that I often castigate other contemporary operas for writing in a sort of free arioso which chugs along effectively and dramatically enough without ever writing anything particularly memorable in the vocal lines. Despite my introduction of arias, I worry that this will apply to me as well. Though I have written a fair number of pieces with a good tune, I find it difficult to necessarily write these to order, so it may be that memorably melodic material might escape me as it does other composers.

When starting out on a piece, it is usually the best, the most exciting piece that I have written. But part of the way through, the blues hit and all you can do is press on. I have reached that point now. I am over two-thirds of the way through the text and the opera is promising to be a manageable length.

So far, I have not had a live play through. I am promising to treat myself to a live play through when the first draft is finished.

In case you are wondering, the modern opera seria idea sort of fell by the wayside in the light of the rather abstract music that I was writing for the opening scene. But I feel that the piece still divides into aria and accompanied recitative; I'll have to wait and see if this comes across from the printed page into the live auditorium

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