Saturday 19 February 2011

Critic as Composer

A few years ago I attended a group of performances of contemporary opera, where over two days I saw 6 short pieces, some fully staged and others just work in progress. My companion at the performances was a librettist with whom I was planning new opera. After the operas, though we had seen much interesting, innovative and lively work, we felt that little of it was opera as we defined it. Instead we saw a variety of dramatised monologues, music theatre pieces and plays with music (dialogue pieces where the musical accompaniment is of more interest than the vocal lines).

My composing background is vocal and choral music though I have worked in cabaret, written musicals and staged one opera. But as a writer and listener, I am intensely interested in opera, its production, historical development and how the genre is developing in the contemporary world. The problem with being both a critic and a composer is that when you have a critical view of a performed work, it is difficult for this not to spill over and for the composer to wonder whether they could do better. Or conversely, when the critic admires a new work, then it can be difficult for the composer not to feel a little jealous. This is a faulty position to take as each composer is different and the process of creating an opera doesn’t occur in vacuo, it arises as complex sequence of events which involve a number of different participants. Very rarely does a composer simply sit down to create an opera and write exactly what sits in their head.

In the past, opera composers were often part of a system. Opera companies routinely produced new work and young composers had access to professional librettists and a variety of potential outlets for their work. The big effect of this was that the composer could learn from failure and go on. This ability to fail has, largely, been lost. Even Wagner, who notoriously tried to control as much as possible during the creation of his operas, had his journeyman period when he worked in opera houses and produced operas which didn’t work first time.

New operas are now rather more major events. Much more hangs off them, putting great pressure on composers to get things right first time. The opera commissioning and producing process is complex and difficult to stop. So there is real danger of work reaching the stage which ought to have been radically altered at birth. I’m sure that we have all attended new operas where we have felt that the work ought to have been performed in a radically different form, the feeling that within an uninspiring longer work, lies a fine short one. Though sometimes the converse can be true, having heard the original and revised versions of Birtwistle’s Gawain, I felt that the piece was stronger in the original and that in the desire for concision something had been lost.

In order to help combat this, the workshop system has developed, so new operas are tried out before full production. Whilst this is laudable in theory, I have attended some contemporary pieces which seem to have been work-shopped to death; the workshop process having gone from enabling a composer to hear their work, to stifling the innovative and dramatic instincts. Composing by committee only really works if the composer has a strong enough personality to dominate the process.

This isn’t something new of course. An opera house like the Paris Opera was a positive machine for producing opera; any composer dealing with it was in danger of losing control. Berlioz remained true to his genius and got his fingers burned with ‘Benvenuto Cellini’ as a result, only composers with strong personalities (or genius which transcended restrictions) such as Rossini and Verdi, produced worthwhile work in this environment.

One problem for the contemporary composer is the lack of professional librettists. With the drop in the number of new operas being produced at major houses, there are few people who specialise in writing opera libretti and have the experience to construct a good libretto. In a recent programme note for George Benjamin’s ‘Into the Little Hill’ it was stated that a successful libretto should feel incomplete, something lacking; the missing element being, of course, the music. Too often modern librettos are all too self sufficient, leaving little room for the composer at all, with a result that the music is merely illustrative. Music in opera should be essential; it isn’t like film music which is just there to heighten emotion.

Post-war opera has been heavily play based, with stage drama being a strong influence on the operatic form. But few composers and librettists are entirely talented at turning a play into a good libretto. Britten and Pears re-construction of Shakespeare’s ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’ is a paragon in this respect. But what often comes out nowadays is what I call the play with music. Vocal lines are cast as continuous arioso and the orchestra comments on and colours the line. Interest is too often in the orchestra and vocal lines seem to chug along, rather than developing memorable dramatics. This isn’t just a case of tonality versus modernity. Composers of both casts have been responsible for producing uninteresting works. In recent years Harrison Birtwistle, Thomas Ades and George Benjamin have all shown that dramatic operatic work is possible, without talking down to the audience.

What we have lost is the feeling for opera as a distinctive, known form. In the past young composers worked in an environment where it was clear what opera was. This gave them something to match themselves against; and, if they were iconoclasts, something to struggle against. But in the current environment, composers have to invent the form for themselves. To go back to the operas I mentioned at the beginning, there were examples there of composer/librettist pairings attempting to re-invent the form for themselves. But lacking historical insight and perspective, they simply came up with something jejeune. But composers should be allowed to fail and I hope that the composers in question were encouraged to try again, but better.

Two composers whose career path has approached those of opera composers in the past are the late Stephen Oliver and Jonathan Dove. Both of whom have produced a large body of variety work, developing their craft over a period of time. Dove’s opera ‘Flight’ is successful partly because the form used is historically informed, aware of what operatic form has been in the past. And Michael Berkeley’s operas written with David Malouf have been notable for the deft way Malouf’s librettos leave plenty of room for the music.

These thoughts have been very much in my mind because I spent a lot of last two years writing and revising my new opera ‘When a man knows’. Here the critic has to defer to the composer, and is affected by the complexities of the development of opera. Whilst I know that working with an experienced librettist is an ideal, exigencies have meant that I have set my own libretto based on an existing play. In June 2010 we gave a concert performance of the opera as a form of workshop to try out the work before a full production. This generated sufficient enthusiasm for us to repeat the experiment in August 2010 when a director, Ian Caddy, was present. Afterwards I sat down with both Ian Caddy and with musical director David Roblou to talk about changes to the opera before we staged it in March 2011. This was a fairly painful process as it entailed cuts for dramatic purposes. All composers are subject to the desire to keep music because they are fond of it, rather than because it is essential to the opera. In fact we lost only around 5 minutes of music, and I did manage to keep some dear old friends, but the resulting opera is tighter and more dramatic. You’ll be able to find out when we stage the piece at the Bridewell Theatre on March 31st.

So the critic as composer finds himself breaking his own rules. The most that the composer can hope for is that the new work will have a dramatic life of its own, that it will move audiences to laugh and cry in the right places.

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