Wednesday 27 July 2016

Scenes from the End

Jonathan Woolgar - Scenes from the End - Heloise Werner
Scenes from the End is a new opera by the young composer Jonathan Woolgar. Written for soprano Heloise Werner, the work is being premiered by her, directed by Emily Burns, at Camden People's Theatre on 10 August 2016 before being taken to the Edinburgh Fringe. I caught up with Jonathan Woolgar by telephone to find out more about the work.

Jonathan Woolgar
Jonathan Woolgar
It is indeed a solo piece, the opera features only Heloise Werner and for most of its 45 minute length she sings unaccompanied with just a bit of percussion and recorded sound. Jonathan admitted that it was quite challenge for both performer and composer.

Jonathan explained that the opera deals with cosmic themes, but done in a witty and theatrical way. The opera is in three parts, the first considers the end of the universe, the second the end of the human species and the third, the end of a human life. The piece thinks about the end and how we might grieve, and Jonathan admits that it is quite grandiose. He has written both the music and the words, something he had done before but not on this scale and he sees it as an exciting opportunity.

Jonathan has been working in close collaboration with Heloise and the piece has been re-worked and re-imagined during the rehearsal process. Jonathan has written music for Heloise before, having written for The Hermes Experiment (in which Heloise performs) as well as writing Six Dream Songs for her, a solo piece which he describes as almost a try out for Scene from the End. He thus had an understanding both of Heloise's voice and of her versatility, and she had an idea about the themes he might want to explore. When she approached him about the idea for Scenes from the End, the length and the intention to have a work which was substantially unaccompanied were set quite early but the rest was up for grabs particularly when they thought about the structure of the piece.

Heloise Werner performing with The Hermes Experiment, SONIC VISIONS, The Forge, Feb 2016 - photo by Nick Rutter
Heloise Werner performing with
The Hermes Experiment,
photo by Nick Rutter
Jonathan describes his musical style as communicative but uncompromising (you can hear a sample on his SoundCloud page). He wants to speak to listeners but is concerned not to pander and not to be consciously accessible. But writing such a solo piece, he feels it forces him to speak in the most direct way possible and his music adapts to the dramatic situation.

Though Heloise plays a single character in the opera, the nature of the character changes as the piece progresses. She starts out as an oracle figure displaying events, yet the piece ends with the death of a human. So though there is no cast of clearly defined characters, there are lots of shades and variations to the central character.

Jonathan won the BBC Proms Young Composers’ Competition in 2010 and went on to read music at Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge where studied composition with Giles Swayne, going on to study with David Sawyer at the Royal Academy of Music. He has just finished the first year of a two year residency at Eton College, where he is teaching and writing for the school ensembles, work which he describes as terrific. Coming up he has a piece for violin and cello to be performed by players from the ensemble Khymerical. He will also be writing a piece for CUMS (Cambridge University Music Society) but the details of that have still to be finalised.

Jonathan Woolgar's Scenes from the End will be performed by Heloise Werner at Camden Peoples Theatre on 11 and 12 August 2016 (tickets from the Camden Fringe website), and Heloise will then be performing it at the Edinburgh Fringe from 22 to 27 August 2016. The piece will be returning to London from 6 to 10 December 2016 at the Tristan Bates Theatre.

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