Saturday 22 April 2017

From Figaro to cabaret: I chat to Elena Langer about her opera and music theatre projects

Elena Langer - Figaro Gets a Divorce - Welsh National Opera with David Stout, Elizabeth Watts, Rhian Lois, Mark Stone, Naomi O'Connell, Andrew Watts, Marie Arnet (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Elena Langer - Figaro Gets a Divorce - Welsh National Opera
with David Stout, Elizabeth Watts, Rhian Lois, Mark Stone, Naomi O'Connell, Andrew Watts, Marie Arnet
(Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
The London-based Russian-born composer Elena Langer's most recent opera, Figaro gets a divorce, was premiered by Welsh National Opera (WNO) in 2016. The opera was not just a main-stage opera commission from a UK national company, but formed a sequel to Mozart and Rossini's Figaro operas (and in fact WNO staged Elena's piece in a season with Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro and Rossini's Il barbiere di Sivigla). Elena has another work in the pipeline for WNO, Rhondda Rips it Up! an entertainment about a Welsh suffragette; Elena assures me that it is most definitely not an opera, but that it is going to be fun. I met up with Elena recently to find out more about her operatic activities.

When David Pountney first asked her to write the opera she thought he was joking

Elena Langer
Elena Langer

Figaro gets a divorce takes the story of Mozart and Rossini's Figaro operas and looks at what happens next. and when David Pountney, artistic director of WNO,  first asked her to write the opera Elena thought he was joking. Whilst writing it she tried to pretend there was no back history, and it was quite a challenge, frightening, writing a sequel to two of the best operas ever. Figaro gets a divorce was written with a libretto by David Pountney, and I was curious as to how much interaction there had been between them on the text. In fact, Elena was initially presented with the libretto to the opera by Pountney, and it gave her a good structure for the opera. Structure is clearly important to Elena, the word crops up more than once in our discussions. When writing an opera, Elena looks at the libretto initially to see whether the structure is OK, but she only does the detailed work when coming to actually set the text and as this point has a tendency to ask the librettist for a lot of changes.

She worked on the text with Pountney, on changing some of the details. She comments, that when Pountney wrote a libretto for Peter Maxwell Davies, he was surprised that Maxwell Davies set the all text unchanged, with no revisions. After the WNO performances Elena wanted to revise Figaro gets a divorce, adding an extra song for Figaro. She talked to Pountney about it, though he was not so keen to return to the work as she, and she says that they had 'a little fight' but it was all in good part. She was able to revise the piece before the production travelled to Poland in February 2017 where its was performed in Poznan.

Elena found the effect of the Polish performances very different to those by WNO, with new singers in the roles (except of Alan Oke as the Major). The Polish performers had huge voices, and singing in English, they just went for it, as did the orchestra and she says that they performed it like Puccini.

It turns out that Elena is something of a reviser, returning to works to get them right. She feels that Figaro gets a divorce is almost there, and she would like to revise it more before performances in Switzerland in September, but she has a lot else on her plate. Not only is she writing Rhondda Rips it Up! for WNO, but she is also writing a piece for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, as well as a new opera for Hong Kong.

'Even an unknown composer like me'

Dave Hill in Eleng Langer's The Lion's Face (Photo Alastair Muir)
Dave Hill in Eleng Langer's The Lion's Face
(Photo Alastair Muir)
The Hong Kong opera, Beauty and Sadness, is based on the Japanese novel by Yasunari Kawabata, and Elena was asked to write the piece by Carolyn Choa (Anthony Minghella's collaborator and widow) who, it turns out, is a neighbour of Elena's. Creating Beauty and Sadness will be a rather different process than writing for WNO, as it is not being written for an opera company, instead there are performances being planned for the big cultural exhibition in Hong Kong in 2019. Elena adds that she understands that there is a big appetite Western opera in Hong Kong, but only limited performances, so tickets sell immediately, 'even an unknown composer like me'.

Whilst Beauty and Sadness is based on a Japanese novel and will have an Asian cast, Elena's music will be in her own style, though she is using Japanese flutes and percussion and will use the timbres of these to add and Eastern sensibility. The opera will be designed by Tim Yip (who designed the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon).

Elena is determined that the piece is going to be fun

Whilst Beauty and Sadness is an opera, Elena is most firm that Rhondda Rips it Up! is not, and will be much more cabaret based with songs and dialogue - she calls it a hybrid, and will be happy if it is pacey and entertaining. For Rhondda Rips it Up! she is working with Emma Jenkins as librettist, Emma was one of the two librettists to WNO's recent commission Iain Bell's In Parenthesis. Elena is determined that the piece is going to be fun, and adds that she is going 'to commit suicide if it is not'. There will be plenty of dynamic scene changes, lots of choreography and generally lots of things happening. The title role has not yet been cast, it needs to be an actress who can sing (as opposed to an opera singer). The cast will include Lesley Garrett, who it turns out is also a neighbour of Elena's.

There will be a nine-person band (in costume); though ideally Elena would like an extra instrument. At the moment she has clarinet, trumpet, trombone, tuba and percussion (which she feels makes a complete band), plus violin, cello and bass and she would like to add an accordion as on their own the violin and cello can 'sound weedy'. The music for Rhonda Rips it Up! is very rhythmical including dances like foxtrots, so one day she would be writing a tune and another a 12 tone interlude. Though the piece has spoken dialogue, the music continuous as Elena has underscored all the dialogue so that the music travels from the foreground to the background and back.

She first used the combination of speech and music in her opera The Lion's Face (written for the Opera Group in 2010) where an actor played a character with dementia. He would speak and then be answered in song, showing how the world was strange for someone with dementia. And she discovered she enjoyed working with a mixture of speech and song.

The accordion is an instrument which Elena used for the first time in Figaro gets a divorce, where she found that it blended so well with the strings and helped connect the wind to the strings. Though she had not written for it before, the accordion has quite a history in Russia and Elena comments that the distinguished Russian composer Sofia Gubaidulina wrote for the instrument and said that it was the only instrument that can breathe.

Figaro gets a divorce used a Mozartian orchestra (plus trombone), and Elena was able to add the one extra instrument, the accordion, without making the orchestra too impractical for touring. She anticipated using the accordion in the cabaret scenes in the opera, but she also used it for the character of the Major, the villain of the piece, and so it came to dominate parts of the opera. Figaro gets a divorce was Elena's first full length main-stage opera with full orchestra, but she has approached this by gradual degrees so that Four Sisters (2012) used a big orchestra but was only in one act, whilst  The Lion's Face (2010) was full length but with chamber line up. She adds that the National Opera Studio will be doing Four Sisters in May with piano accompaniment at Wilton's Music Hall.

Elena wasn't interested in opera at all

Elena Langer
Elena Langer
The surprise is that whilst studying, Elena wasn't interested in opera at all, concentrating on instrumental, chamber and orchestra music. But when she came to the UK she became the first Jerwood Composer in Association at the Almeida Theatre in 2002 and was asked to write an opera and she did. She found it like a window opening, previously she had felt as if she was suffocating in the world of new music, seeing the same people all the time and it had begun to seem pointless. But writing the opera for the Almeida she realised she could work on the stage with all sorts of people, including poets, designers, and directors.

She adds that she feels that composers and musicians can often have a different point of view, that when a musician has played their instrument from the age of six it can give them a different perception in life. Elena plays the piano, and has done so since young but describes her playing as 'decent enough', but not good enough for a career. She only became confident in her composition when at the Moscow Conservatory, before that she spent four years at college studying musicology and piano, but moved to composition thanks to a supportive teacher. After the conservatoire she came to the UK to study, and found it like 'a holiday camp' compared to Moscow but she admits that there is a big difference between being an undergraduate (which she was in Moscow) and doing a post-graduate degree (she did a PhD at the Royal Academy of Music).

Elena's coming to the UK was purely accidental. She had had so much fun at the Moscow Conservatory that she didn't think of going anywhere else, but her husband got a job in UK so Elena came with him. In fact, she had no English when she came, a striking fact for a composer who has recently made her name with writing opera in English.

She admits that she still makes mistakes in English

She has been resident in the UK for a number of years, and admits that she still makes mistakes in English (though in our interview she was highly communicative), and wryly adds that she has never understood the need for articles. She has, however, always had a great love of Russian literature and feels she has a feel for language. She now enjoys reading poetry in English, though admits that she does not understand every word. She has written more music setting in English than Russian, with only a few songs (on her recent disc Landscape with three people, see my review) and a chamber opera in Russian. And she does not think her approach to setting words changes between Russian and English.

Whilst writing Figaro gets a divorce she showed individual scenes to David Pountney (who reads music and is able to sing), he was able to spot any mistakes in the word setting immediately, making a brilliant editor. In fact during the writing of the opera he would come round to her house and they would go through scenes, Elena playing and him singing.

The period was both wonderful and terrible

It is whilst we were talking about writing Figaro gets a divorce that Elena comments that the period was both wonderful and terrible, because at the same time as creating the opera she had breast cancer. Initially she felt fine, but it was the chemotherapy made which her feel awful.  She survived and has moved on. That she has been able to do so, and hasn't gone mad, she partly attributes to being about to work on Figaro gets a divorce at the same time.

During her last month of chemotherapy she wrote a piece for the Britten Sinfonia, Story of an impossible love which they played last year (see the review in The Guardian) and which she calls her 'chemo piece'. Since the first performance, she has revised the piece and it has been played in Canada and it will be performed in Karlsruhe at the Badische Staatstheater, Germany conducted by Justin Brown who conducted Figaro gets a divorce.

The piece went down well and the commissioned another for the Britten Sinfonia Academy which includes players from the orchestra with talented teenagers. She has never having done anything educational and she admits that the piece might be quite tricky for the teenagers, but they are performing it and it is being premiered in July 2017 in Cambridge and Norwich. The piece is called Swimming in the Limmat, which is a river in Zurich. She thinks of it as a very positive piece, after chemotherapy she did a lot of swimming and she hopes the piece catches the lovely feel as the cold water flows past the body.
Elena Langer - Figaro Gets a Divorce - Welsh National Opera - Marie Arnet,  Alan Oke (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)
Elena Langer - Figaro Gets a Divorce - Welsh National Opera - Marie Arnet,  Alan Oke (Photo Richard Hubert Smith)

On stage, music should be expressing something at every point, 

Since she moved to the UK Elena feels that she has become a better composer. In Russia she went to a good school and had good teachers, but in the UK she feels she has learned taste and expression and has been able to learn by working with players. She has become more relaxed, and done things which developed her as an artist, and writing for the stage has made her a better composer as it is hard to write redundant music. On stage, music should be expressing something at every point, whereas instrumental writing can be more fluid.

She writes in manuscript in pencil, working at the piano, and then types it into the computer. She occasionally teaches and feels that she can always say when students write at the computer, their music is more square and is just notes, less concerned with sound. When writing manuscript you have to use your imagination as to how it will sound. Also on the computer there is the tyranny of 'all those bar lines' as the computer programme gives you them whether you want them or not. She writes in manuscript as a river of music, often without barlines, and she likes improvising at the piano.

She is also due to be writing a piece for Boston Symphony Orchestra, for the orchestra's chamber series and will be performed by ten of the orchestras principals and will be unconducted (ironically she enjoys working with conductors).

She has so much on the go at the moment that she feels either her head will explode or she will have to change her deadlines. She was used to saying yes to everything, but now is fully booked until 2020. This is good, but perhaps a bit much but perhaps a bit too much and after having cancer she realised how precious time is.

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