Saturday 20 July 2019

Beyond the Garden

Alma Mahler in Venice in 1929
Alma Mahler in the garden of her house
in Venice in 1929
Oltre il giardino (Beyond the Garden) is a hotel in Venice based in a house once belonged to Alma Mahler (she lived there in the 1920s, partly because it did have a garden). The hotel's English title Beyond the Garden has now given its name to a new opera by composer Stephen McNeff and librettist Aoife Mannix which is partly inspired by Alma Mahler and her relationship with her daughter Manon Gropius (who died from polio, contracted whilst staying with her mother in Venice, at the age of 18).

Beyond the Garden is a work in progress, whose premiere takes place in June 2020 in Ljubljana, Slovenia, by Slovenian Chamber Music Theatre (SKGG) with Susan Bickley and Katja Konvalinka singing the leading roles of Ottilia and Klara. Yesterday (19 July 2019), McNeff presented a fascinating workshop on the new opera, with Susan Bickley and Katja Konvalinka performing extracts from it, accompanied by Simon Dvorsak (piano), John Slack (clarinet) and Sophie Mather (violin).

McNeff described the piece as a ghost story, and Mannix's libretto took a reverse chronology, starting with 1964 (the year of the Ottilia/Alma Mahler character's death) and ending with 1935 (the year of the Klara/Manon Gropius character's death), throughout the relationship between the two is explored. It is about the past, how we remember it and how we create our own image of it.

Developing new opera is always challenging, and McNeff and Mannix wanted to present their work-in-progress to a small audience in order to provoke discussion about the opera and its development. Key issues that came out of the discussion were quite how explicit the link to Alma Mahler should be, should we realise this at all, quite how clear the relationship between the two characters should be, and quite who or what the Klara character was.

There was a lively discussion, and clearly McNeff and Mannix have plenty of food for thought in their development of what promises to be a striking piece of music theatre.

Stephen McNeff's previous operas have included Vivienne, about T.S. Eliot's first wife [see my review, and also on CD] and Banished, based on Steven Gooch's play about the first women transported to Australia, Female Transport [see my review].

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