Saturday 25 July 2020

Creating new opera under lockdown: I chat to composer Alex Woolf about A Feast in the Time of Plague, his new opera with Sir David Pountney to be premiered by Grange Park Opera

Alex Woolf (Photo © ORA Singers)
Alex Woolf (Photo © ORA Singers)
As for many of us, the last few months have been an interesting time for composer Alex Woolf. Rehearsals for his first opera, Pandora's Box, were suspended in March just two days before the dress rehearsal, and by June he was hard at work on a new opera, A Feast in the Time of Plague, to a libretto by Sir David Pountney written specifically during lockdown, which is to be premiered by Grange Park Opera.

Having lost its original 2020 season and created an on-line Found Season, Grange Park Opera and artistic director Wasfi Kani have continued to create art out of lockdown. In September the company will premiere A Feast in the Time of Plague under socially distanced conditions at Grange Park Opera's Surrey base. I chatted to composer Alex Woolf, via Zoom, about creating an opera under lockdown.

The new opera, which is around 90 minutes long, has been created in what Alex describes as a frighteningly short time. Pountney started writing the libretto during lockdown, being at something of a loose end. He wrote the libretto on spec, inspired by Alexander Pushkin's short play A Feast in the Time of Plague, and then sent it to Wasfi Kani who decided to produce the opera and set about first finding a composer, and approached Alex, and then set about finding a cast. Alex received the libretto at the beginning of June, and admits that he rather relished the challenge of creating the piece so quickly. He had an initial phone call with Wasfi Kani, saw the libretto and then started writing the opera within days.

The form of the piece in September will be 12 singers accompanied by piano, which simplifies things somewhat as Alex will not need to orchestrate the work in time for the first performance. When Alex agreed to do the opera, Wasfi Kani had two or three of the singers on board, and so instead of working through the piece from beginning to end, Alex worked on the music on a character by character basis, as each role was cast. He is a composer who is very much inspired by voices, and so he finds it easier to write when he knows who is going to sing a role. (The full cast is Claire Booth, Peter Hoare, Anne-Marie Owens, Soraya Mafi, Susan Bullock, Simon Keenlyside, Janis Kelly, Wynne Evans, Will  Dazeley, Clive Bayley, Sarah Minns and Harry Thatcher).

This meant that, in fact, the first thing he wrote in the opera was the death scene for the character played by Soraya Mafi. This was very much a composing process born of logistics and practicality, yet I get the sense that Alex enjoyed the sheer challenge of working this way, and when we spoke he was working through the opera from beginning to end, making sure it hangs together. Also, because it has been written in such a concentrated burst, Alex has found that similar threads reoccur in the music.

Alex generally works on the quick side, but the fact that he often works at the piano helps. The way he works is to get something down immediately, throwing a lot at the page even if he is not happy with it, and then going back over it and writing deeper into it. Rather than making every bar perfect first time.

He also finds that he writes vocal music rather more quickly than instrumental, partly because he finds himself inspired by text; words being something that he is drawn to, and that he can get under the skin of quickly. Most of Pountney's libretto is in free-form prose, so that first off Alex had to find the musical shape in each scene.

For the opera, a group of people arrive at a tavern (location unspecified), and they decide that in the face of widespread death, rather than resign themselves, or trying to flee, they will have an extravagant feast. So we have a group of characters reflecting on the human condition, some are angry, some are cruel, some are naive, some are funny, and it was this variety which attracted Alex.

The opera is in two parts, in the first we have the arrivals of 11 characters, culminating in an ensemble which is broken up by the policeman (the 12th character, the only bass voice in the cast). Then in the second part there are the departures, most characters die and Death appears at the end (played by the same singer as the Policeman). Whilst the piece is largely dark, there are pockets of humour being one aspect of the different characters' reactions to the situation, so that Susan Bullock's character, who is a clairvoyant, has a cabaret number.

Pushkin's original has been set as an opera by Cesar Cui, Alex has so far not been able to find a performance of this on-line which he feels helpful, and he also points out that Pountney's libretto is a very loose take on Pushkin. There are of course, other operas which the new piece rather invokes. The coming together of a group of characters in an inn rather evokes Gioacchini Rossini's Il viaggio a Rheims (written as an occasional work in celebration of the coronation of Charles X of France), though the Rossini piece is comic rather than tragic. And Alex mentions Thomas Ades' The Exterminating Angel (which he saw twice when it premiered in London and also saw it again recently on the Metropolitan Opera's on-line opera broadcasts). But Alex points out that in Thomas Ades' opera, the characters are in a room that they cannot escape from, whereas in his opera the room is very much an escape from outside.

Alex Woolf & Alice Coote in 2019 (Photo © Wigmore Hall)
Alex Woolf and Alice Coote in 2019 (Photo © Wigmore Hall)
A Feast in the Time of Plague
is Alex's second opera, but it will be the first one to be premiered as his first opera Pandora's Box was due to be premiered by The Opera Story earlier this year but the production was halted by lockdown. Alex had a wonderful time during February rehearsing Pandora's Box with The Opera Story, only for work to stop two days before the dress rehearsal. Luckily, the company managed to put together a filmed version of the opera which was created on the last day of rehearsals, and Pandora's Box will be premiered by the Opera Story in March 2021.

Having seen it come together and rehearsed it, Alex is taking advantage of the gap to make changes to Pandora's Box and rework passages in the light of what he has learned. Both operas are relatively small scale, Pandora's Box has a small cast and a small instrumental ensemble, to be premiered in a former warehouse in Peckham (the CLF Art Cafe).

Whilst this year saw Alex writing his first operas, he has written a lot of choral music and music for the voice. He has known the tenor Nicky Spence for a long time, and wrote a set of songs for Nicky in 2012 and Alex is grateful to Nicky for giving him an early opportunity to learn about developing character in vocal music.

But whilst he is happiest writing for voices, at the moment he feels that it is important to do a lot of different things. A few years out of music college, Alex sees that challenge to be whether a composer decides to specialise, nail their colours to the mast and write a single type of music or to write a wide variety of things. He admits that the first route is tempting, it is easier to capture what you are doing by concentrating on a single type of work, but he wants to become known as someone who can turn himself to different things. So he has been saying yes to all sorts of crazy things!

The next stage of A Feast in the Time of Plague is the one that Alex finds most exciting. The vocal score has been sent off to the singers, and he is looking forward to the feed-back that these experienced performers will give.  Ultimately, he hopes to orchestrate the work and imagines it with a chamber orchestra. He sees there is something quite traditional about the way the work is structured, and so a relatively traditional orchestral accompaniment will work well. And he feels that it might be a good piece for music colleges, as all 12 roles are principals and there are five sopranos in the cast, and there is no separate chorus just ensembles for the singers.

In 2012, Alex was BBC Young Composer of the Year, and he went on to study at St John's College, Cambridge and at the Royal Academy of Music, with David Sawer, Huw Watkins and Oliver Knussen. In 2018, he received the Royal Philharmonic Society Composition Prize, and in 2019 he created Sing for Shelter, a project bringing singers of all ages and abilities together to raise money for the homeless charity, Shelter, and he worked with Sir Bryn Terfel, Lesley Garrett, Alice Coote, English National Opera and 2000 singers to record his song A Place To Call Home which was released as a charity single in December 2019, and has so far raised £10,000 for Shelter.

Alex has sung all his life, he describes himself as having a 'middling baritone', and was in choirs all the way through university. When he premiered his Requiem (in 2018)  it was performed by a group of singers that he put together, people who knew (his Requiem is due for release on the Delphian label this Autumn). He loves writing vocal music, and finds it fascinating that he approaches it from various directions, as musical director, as a singer and as an audience member. As a composer you do not need to be a virtuoso, but when writing for voices or for instruments it helps to have a grasp of them.

If lockdown had not happened, Alex would have been finishing an English setting of the Te Deum for a choral society in Surrey, and that will be the next thing he works on as the performance has been re-scheduled. At the beginning of lockdown he wrote a series of instrumental miniatures of players from London Mozart Players, and he felt that it was nice to know that someone in real life would be playing the music.

When Alex was at the Junior Guildhall his first composition teacher told him that writing music had to be like and itch that you had to scratch, and he starts to feel uneasy if he has a week without making something. So that gaps in lockdown will have been filled with ideas for small-scale choral pieces, a type of music he turns to when he has nothing else on the go.

He would love for his music to sound familiar to an audience but with a twist, and he admits that he does not shy away from the music he loves. One of major heroes is Benjamin Britten, whilst harmonically he describes himself as a fan of American music of the last 50 years. He would hope that people can engage with his music easily but not be completely comfortable with it. Jonathan Dove was something of a mentor for Pandora's Box and Alex admires his work, whilst he also cites Stephen Sondheim for the way music and drama come together in his musicals. With A Feast in the Time of Plague Alex wants his music to be dramatic, in the right way.

A Feast in the time of plague - SImon Keenlyside (Photo Richard Lewisohn)
A Feast in the time of plague - SImon Keenlyside (Photo Richard Lewisohn)

A Feast in the Time of Plague will be performed and filmed on the stage in Grange Park Opera's Theatre in the Woods on 12 and 13 September 2020, full details from the company's website.

Neither of Alex's operas is, understandably, on-line as yet but the following clip of his song A Place to call Home that he wrote for his Song for Shelter project provides a nice sample of his style:

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Zest and relish: Handel's comic masterpiece Semele directed by John Eliot Gardiner with young cast enjoying every minute - CD review
  • Media Vita reconsidered: Alamire's fine new recording takes advantage of the latest research into the structure of Sheppard's great antiphon - CD review
  • Stanford and Howells Remembered: John Rutter and the Cambridge Singers' influential recording returns in expanded format - CD review
  • Contemplative and contemporary: world premiere recording of Ian Venables's Requiem from Gloucester Cathedral - Cd review
  • Songs of our Times: Jessica Walker and Joe Atkins in cabaret for the Lichfield Festival - film review
  • The Invention of English Opera: part two, the brief flowering of English opera, the rise of Italian opera and the development of ballad opera - feature article
  • Thankful to be able to play together at all: the Engegård Quartet on recording Mozart, collaborating with Ola Kvernberg and their festival devoted to Olli Mustonen's music - interview
  • Almost sacred opera: the French group Les Accents in an engaging account of one of Alessandro Scarlatti's oratorios for 17th century Rome - CD review
  • Music when no-one else is near: Michael Mofidian and Julia Lynch live from Glasgow City Halls on BBC Radio 3 - concert review
  • Vienna 1910: the Alban Berg Ensemble Wien in sophisticated and vibrant accounts of works by Mahler, Schoenberg and Richard Strauss - CD review
  • Joyful and imaginative: written for a late-18th century English aristocrat, Tommaso Giordani trios for violin, viola da gamba & fortepiano prove delightful finds - CD review
  • 'Home

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