Out of the Shadows

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Exploring big themes: composer Luke Styles chats about his posthumous collaboration with Benjamin Britten in the new opera Awakening Shadow

Luke Styles
Luke Styles

On 4 July 2021 at Cheltenham Music Festival, conductor George Vass and Nova Music Opera will premiere composer Luke Styles' new opera Awakening Shadow, except that the opera isn't quite by Luke. The piece that Donna Lennard (soprano), Ralph Thomas Williams (countertenor), Christopher Bowen (tenor), Bradley Smith (tenor), and Felix Kemp (baritone) will perform is a posthumous collaboration between Luke and Benjamin Britten as Awakening Shadow incorporates all five of Britten's canticles. The work has had rather a long path to completion, as Luke explained when I chatted to him.

In 2013, Luke was composer-in-residence at Glyndebourne, and they asked him about creating an opera that combined his own original music with three of Britten's canticles. This work, Wakening Shadow, which combined three canticles with four scenes by Luke, was premiered at Glyndebourne in 2013, directed by Daisy Evans and conducted by Vladimir Jurowski, as part of the Britten centenary. Four years later, three different companies were interested in Wakening Shadow but wanted to use all five of Britten's canticles and have a smaller cast with fewer instrumentalists.

So Luke returned to the work and asked himself, 'can I use this?' The answer was no. It wasn't just the complexity of working in the two extra canticles and reducing the number of performers, in the intervening eight years Luke had developed as a composer so he decided to create the work anew. The result is Awakening Shadow which mixes Britten's five canticles with six short scenes by Luke (a total of 30 minutes of music). Luke candidly admits that the new work would not exist if he hadn't been asked to create Wakening Shadow by Glyndebourne back in 2013.
Luke Styles & Benjamin Britten: Wakening Shadow - GLyndebourne Festival Opera 2013
Luke Styles & Benjamin Britten: Wakening Shadow
directed by Daisy Evans as Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2013

Britten's canticles are a relatively disparate group, written over 27 years (1947 to 1974) they explore a variety of ideas and, perhaps, were never quite intended as a grouping. Luke describes the new opera as relatively abstract, exploring the themes of faith, light and dark, and love - big themes - all leading to a conclusion that has a more humanist point of view.

Luke's first scene is wordless, exploring the idea of the emergence of language, giving a sense of the pre-human era before the Old Testament story of Abraham and Isaac. Luke's subsequent scenes set passages from the Old Testament, including Psalm 19, correspondence with the astronomer Johannes Kepler about the discovery of a new star (which could be the Star of Bethlehem and links to the three Magi in Britten's fourth canticle, The Journey of the Magi), and poetry by Shelley and Byron.

When Luke wrote Wakening Shadow in 2013 he was very concerned about the flow between his music and the Britten, but in the new opera has been less concerned about this. The new piece uses extended vocal techniques (which relate to the work's exploration of the emergence of language), before developing into more choral textures further through the work. Also, Luke uses different voices to Britten's canticles so that soprano Donna Lennard only sings in Luke's music.

Luke Styles & Benjamin Britten: Wakening Shadow - Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2013
Luke Styles & Benjamin Britten: Wakening Shadow
directed by Daisy Evans at Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2013

But that said, he has ensured that there is a sense of harmonic connection, so that ends and beginnings of Britten's pieces relate to Luke's and the opening E flat from Abraham and Isaac becomes very important in Luke's music. Harmonically the two musics relate as well; Luke feels that it is important that the resulting work is coherent, but that it is clear that there are two composers.

In a way, Britten's canticles are so iconic that it seems rather daring, sacrilegious even, to tinker with them. But Luke points out that they are rather disparate, in terms of texts, themes and the forces for which they are written. Each of Britten's works is written for a clear voice or voices whereas Luke's scenes are more fragmentary and explore more of a sense of community rather than individual characters. He feels that the resulting work has the feeling of zooming in and out on details.

After Cheltenham, the work goes to the Presteigne Festival in August (where George Vass is artistic director) and there is a third destination (not in the UK) which cannot be announced yet but which Luke assures me is definite.

Luke Styles: Ned Kelly - Perth Festival 2019 (Photo Toni Wilkinson)
Luke Styles's Ned Kelly at the Perth Festival 2019 (Photo Toni Wilkinson)
as part of the Lost & Found Opera season held in an old timber mill in the town of Jarrahdale

Luke has written quite a wide variety of operas from youth operas to Ned Kelly to Macbeth, yet all the works are Luke. He points out that Britten was versatile, Friday Afternoons, Death in Venice and the folk-songs are all very different, yet all are clearly Britten. Luke sees Britten as being a good, practical composer, writing different music in different contexts and this is something that he seeks to emulate.

One of the advantages of Awakening Shadow was that Luke was able to write exactly what he wanted, as all the performers are well-established professionals and the scenes are all short so he could write short, intense moments rather than having to use a broader brush and consider the larger canvass of a full-scale work. In that sense, it is very different from his large-scale operas Ned Kelly and Macbeth.

He sees the music of Awakening Shadow as being closer to a work that he wrote Juice vocal group and Consortium Five, Stratagem for light, except that he has had a decade's worth of experience since writing that piece!
 
Luke's teachers included George Benjamin, Wolfgang Rihm and Michael Finnissy, three composers known for the complexity of their music and I wondered how Luke's music reflected their influence. Whilst he learned a great deal from each of these, he feels that his music is closest to that of Wolfgang Rihm. From Rihm he learned a deeper feeling for harmony, and tries to follow Rihm's advice not to put anything into a piece out of a sense of obligation; if you want just a major third or a trombone blasting just one note, then do that. Luke tries to trust where his ear takes him. His period studying with Rihm enabled him to listen to his voice the most. Rihm would talk a lot about accent and clarity, and Luke sees Rihm's music as being rhythmically clear and clarity is important to Luke in his music.

Luke Styles's Ned Kelly at the Perth Festival 2019 (Photo Toni Wilkinson)
Luke Styles's Ned Kelly at the Perth Festival 2019 (Photo Toni Wilkinson)

Two of his major operas, Ned Kelly (which premiered in 2019 at the Perth Festival in Australia, commissioned by Lost and Found Opera, directed by Janice Muller, conducted by Chris van Tuinen, see the review in The Guardian) and Macbeth (which premiered at Glyndebourne in 2015, directed by Ted Huffman, who also wrote the libretto, and conducted by Jeremy Bines, see the review in The Guardian), are narrative works and people know the stories already (that of Ned Kelly particularly in Australia), so that familiarity is the key. And his word setting is lyrical to make them understandable. Both have moments that use tonality, not necessarily in a functional way but to help anchor people and give them aural relief. But Luke finds that people also respond well to clear theatrical gestures, after all an opera is a complex mix of words, music and more so it is asking a lot of our brains.

Luke is Australian, though based in the UK, and I was interested to find out whether he thought of his music as Australian. He came to the UK when he was 18 and has lived here 20 years, all his adult life encompassing university, marriage, children and making a home. Yet his formative childhood years in Australia play a strong role in shaping his internal musical voice. He feels that there is something deeply formative about where you are as a child, and it relates to how you make art so that the light in Australia affects the artists and he cites the work of Sir Sidney Nolan. There are also other factors, Luke sees Australian society as having a lack of deference to tradition with no hang-ups about class. When he started studying at the Royal Academy of Music some British students felt rather out of place, but he lacked that baggage.
  
Then there is the matter of what an Australian composer or Australian music might be. There is a weight of history behind Austro-German composers. So much so, as to be inhibiting for young composers, Luke feels, and when he studied with Wolfgang Rihm in Karlsruhe only two of the eight students were German. But it is a lot harder to define Australian music, whereas Australian film, writing and visual art have particular cultural identities. Particularly film where Luke sees a lot of Australian B movies from the 1970s and 1980s as defining its identity.

Luke Styles: Macbeth - Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2015 (Photo Robert Workman)
Luke Styles: Macbeth - Glyndebourne Festival Opera 2015 (Photo Robert Workman)

In classical music, there is also a hang-up about Australian composers proving themselves against the European tradition so that there is an Australian sound but it is being slow to come out. And, in a point against himself, he mentions that it does not help that so many Australian composers go abroad and stay.

As to the sound of his music, he feels that it sometimes does indeed sound like Britten but he thinks that this is partly the effect of setting the English language and he cites the influence also of composers such as Purcell and Tippett. He sees a certain clarity of language as unifying composers of the English speaking world. But he points out the Australian music did not have the influence of an influx of a large number of European artists that the USA did in the 1930s and 1940s.

In Australia, Luke went to a music, drama and dance high school and initially wanted to be an actor (and was in a feature film whilst still in Australia). The idea of being an actor stayed with him until he was 15. He had an enlightened music teacher who introduced him to the music of Luciano Berio (1925-2003) and György Ligeti (1923-2006) at school and this opened up his perspectives. Also, he realised he wanted more control over what he was creating than is usually given to actors. So, at the age of 18, he came to the UK and started studying at the Royal Academy of Music.

But his training as an actor informs his music. When he was appointed composer-in-residence at Glyndebourne it was for three years, and it was explained to him that whilst Handel and Mozart were creatures of the theatre, composers tended to not do that anymore so to rectify this the role at Glyndebourne was for three years, giving him a chance to embed himself in the theatre. He continues that when you write opera you have to live and breathe it, know it and love it, not simply come to the form when you are 40! And it helps that his acting background means that he knows 20th-century theatre as well as 20th-century composers.

Luke Styles
Luke Styles

His own top two composers are Wagner and Britten, with Stravinsky a close third. But at high school and as second study at the Royal Academy of Music he was a jazz double bass player so a love of jazz informs his musical soul too and he feels you can see it in his music. He admires musicians from Miles Davis to funk bands like Parliament.

Looking ahead he is writing a concerto for one of the BBC orchestras and an Australian orchestra, to be premiered in 2022, and has is working on commissions for two big song cycles. During the pandemic, he spent time in Australia and wrote a symphonic song cycle, No Friend but the Mountains (premiered in March 2021 in Melbourne. This set texts by Behrouz Boochani, an author held in the Australian internment camp on Manus Island who smuggled his texts out piecemeal as text messages on his phone. The resulting book, No Friend but the Mountains, won awards (much embarrassing the Australian government as Bushani was not allowed to attend), and Luke's song cycle uses texts from Boochani's book [you can read more about the work and how Luke created it at his website). The Australian Broadcasting Company (ABC) has a documentary planned about the new work. Luke regards the work as important, not just because of Boochani's position in Australia but because the UK government is considering off short detention too.



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