Saturday 10 February 2024

A Star Next to the Moon: Stephen McNeff on his new opera, based on Juan Rulfo's Pedro Páramo, a seminal novel of magic realism

On 26 February 2024, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama gives the premiere of Stephen McNeff's new opera, A Star Next to the Moon,

On 26 February 2024, the Guildhall School of Music and Drama gives the premiere of Stephen McNeff's new opera, A Star Next to the Moon, in a production directed by Martin Lloyd Evans and conducted by Dominic Wheeler. The opera is based on the iconic novel, Pedro Páramo by the Mexican writer Juan Rulfo, with a libretto by Aoife Mannix.

Whilst the A Star Next to the Moon is new, it has a long and somewhat complex journey to fruition. Around 15 years ago, Stephen wrote some pieces for a festival in Mexico. The festival invited him there and he met the pianist Ana Cervantes who introduced him to pieces that she had commissioned and recorded based on the work of Juan Rulfo. Stephen became fascinated by Rulfo's work, particularly his only novel, Pedro Páramo. Pedro Páramo is an iconic novel in the Spanish-speaking world where people know of it from school, but outside of the Hispanic world, the novel remains unknown. 

Juan Rulfo (1917-1986) was a Mexican writer, screenwriter, and photographer best known for his 1955 novel Pedro Páramo, and the collection of short stories El Llano en llamas (1953). The novel tells the story of Juan Preciado, a man who promises his mother on her deathbed to meet Preciado's father for the first time in the town of Comala only to come across a literal ghost town, that is, populated by spectral characters. During the novel, these ghostly inhabitants reveal details about life and the afterlife in Comala, including that of Preciado's reckless father, Pedro Páramo, and his centrality to the town.

Stephen calls the work a seminal novel of magic realism. It is a short book where apparently normal people make odd things happen. He immediately thought that there was an opera in there, somewhere, but had no idea how to approach it. Then whilst John Lloyd Davies was at the Royal Opera House, in 2010, they held a workshop where they spent a week on ideas for the opera with six performers and instrumentalists. The idea for the opera was not picked up, and Stephen had so much else going on at the time that the idea languished.

Then on another trip to Mexico, Stephen met Juan Rulfo's family who are active in promoting his work, yet also protective of it. Rulfo was not just a writer but a photographer as well, and possibly better known as such. Unfortunately, the family were not persuaded about an opera based on the novel. So Stephen moved on.

Then Dominic Wheeler, who had conducted those workshops in 2010, became head of opera at the Guildhall School, he was interested in the idea of the opera and there were workshops with students in 2014. Stephen made another approach to the Juan Rulfo Foundation, though this had to be through Stephen's agent. Initially, the foundation wanted the money upfront but finally softened and two years ago, Stephen got the rights. Finally he and Dominic Wheeler were ready to do the opera but the pandemic came along. This year is only the second year since the pandemic, that there was been a clear full academic year.

Stephen began work on the opera with a particularly good group of students. Dominic Wheeler asked him to meet the students early, a year ago, and spend a week working with them. Each sang for him and chatted to him so that when he was doing serious work on the opera he had a firm idea of who he was writing for. He found this wonderful, having a good impression of who there are. He was able to send drafts of the music to the singers, checking things like tessitura. Then he took himself off to Italy to do the main work. He points out that it is hard work writing an opera, wherever you are, and that even in Italy he remained in communication.

By the beginning of the Autumn term, the singers had the vocal scores. As soon as work on the Respighi double bill was finished at the end of the Autumn term, they could open his score. When I spoke to Stephen at the end of the Autumn term he was now going through with each singer, building on the work from last year and as a result doing any changes or revisions, with rehearsals properly scheduled to begin on 8 January 2024. He comments that nowadays it is hard to get this sort of development process outside of the academic environment.

Stephen emphasises that the new opera is not a student piece, when working with Guildhall School he can treat the singers as young professionals with no compromises. The opera is a multi-character piece and so maps onto the students well. Whilst there are two or three prominent roles there are no minor ones, so it suits the needs of the performance. The opera is called A Star Next to the Moon because the Juan Rulfo Foundation did not want Pedro Páramo as the title.

Stephen's earlier opera, also with a libretto by Aoife Mannix, Beyond the Garden [see my article], which premiered in Slovenia in 2019, received its UK premiere in 2022 with performances at the Lichfield Festival and the Three Choirs Festival, but he is still hoping for a London premiere. His other operas have also 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].

Stephen McNeff’s latest opera, A Star Next to the Moon, receives its world premiere at The Guildhall School on 26 February 2024, at the Silk Street Theatre. Full details from the Barbican website.

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