WRITING NEW OPERA
A composer's perspective, by ROBERT HUGILL
Amongst the decisions to be taken by a contemporary composer contemplating writing an opera are the questions of style, not just musical style but dramatic style, what shape will the opera take? In the past this was relatively straightforward, but in our fragmented modern world, lacking a consistent stream of commissions from opera houses, a composer must make decisions about the dramatic shape of the opera itself rather than inheriting a style from his peers and predecessors.
In the last few years London has seen a variety of operatic styles in contemporary opera. But narrative opera has rather been favoured by the recent high profile Royal Opera House and English National Opera commissions such as Nicholas Maw's Sophie's Choice, Thomas Adès's The Tempest and Mark-Antony Turnage's The Silver Tassie. In fact, with the exception of operas by Sir Harrison Birtwistle, few of the major houses ever seem to risk performing new opera which does not have a linear narrative.
But this can be a tricky style to bring off. If based on a pre-existing literary source it requires good skills of compression from the librettist. More importantly it does rather require a librettist -- few composers have the skill to be able to turn a full length drama into an opera of reasonable length. This is where we come up with one of the things that make writing opera both a pleasure and a pain; it is a joint activity requiring co-operation between composer and a number of other people. This is where the pitfalls and egos come in. But, given a sparse enough libretto, one with plenty of space around the words, a composer can fill in the gaps with music. The result transforms the drama -- after all, few people would consider performing Wagner's Ring cycle libretti without his music, their dramaturgy leaves too much out. Problems occur, though, when composers work with a librettist who is a dramatist at heart, they try to tell the story using too many words and forget that the audience are unlikely to hear many of them.
Copyright © 9 November 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK