<< -- 3 -- Robert Hugill WRITING NEW OPERA
It helps, I suspect, to have a strong, unembarrassed relationship to the past. By this, I do not mean that you must slavishly follow past forms. But having a good understanding of past operatic form means that you can make firm decisions about what to include, or in fact what to reject. There have been one or two composers who have taken an interesting side view on operatic narrative. David Sawer in From Morning to Midnight chose to present a series of scenes as snapshots of the action rather than developing the narrative; a way of encapsulating the Expressionism of the original Georg Kaiser play. And Judith Weir in her Night at the Chinese Opera, with its complex story within a story construction belies my previous stricture about composers writing their own librettos.
One of the more successful of the forms taken by recent opera is that which examines, even deconstructs, existing myths or archetypes. This is the sort of non-realistic, even non-narrative structure which opera is best at, presuming on the audience's knowledge of the basic myth/archetype to add extra experiences and information. Taking the basic story as read enabled Michael Berkeley and David Malouf in Jane Eyre to create a succinct dramatic construction which illuminated the original characters in a way that would not be so easy in a long narrative opera. This sort of form can take many variants and the most obvious British example is the work of Harrison Birtwistle whose distinctive operatic oeuvre deconstructs and re-presents myths in various ways.
But if you want to de-construct something, then you need to understand what you are deconstructing, so the breaking down of operatic form itself can be a shaky business. Practitioners who, through ignorance or disdain, ignore previous operatic constructs can find themselves simply creating a shapeless mess. It is here that genius helps; genius always finds its own way and the history of opera is littered with those who broke all the rules and still created something vital. After all, when Beethoven wrote Fidelio he was using the rather hackneyed form of rescue opera. But if we study the gradual transformation of the material, from its first incarnation (now commonly called Leonora) to the final form, we can see genius creating a masterpiece out of the commonplace.
Copyright © 9 November 2004
Robert Hugill, London UK