Operatic vernacular


Listening to the London Road recording reminds me not only how effective this production was but how the vernacular style of speech and singing is immediately engaging for me. I think back to my interest in the Aberfan disaster of the sixties and how hearing accounts of the event by those in the community was very moving; seeing the photography exhibit – by an artist whose name escapes me – was also very powerful due to the subjects being the survivors and those who lost children. Art really does imitate life more than life imitates art in this respect. Perhaps hearing the colloquialisms of a community and a regional accent makes something real; London Road was of course musical theatre and immediately detached from the real yet the accents somehow were an interface to the real experiences of the residents on London Road. The composer did an incredible job in matching the inflection and intonation of the verbatim speech – reminding of Janacek’s operatic writing. Ultimately I am wondering whether the vocal style indigenous in art music and opera is right for the story I hope to tell. Does this style of singing detach a story from reality with such a distance we somehow disengage on an emotional level? I suppose the surrounding music – if any – draws an emotional response due to the burden of association. Writing a musical makes me indecisive about the voice I want for a future music drama; musical theatre or opera?

There are many operas that deal with subjects that would seem to demand the voice of the vernacular but have thrived in an opera house – such as Anna Nicole. For me, this particular opera needed the opulence of the operatic stage to mirror the opulence and decadence of Nicole’s life; one could say the operatic voice captured her own dislocation with reality through her obsessive transformation of her appearance. Doctor Atomic needed the grandeur of the opera house to capture the nature of the subject matter and perhaps the writing was less bel canto here but certainly the chorus writing was far more instrumental then vocal. Can opera be a vehicle for something more personal, more recent? Does it thrive on subjects that are removed from our own experiences sufficiently for us to suspend belief and be swayed by the narrative?

Writing a musical was unexpected but a welcome addition to 2011. Amidst the mockery of whether I could write ‘tunes’ I rather enjoyed composing lines that were singable by all – young performers with small ranges – and something that would be retained by the listener. Harmonic materials were my priority in encouraging clarity in the mood and character of each song, and to help support the prevailing character of the surrounding text and complete work. The scoring allowed me to add another layer that coloured each song’s intent. I tuner my thoughts to a younger voice, often free of training and the projection afforded an older voice, and felt these voices were utterly correct for this show. I occasionally lamented that older voices would help carry the musical material more effectively but there was something honest about the younger voices. They captured the words and meaning with such rigour that they became believable. Watching the show added a layer of dislocation I had not experienced when conducting, nevertheless the sound world of this work was more compelling than I initially envisaged. The next step would be to explore greater musical cohesion in a similar work, in fact greater musical continuity.

The Animals and Children Took to the Streets showed me that the synergy of animation, music, singing and movement can inspire truly fascinating works. I loved the brevity of it – well, relative brevity at over an hour – and the consistency through which the style of the work was delivered right down to the handing out bags of ‘Granny’s Gumdrops’ before the show. The production inspired me to think there is still a great deal to gain from opera and music theatre and somehow I hope to create a work that can add to the tradition of one or the other. The composer in me craves to write opera.

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