Thursday, August 10, 2006

Librettists are functional necessities

It was Craig Raine who said that librettists are to opera what toilets are to theatres. So when someone from the Edinburgh festival asked if I'd be interested in writing the words for a newly commissioned opera, I hesitated. I've never thought of what I do as a mere functional necessity. I told the composer Stuart McRae (left) that I'd spent most of my life listening to music and I was pretty clear about what worked and what didn't. I didn't exactly quote Mark E Smith - "I've got a layman's ear: if it sounds rubbish to me, it's rubbish" - but I could hear his voice in the background. Having said that, as a resident of Huddersfield and an occasional attendee of its world-famous contemporary music festival, my definition of what works can be fairly loose. I've been present during symphonies for 25 biscuit tins and solo trombone, or that type of thing, and sometimes I've laughed out loud, sometimes I've walked out, and sometimes I've been moved to tears. So my understanding of music isn't confined to tunes you can whistle in the bath.

You can't whistle Stuart's music in the bath. Stuart's composition, it seems to me, is about texture and performance. It demands attention, and possibly because it is music that challenges and takes risks, the linguistic component deserves a kind of clarity and certainty. At least, when I put this to him, he didn't disagree. I was also relieved to see him nodding when I expressed reservations about the use of contemporary dialogue in opera. It might have been a risky statement, coming from a contemporary poet who rejoices in the modern idiom, and directed towards a contemporary composer who turns tradition on its head. But we seemed to be in firm agreement that operas in which posh-sounding sopranos sing lines like, "Do you want pizza or a burger for tea, Kevin?" to which posh-sounding baritones respond, "Don't worry, sweetheart, I'll get a pie in the boozer," could only be comic or unbearably ironic, and we wanted to be more sincere than that.

On reflection, collaboration is probably the wrong word for a project like this. I did my bit - it took me about three months, on and off - then I sent it to Stuart, who worked on it (and is still working on it, in rehearsal) for over a year and a half. And even though it would be semantically incorrect to say so, the collaboration was all Stuart's work. He had to shape the noises around the words; he had to make things fit. The point is, I suppose, that as someone who can read and write, Stuart understood that that came from me. But as someone who can't read music, can't play an instrument, doesn't listen to much opera and has never worked on a libretto, my contribution was always going to be limited.

Poet Simon Armitage describes his experience of working as librettist on Scottish composer Stuart MacRae’s opera The Assasin Tree in today's Guardian. The Assassin Tree has its world premiere at the Edinburgh Festival on August 25. For the full story follow this link.

Stuart MacRae was born in 1976, and his teachers include Simon Bainbridge and Robert Saxton. His most recent works include Two Scenes from the Death of Count Ugolino (a setting of passages from Dante Alghieri’s Inferno) and Three Pictures. The former, which was commissioned by the Gulbenkian Foundation of Lisbon with support from the British Council, was performed in Lisbon and Birmingham by Loré Lixenberg and the Birmingham Contemporary Music Group conducted by Susanna Malkki in February and March 2005. Three Pictures was commissioned by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra which gave the première in Glasgow in May 2005 under the direction of Oliver Knussen.

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