Primetime TV for new opera

"There are good and bad pieces in every style but the thing that does worry me is the enormous prominence in broadcasting to some really very wooden sounding music. To take the most obvious example the Górecki 3rd Symphony, how can anything which has so little life in its sound be so important? There are other composers I don't mind mentioning in the same category like Pärt and Nyman. I don't understand how the situation has arisen that there is so much of this, and I fear commercial interests are behind a great deal of it"

Fighting talk from a fighting lady whose new opera about a fighting subject gets prime TV airtime on the UK's Channel 4 on Christmas Day. Judith Weir (above) is one of the most widely performed contemporary composers from the UK. Her 50 minute song cycle was commissioned by Jessye Norman, while We are Shadows was composed for Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her most recent work includes The welcome arrival of rain for large orchestra written for the Minnesota Orchestra, and Tiger under the Table for the London Sinfonietta. She studied composition with John Tavener while at school in London, and with Robin Holloway while at King's College, Cambridge . For six years she taught composition at Glasgow University and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, and she has also held visiting professorships at Oxford and Princeton Universities.

Judith Weir was born in Cambridge of Scottish parents, and as a contemporary Scottish composer numbers Sir Peter Maxwell Davies and James MacMillan among her peers. Theatre, narrative and folklore are important to her, and she has written three full length operas. In collabaration with storyteller Vayu Naidu she created the musical narrative 'Future Perfect' (header picture) which has been performed in England and India. She is a true evangelist for contemporary music, and it is interesting that the three contemporary composers that have featured recently On An Overgrown Path have all been women, Odaline de la Martinez, Jane O'Leary , and now Judith Weir.

An approach to composition as uncompromising as her views on Górecki is another characteristic of Judith Weir. Her new opera Armida (picture below) is a retelling of Torquato Tasso's 16th century poem Jerusalem Delivered. The original is a romantic story about a Christian crusader and a Muslim witch. Some pretty illustriuous names have already turned the poem into operas, including Gluck (1777), Rossini - which created one of Maria Callas' greatest roles (1817), and Dvorak (1904). But Judith Weir is undaunted. In her contemporary setting Armida is turned from Muslim sorceress into an 'embedded' TV news reporter covering a middle-eastern desert war. The opera has a strong anti-war message, and in the closing scenes war-mongering is replaced by what the composer describes as 'cultivation and repose'. The music is scored for a group which is a hybrid of half chamber ensemble, and half jazz band.

Pretty heady stuff. And if you can receive UK commercial TV Channel 4 you can see the whole 50 minute opera on Christmas Day,thankfully interrupted by just one commercial break. The photo to the right is from the TV production.

Judith Weir's uncompromising outlook was reflected in her music for BBC Radio 3's Private Passions programme. Here is the choice of music of one of our most wide-ranging contemporary composers:

* Trad. arr. Copper, 'The Sweet Primroses,' Bob and Ron Copper Topic TSCD 600
* Stravinsky, Oedipus Rex (excerpt from Act II), Tatiana troyanos (jocasta), Lajos Kozma (Oedipus) / Chorus and Symphony Orchestra of RAI Rome / Claudio Abbado Memories HR 4128
* Brahms, Sextet No. 1 in B flat Opus 18 (second movement), L'Archibudelli Sony SK 68252
* Kevin Volans, White Man Sleeps (first movement), Smith Quartet Landor CTLCD 111
* Trad., Dzil Duet (from Accra, Ghana), performers unknown Nonesuch 7559-72082-2
* Britten, 'Carol' (from Sacred and Profane), The Sixteen / Harry Christophers Collins 13432
* Bach, Gloria (from Mass in F, BWV 233) Gächinger Kantorei Stuttgart / Franz Liszt Chamber Orchestra of Budapeat / Helmut Rilling Hannsler CD 98924
* Loewe, 'Herr Oluf', Kurt Moll (bass)/Cord Garben (piano) Harmonia Mundi HMA 1905171

There is an excellent article on Judith Weir's opera Armida on the Guardian web site
Opening quotation from BBC Radio 3 web site, listen to the audio file via this link -
Programme broadcast on 13th December 1997.
Listen to the latest BBC Radio 3 Private Passions programme
with this link.
Information reproduced from
Private Passions by Michael Berkeley, published by Faber ISBN 0-571-22884- 4
Report broken links, missing images and other errors to - overgrownpath at hotmail dot co dott uk
Image credits:
Header - Scene from Future Perfect linked from Vayu Naidu Company
Judith Weir - BBC
Scene from Armida –
Image owners - if you do not want your picture used in this article please contact me and it will be removed.
If you enjoyed this post take An Overgrown Path to Cure for Marin Alsop fatigue


Garth Trinkl said…
Excellent post, Pliable. Thank you. I don't believe that one will again see made-for-television operas in America for at least another generation. (Menotti's Amahl and the Night Visitors was commissioned by U.S. television. It was well received, and repeatedly broadcast for several subsequent years.) And I don't know whether there are still UNESCO Prizes awarded for television operas -- probably there are E.U.Broadcasting Union Prizes for television operas.

Also, I believe that Ms. Weir taught at Harvard, a few years back, as well as at Princeton. (She was at Harvard, I believe, the year before Harrison Birtwistle was there.)

Ms. Weir's Blond Eckbert was well received at Santa Fe, I recall, in Alison Chitty's production.
Garth Trinkl said…
Thanks, Henry, for pointing out that Judith Weir's "A Night at the Chinese Opera" was also done by the Santa Fe Opera. After I posted I recalled that, like Blond Eckbert, it was also done there.

I have the NMC recording of the "Night at the Chinese Opera", with the Maoist-era Chinese photo on the cover, but I don't think I listened to it more than once. I'll have to try to listen to it again this weekend.

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