In the Spotlight: King - a Cathedral Opera

Article excerpt

Judith Monk watches the opera and talks to the composer, Stephen Barlow

On 28 April I sat beneath the soaring columns of the nave of Canterbury Cathedral in the warmth of the late afternoon sun, streaming through the leaded windows, waiting to see a brand new opera called King. Intrigued from the moment I learned of its creation I watched as the small orchestra, which contained all the usual suspects, along with a harp, tabla and some sizeable percussion, assembled at the foot of a stage placed before the steps to the quire of the Cathedral. These steps were the very place where Thomas Becket was murdered on 29 December 1170.

King, with music by Stephen Barlow and libretto by Philip Wells, is the story of the initial friendship, then enmity, between King Henry II and his Chancellor, then Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. Philip Wells is a performance poet and alongside the production of the opera King, worked with several local junior schools as part of an educational project, which developed some extra material spoken by six children who took part in the opera.

Wells acted as a bridge between the time represented on stage and the audience in the present. Drawing the children with him, he taught them about Becket and Henry and asked them to voice their own thoughts on what they were immersed in. This they did with startling candour and insight. One said: "Maybe Henry is really sorry"; another "Maybe they're tired of being angry."

The action opens with the audience slowly becoming aware that the cathedral choristers, offstage, were singing the rhyming Office composed posthumously in Becket's honour by Benedict of Peterborough, Prior of Canterbury Cathedral, who was present when the Archbishop was killed. The 13th-Century manuscript containing Benedict's work was secretly retained by the monks at the Cluniac Priory in Lewes in defiance of an order to destroy all copies by King Henry VIII.

The singing was serene, magical and spiritual but the mood was suddenly dashed by the sounds of clashing swords on stone and a deathly moan, as out of sight on the steps Becket was slaughtered and the opera proper began.

Philip Wells adopted his role of Listener, drawing us into the atmosphere and creating a link to that terrible time, until Becket, superbly played and sung by Philip Joll, says: "Can you hear me?"

The words are finely crafted into a story you really want to hear. Philip Wells' voice has crystal clarity, floating perfectly through the vast space. Becket was joined by Robert Burt's King Henry and the two showed us how a loving friendship was destroyed, not just by the politics of the day but by Becket's inability to be faithful to more than one King. …