Magazine article The Spectator

Small Can Be Beautiful

Magazine article The Spectator

Small Can Be Beautiful

Article excerpt

English National Opera staged a revival of a new opera at the end of June this year - an opera that the company had commissioned, developed and given its premiere in February 2000. The Silver Tassie by Mark Anthony Turnage, with a libretto by Amanda Holden, based on the play by Sean O'Casey was reviewed enthusiastically when it first appeared and attracted good audiences. The same was true the second time around. These circumstances are extremely unusual. Setting out to write an opera is a daunting and enormously timeconsuming undertaking, and successful new operas these days are as rare as hen's teeth.

Back in the glory days (well, comparatively) of the early Nineties, both the Royal Opera and ENO established studio projects to encourage and stimulate the development of new work. One of the simplest but most beneficial things that ENO was able to do was to open some of its stage rehearsals and all its dress rehearsals for composers and writers to attend. It may seem blindingly obvious, but if you're trying to write an opera you need to go to hear as many of them as you can, learn how other people have done it, dissect how certain musical effects are created and why particular dramatic structures work. As the Hungarian composer Peter Eotvos said, when asked for his advice to young opera composers, 'Before you do anything, spend five years in contact with a theatre.'

One way in which the necessary creative risks can be gauged is by working with composers and writers before a major work is undertaken and, crucially, by first commissioning works on a smaller scale. The only way in which anyone can learn how to write an opera is by writing one, but it doesn't have to be on the scale of Gotterdammerung or, indeed, The Silver Tassie. Hugely valuable lessons can be learnt about the alchemy of music and drama by writing for two singers and a piano, or three singers and a string quartet - 20-- minute pieces, even five-minute ones.

The conductor David Parry, who has assisted at the births of more new operas than most people ever get to shake a stick at, is robustly pragmatic on this point. 'I don't think anyone should get a big opera commission before they've written several small ones. And not all composers are suited to the form anyway. It's a bit like the Holy Grail of conducting the Ring - composers think that at some point they "ought" to write an opera. The only possible reason for them doing so is if they have an overwhelming passion and instinct for controlling dramatic time through music.'

A great advantage of writing for smaller forces is that the resulting work has the potential to reach many more people, as it is easier and more economically viable to take on tour. This is where the enterprising small companies like Almeida Opera, Music Theatre Wales and Tete A Tete come into their own. Between them they take new operas all over Britain, getting good audiences and offering opportunities both for composers and writers to cut their creative teeth and for revivals, sometimes in reduced orchestrations, of pieces by more established figures such as Peter Maxwell Davies and Nigel Osborne.

What none of this should be about is simply giving people the chance to experiment for experiment's sake. The point is to find out the best, to identify quality and put it on display in the best possible circumstances. Tete A Tete's artistic director, Bill Bankes-Jones, has, over the past few years, commissioned two sets of six 20-minute new operas - called Shorts and Six Pack. …

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