Ebony and Ivory: Michael Coveney on an Opera That Takes the Notion of the Humble Piano Tuner into Fresh Territory
Coveney, Michael, New Statesman (1996)
Musical theatre and films with pianos in them have come a very long way since Julian Slade's cast of silly eccentrics danced around their magic keyboard in Salad Days and Dirk Bogarde pounded the ivories for England as a frilly-shirted Franz Liszt in Song Without End.
In recent years, we have seen a mute Holly Hunter dragging her precious piano (and daughter) to New Zealand in Jane Campion's The Piano; Isabelle Huppert giving erotic lessons in seduction in Michael Haneke's The Piano Teacher, and Adrien Brody plucking the heartstrings of his Nazi persecutor, and winning an Oscar, as the real-life musician Wladyslaw Szpilman in Roman Polanski's harrowing fable of occupied Warsaw, The Pianist.
Now we have The Piano Tuner, a new opera and surely, soon, a new film (Jude Law is already rumoured for the lead), based on a striking first novel by the young American biologist Daniel Mason. This is the fascinating story of Edgar Drake, a piano tuner in Victorian London, who travels to the imaginary jungle paradise of Mae Lwin, on the border of Burma and Siam, to repair the instrument of a surgeon major, Anthony Carroll, whose practice of music and medicine is attracting suspicion from the British army authorities.
If music can soothe the savage beast, and breast, then perhaps cultural intervention in the Shan states of Burma, where the historic British colonial operation is threatened by warring local princes, can make a difference. That is the book's premise, beautifully clouded in a composition which is part travelogue, part adventure story and part letter home, with various informative and entertaining diversions.
The composer of the opera, Nigel Osborne--who is Reid Professor of Music at Edinburgh University and has been involved with the anti-war group Action for Bosnia--is renowned for using music therapy and education as a means of treating severely traumatised children in Sarajevo and Mostar. His best-known work to date is The Electrification of the Soviet Union, with a libretto by Craig Raine, which was first performed at Glyndebourne in 1987. His music is characterised by a visceral, elemental quality that is both highly dramatic and often related to revolutionary and political themes.
He fell on Mason's novel with a mixture of excitement and relief. "The book not only sang back to me," he says, "it resonated at several levels. Not only because of my belief that music can be a power for good in the world, but also because of this propensity we have for accommodating an outside culture within us. The music I've written reflects Drake's journey as one of tuning and intonation from Europe into Burma. Piano tuners are the most humble and unpretentious of people, and also the most enlightened, as they really have to listen."
Following performances on 8 and 9 October at the Linbury Studio of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden, London, The Piano Tuner can be seen in Sheffield on 18 October and subsequently in Oxford, Mold, Birmingham, Cardiff and Huddersfield. The production is by Music Theatre Wales and the libretto by Amanda Holden, who won an Olivier Award for her work on English National Opera's The Silver Tassie.
The structure of the opera follows that of the novel and allows for the ambiguity at the end, when Carroll's motives are thrown into question and Drake is left chasing the mirage of both his piano and the girl he has fallen for. …