Beer is good. It’s particularly good after a long, hard day at the office. It enters another realm of significance entirely when you are attempting to sing a contemporary opera for the first time.
Today is the dress rehearsal of Ryan Wigglesworth’s first opera, an adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale.
Ryan, with whom I first worked at Birmingham Opera Company, has been composing this piece for several years now, but his ideas have been germinating for much longer than that.
You’d think that he’d have enough on his plate, what with composing and conducting his own opera and libretto, that he wouldn’t have time for the pub, but he’s such a patient, kind, and considerate colleague that there’s always time for a ruminative restorative at the end of the day.
I, on the other hand, have rarely recently been as capable of such equanimity.
For Leontes, King of Sicily, this opera is all about jealosy, rage, loss, and regret. There’s much ranting, gnashing of teeth, pain, and angst. And that’s just from trying to get my head around the music.
After a full day of rehearsal, I was generally reduced to a withered husk of a human being. If the IPA in the pub across the road had been called anything more complicated than “Bibble”, I doubt very much I would have been capable of ordering one.
Contemporary music is tough. In a quarter-century spent singing opera, Richard Strauss, Britten and Tippett were as contemporary as I ever got. Imagine, then, the cumulative shockwave that the uncommon intervals, rapidly changing time signatures, difficult pitching, irregular rhythms, and demanding vocal placements of Ryan’s devilish invention wrought upon my musical self-perception.
I felt like the village idiot.
To say that I am not fluent in the musical language of contemporary opera is a colossal understatement.
Needless to say, it’s all like water off a duck’s back to Ryan, who, I’ve decided, is therefore like a cross between Albert Einstein and Mr Miyagi. Feelings of musical inadequacy are not helped when stood next to Polixenes, contemporary opera legend, old mate, and fellow beer-lover, Leigh Melrose, a man for whom rearranging his larynx like a Rubik’s Cube to satisfy the whims of modern composers is but a trifle.
And not just him, either. The staggering level of musicianship shown by all the singers – Sophie Bevan, Sue Bickley, Neal Davies, Sam Price, Tim Robinson, Anthony Gregory – left me feeling like the new boy at school.
I couldn’t even bury my head in the acting side of things, because the director, Rory Kinnear, is something of an expert in that department.
Nothing else for it then, but to swallow my pride and throw myself into the thick of things. And now, several weeks later, and thanks to the forbearance of all the aforementioned saints, not to mention the infinite patience of a music staff that must have felt like hanging themselves every time they saw their name crop up next to mine on the weekly schedule, I’m almost there. I think.
Of all the things I’ve learned recently – I have difficulty counting to five, major 7ths are my least favourite interval – I think the most important is just how difficult life is for an opera composer these days.
Opportunities to compose and stage a full-scale opera are few and far between, and budding operatic geniuses never get the chance to develop their compositional skills with anything approaching the frequency of their famous forefathers.
You’re unlikely to get six masterpieces from six commissions. You’d be lucky to get them from ten times that. In order for composers to fully develop, they need lots of practice, and for that they need support. Creating an opera takes time. It’s not exactly a knock-one-up-in-the-garden-shed-on-my-day-off kind of profession (although, ironically, Ryan himself favours a shed at the bottom of the garden). Composers need time, space, and financial freedom to create.
In order for opera to sustain itself as a viable art form, we simply can’t keep repeatedly performing old repertoire that has been around for generations. We need new repertoire to keep things relevant. We need new operas, new stories to tell. We need Ryan, and other composers like him, to write. And write. And write.
To all those generous opera lovers with deep pockets who keep us all in work, year after year, please consider commissioning a new opera, instead of financing yet another Bohème or Butterfly. You would be doing more than any government to save our wonderful art form for future generations. And our composers will be eternally grateful for it, and, who knows, might even come up with the next Peter Grimes or Salome in return.
It has been an honour and a privilege to have been invited by Ryan to join him on his epic journey, and I feel confident that the public will admire and enjoy the fruits of his labours.
If only his Leontes can get his act together.
If anyone is looking for me afterwards, I’ll be the gibbering wreck in the corner of the pub with Polixenes and Albert Miyagi.