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Michael NYMAN (b. 1944)
Man and Boy: Dada (2004)
An opera in two acts with libretto by Michael Hastings
Kurt Schwitters: John Graham-Hall (tenor); Michael: William Sheldon (boy soprano); Mother + old woman, bus conductress, museum guard, BBC interviewer: Vivian Tierney
Michael Nyman Band/Paul McGrath
Recorded Abbey Road Studios, London, Oct-Nov 2004
MN RECORDS MNRCD 101/2 [42:25 + 62:21]

Man and Boy, Michael Nyman’s latest opera, is the first major work to appear on the composer’s own new label, MN Records. I had the opportunity to meet Nyman recently to discuss the recording [interview].

World premiered at Karlsruhe, Germany, in 2004, this recording is of the London Almeida Opera production that soon followed. Reviews of the staged performances have, on the whole, been very favourable although some of them were peppered with patronising swipes at the music, something that Nyman must be used to by now. At worst there were implications that the power of the dramatic experience was down to the quality of Michael Hastings’ libretto rather than to the music. Here’s an example I read recently: "His jerky vocal lines seem to serve merely as a device to put forth Hastings' superb, absorbing libretto ... In the long run, Nyman does little more than set the mood and supply background accompaniment for the text". This is to stand on its head the old joke that Peter Greenaway’s films (e.g., the cult movie, The Draughtsman’s Contract) were vehicles for Michael Nyman’s music. That critic, writing about Man and Boy, in my judgement was not listening to the music and certainly not understanding its contribution to what I think is a fine opera. Like most successful operas, Man and Boy is the result of a fruitful partnership between text and music: in this case, an active, creative collaboration between composer and librettist.

The story is a fictional one about the real-life German artist Kurt Schwitters, washed up in London at the end of the war after internment by the British, and his relationship with a schoolboy who he meets on a bus. The characters are brought together because both are on the same quest: that for London bus tickets. Schwitters, a collageist, needs them for his art while Michael collects them simply because he does. So at the same time there is bonding and mutual lack of comprehension of each other’s motives. The third main character, Michael’s mum, provides tea, love interest and an ear for Schwitters when recalling the agony of his losses of the past and fears for the future.

The music of the opera opens with a haunting, nostalgic theme of rising seconds and drooping thirds that switches suddenly, after little more than a minute, into a short, jaunty motif that conveys the comedic incongruity of a boy and an elderly man scrabbling for the same discarded bus ticket. These two themes emerge as important leitmotifs that not only have dramatic contextual relevance but help to provide the work as a whole with a musical unity, lending some symmetry to the two acts which are otherwise very different.

The construction is of nineteen short scenes, tempting one to interpret this as reflecting the collage nature of Schwitters’ art. Each one often has a musical rigour of its own. A frequent practice is to employ repeating bass lines that clearly derive from Nyman’s love for the music of Purcell and specifically of his ground bass forms. The film music for The Draughtsman’s Contract, which employs actual bass lines by Purcell, is a tribute to that composer. Purcell’s habit was usually to make his melodies irregularly cross over the end of a bass line and the beginning of its repeat. This sets up a tension between the solid, restrictive progress of the bass and a melody that appears to want subversively to free itself and take off. Nyman does not employ that method but in The Draughtsman’s Contract, the screeching soprano sax of the Michael Nyman Band behaves analogously, sounding as if it wants, like an aspiring rocket, to free itself from the earth-bound bass and head skywards for the stratosphere.

In Man and Boy, Nyman wisely abandons the aggressive forces of the Michael Nyman band and resorts to something nearer a more conventional, classical chamber ensemble. This means, among other things, that the treble, William Sheldon, does not have to compete with a soprano sax. It also allows the voices to float more easily over Nyman’s textures and to be able to generate the tensions with the bass that I mentioned above. For example, when Michael and Schwitters are riding on a bus and Michael sings that they should "go to the end of the line" – there’s an aspiring metaphor - the dynamic accompanying music becomes more rooted in simplicity: harmonically, melodically and rhythmically. Another example of how Nyman’s procedures illuminate the text is in a scene where Schwitters visits Michael in his bedroom. Compared with Schwitters, Michael, with his child-like certainties, has his feet on the ground and his immaculately tidy room with its neat collections of tickets, reflects this as does the music. Throughout the scene there is a bass line that starts as a whole ten-bar long ground, strictly repeating at first then subtly varying as it progresses (more Handel than Purcell that) without ever losing its solid, comforting integrity to the ear.

The three singers perform with confident magnificence, reflecting experience gained from the stage performance, conveying the separate traits and aspirations of their characters in a way that contributes to a touching and moving dramatic experience. Anyone present at the premier in Germany, where the part of Michael was sung by a woman, would, I dare say, have found it difficult to imagine a boy coping with the part. William Sheldon, in the company of two experienced opera singers in John Graham-Hall and Vivian Tierney, certainly does cope, both vocally and interpretively.

The instrumentalists under Paul McGrath are, I believe, experienced performers of Nyman’s music and this shows in the dynamic confidence of the playing. Fans of the Michael Nyman Band, once they get used to the composer’s more restrained and subtle scoring in this work, will be able to revel in some delicious chamber textures.

The neat booklet contains fascinating short essays by composer and librettist on the genesis of the work. Both men describe the personal biographical elements that add strength to the enterprise. The opera text is published in full although you might need the eyesight of someone of Michael’s youth to deal with the small print.

Michael Nyman told me he thought that the recording should stand as a musical drama in its own right and not having seen the stage production myself I think it certainly does. "Abstraction is the name of the game", says Nyman, suggesting that a major strength of the work is the way it conveys the psychology of its characters. That is, I believe, to underrate the opera’s narrative strength. I cannot think of a good opera that has not got that strength. Man and Boy has, in literary terms, got a page-turning momentum to it: you want to know if the man and the boy are going to meet again, will they come to understand each other, will Schwitters get off with Michael’s mum, and so on. This aspect is not wholly dependent on stage performance.

I earlier accused some critics of being patronising about Nyman. I hope I won’t be accused in turn when I say that I think this opera represents a significant step forward in his development as an opera composer. I, for one, look forward to sampling the fruit of the next collaboration between him and Michael Hastings.

John Leeman

 

 



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