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'Reminiscences' by Bill Harris

Second Part: "Some thoughts on Opera"

I remember when I was repetiteur for a new church opera by Neil Saunders, I arrived rather early at the church, and there was only one other person there, a man who looked like some kind of a workman. He was down on his hands and knees, drawing lines on the floor with a piece of chalk. He turned out to be the lighting man - a most important person in any production, probably more important than I was, for my work was almost over, and his was really beginning.

This set me thinking about the many facets which go to make up an opera production: scenery, costumes, make-up, props, lighting, sets, the chorus master, the director of movement or dance, the advisers on all manner of things - the list is endless, and many of them, unlike the singers, conductor, and orchestra, are not even visible to the audience! When I sat with a singer friend in the canteen at the Royal Opera House a woman passed our table. "She's the French coach", my friend told me. Later the German coach passed us: two experts working tirelessly to get the right sounds of another language into the singers' voices.

Opera is the most exceptional, and the most complicated art-form, but also the most wonderful, in my view.

But what is happening to opera? When I found out that one of my favourite operas was coming up for performance I became excited at the chance of seeing it once again, but later I saw some pictures of the production in a magazine, and I had my doubts. Was it going to be just another of those 'silly' productions? In that case I preferred to stay away rather than having my evening ruined, and one of my pupils, who saw it, confirmed my fears.

I don't go to opera just to hear the music (in this case I knew the score quite well, having played through most of it on the piano). I go to an opera to hear the music in a setting which is the essential background to it, and which, in a good production, makes an ideal partnership with the music. I am not asking for a detailed, 'photographic' set showing every brick in the prison wall (in "Fidelio") or (in an "Aida") camels and pyramids, as in a nineteenth-century production. These things can be subtly suggested: the sea, in "Peter Grimes" or the mountains, in the middle act of "Carmen", but they must be there, and the music will do the rest.

When "Les Dialogues des Carmélites" was brought to the Proms in 1999 by the opera of the Rhine there was, of course, no scenery possible, and the single prop was the bed in which the Prioress dies in the fourth part of the opera. It was, however, for me, the finest and most moving performance of the opera I have seen (much as I liked the ENO production in the same year). What touched me particularly in the Proms production was the exceptional level of the acting, with complete conviction. I did not miss the scenery at all.

What I do not want to see are things which utterly contradict both the story and the music, as was the case with the ENO production of "Fennimore and Gerda", with the floor of the set being painted red, (as we watched), a number of garden urns being thrown into the trap-door, and a couple making love underneath a grand piano!

Delius' beautiful score and Mackerras's fine direction didn't stand a chance in competition with the irrelevant circus going on, on stage! The ENO "Parsifal" in 1999 was also disgraceful. Writing to a magazine which deals with opera I described what we saw when the first curtain went up, and then quoted Wagner's stage directions. These are not unnecessary or fussy or irrelevant. They ask only for the things relevant to the first scene of the music-drama to be visible on the stage. When the curtain rose, what we saw resembled the vaults of a bank! In every conceivable way this production parted company with the composer's obvious intentions, so that all we had of him was the music, which prompts the question of whether it might be preferable not to go to the theatre at all, but to listen to a radio broadcast. The music can sometimes convey so much that an imaginative listener might get more from doing this! Speaking of Wagner' s intentions, one thing which is obvious is his love of nature (as with Delius). The director, in this case, seemed to find nature repugnant, or perhaps he was a hardened city-dweller with an antipathy to open spaces? No smiling Good Friday meadows for him!

If the magazine had only published Wagner's stage-direction to Act I, I think readers would have been in no doubt about what the composer had in his mind, as opposed to things totally alien to him! They are no secrets, they are there at the top of page seven of the vocal score for anyone to read (even opera directors!) (Needless to say, my letter was ignored.)

It was in a mood of foolhardy lunacy that I decided to embark on writing an opera myself! I had gradually armed myself by making a study of some of the great practitioners of the art. From Puccini I learnt (particularly) about stage timing; there is seldom an aria in his operas longer than three or four minutes, and this keeps the concentration of the audience on the story. The libretto is often the first hurdle for the composer (it clearly was a problem for Britten to find the right man for the job.) It did not bother me. I wrote my own libretti, so I didn't have to pay anyone a fee, and also I avoided the chore of having to write "Dear Mr. DaPonte", or "Dear Hofmannstahl," would you mind if I cut out half a page in act two?

I found that the Italians always get things over quickly, whether death scenes or love scenes. The French take a good deal longer - they wallow in death! Valentine in "Faust" takes nine pages of the vocal score to die. The Germans usually take even longer. Mussorgsky has always held a particular interest for me. He is like a talented artist who immediately perceives the character of his sitter, and can make it clear in a few strokes of the pencil or the brush. He can even establish whether this person is lying or telling the truth! "Khovantschina" was a great find for me, and I got to know it well, long before I was able to see it staged. It had a ruptured life: when the composer died he left no full score, apart from a few bits, and Rimsky-Korsakov (who had already orchestrated the 'Persian Dances' with Mussorgsky's approval) had the job of making a full score of the opera, based entirely on the composer's piano score. Stravinsky and Ravel had a hand in one version also, and eventually Shostakovich was commissioned to do a version for the Soviet film of the opera, of 1958 (which I saw). Coming even further forward, I found the ENO production, (which I saw in 2003) superb, and well deserving of the Olivier award.

I mention the case of this opera because it proves that great works somehow acquire a will to survive against the odds: one thinks of Mozart's Requiem, Schubert's eighth symphony, Berg's "Lulu" and Schumann's violin concerto (abandoned by Joachim, and locked away for all those years with an embargo on its performance, emerging, when it surfaced again, in war-torn Germany in the midst of the Second World War!) Then, of course, the most wonderful case of all of a work miraculously saved by a brilliant, persistent musician: Elgar's Third Symphony!

Coming down now from the stars to the dust-heap with a bump, my own operatic adventures brought me into contact with a member of the Delius family, Eleanor Inglefield, the daughter of the composer's youngest sister. When I met her, she was living in north Cornwall, and I had read a book of short stories she had written, one of which I felt would make an excellent small-scale opera. (So far I had written an opera based on a play by W.B. Yeats, with which I became dissatisfied. Eventually I destroyed it.)

I only met Miss Inglefield once, at her home in Cornwall, when we talked about her story, and she gave me full permission to adapt it to my needs and make my own libretto. She came to one of the performances of the opera in London and wrote me a charming letter afterwards.

The opera, entitled "The Woman on the Hill" was a mixture of science-fiction and religion. It was not full-length, but was in two acts and I used a chamber-group, which I conducted. No critics came, but Malcolm Williamson did, writing some very kind words about it afterwards.

There are two stories which have fascinated me for most of my life. One of these is the story of the submerged city of Ker-ys, off the Breton coast, the subject of my next (and largest) opera, "The Sunken City" (in three acts, Prologue and Epilogue, completed in 1992.) I spent years of research before starting to write the libretto, visiting the French Institute in Kensington and the British Museum. I also made three visits to Brittany, exploring areas with possible connections with the story. The opera has not been performed, but recordings of a large number of excerpts have been made.

The other story which has always interested me is "Tristan and Yseult', widely known chiefly through Wagner's opera. I have written three works concerned with this subject, and published a booklet "Tristan and Yseult" - what Wagner left out! ("The Secret Kingdom" was a chamber work: and also a 'Dramatic Cantata', recently recorded following its first performance.)

Performances of operas by British composers apart from Britten are so rare that the public could be excused for thinking that nobody else composed operas in this country. Britten was driven into becoming almost the inventor of the chamber opera, I suppose because this was probably the only medium in which he ever heard his work performed, in the early stages. Like the genius that he was, he made a virtue of necessity, and they remain among his best works.

Rutland Boughton, with amazing persistence and determination, wrote and performed seven operas with the forces he could muster at Glastonbury (according to the list printed in Michael Hurd's excellent book) and they included at least one all-time success, "The Immortal Hour", which ran for five hundred performances when it was put on in London! It is good news that there may soon be chances to see "The Queen of Cornwall" ... (another 'Tristan' opera). I enjoyed "The Lily Maid" when I saw it at Chichester in 1985 under Mr. Hurd's direction.

Despite enormous success world-wide, Malcolm Williamson's "Our man in Havana" seems to have been dropped, and a chance to see "The Violins of Saint Jacques" is surely overdue. Is it really all to do with money, I wonder? With a good production and favourable publicity, would there really be insufficient 'bums on seats'? Perhaps ENO will live up to the first part of its name and surprise us one day!

There seem to be so many operas by some of our finest composers which have never had a proper chance: Arthur Benjamin's "A Tale of Two Cities", Lennox Berkeley's "Nelson", for instance, and Bliss's "The Olympians". There are also brilliant one act operas which would be enjoyable to hear like Arthur Benjamin's "The Devil take her", (which I saw when it was done at the RCM when I was there), Walton's "The Bear" and the Holst one-acters: "The Wandering Scholar" and" At the Boar's Head", a Falstaff opera, with its dazzling array of English folk tunes popping up quite unselfconsciously - the very essence of Shakespeare and Englishness!

Nobody could say that opera has been ignored by British composers! Inglis Gundry wrote fifteen operas, and his former tutor at the RCM, Vaughan Williams, wrote to him after a private hearing of one of them (I have a photocopy of the letter) - "I was struck both by the quality of the music and by its probable stage effectiveness, and I feel that it ought to have a public stage performance: but the question is "how"? In Germany or Italy even quite small towns have their opera house and are prepared to give an opera of any reasonable quality a public performance" ... Following on from Vaughan Williams' point, as we know, Ethel Smyth studied at Leipzig Conservatoire and had some success in Germany, where obviously chances were greater.

Passing on now to 'the big boys,' the top of my list of candidates for attention is Vaughan Williams' Falstaff opera "Sir John in Love". I know there have been performances (some of them concert performances, though), and I have heard broadcasts, but surely it is the sort of opera which could even be a Christmas draw, with all the buffoonery. After all, it's our own subject. If only they would try it one Christmas and give "Die Fledermaus" a rest for once? I have never actually seen it staged! It would be lovely to see "Hugh the Drover" and "The Pilgrim's Progress" once again, too, and given a really whole-hearted production for once, but then, there are so many operas I could add to the list, and all of you will have your own priorities. Do people realise how exceptional Delius' "A Village Romeo and 'Juliet" is?

Well, I think the Germans do. I heard that there was a recording (by, I think, the Kiel opera) of "The Magic Fountain". When I open my score of "A Village Romeo and Juliet" my eye catches, on the title page 'Romeo-und Julia auf dem Dorfe" and 'Universal Edition' - Wien-Leipzig'. Opening the first pages after the curtain rises I see the first notes of the singer, in bold type, are accompanied by German words, with English words below in fainter type. So Delius was setting a German text! Eleanor Inglefield told me that the family always called Delius 'Fritz', not 'Frederick'. Universal were the first to print the score, and the German conductors were the first to play his music, but an Englishman, Beecham, was probably the one who understood it best. Delius was a citizen of the world. He watched the cricket at Harrogate but loved the mountains of Scandinavia and the streets of Paris. He had a Gauguin on his wall and he read Nietzsche!

I can never forget coming out of Sadler's Wells Theatre after seeing (and hearing) that wonderful opera. It was like falling in love!

© Bill Harris

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