Music Webmaster: L.Mullenger@coventry.ac.uk
AND MY SCHOOL OPERA
THE HORSES OF THE DAWN
MY FIFTH OPERA
It was when staying with the Crossley-Hollands at their delightful home in the Chilterns that Peter took me into the valley to meet Antony Benskin and his parents. Of course I had known him by sight for a long time, as we were contemporaries at the Royal College of Music and he had taken prominent parts in most of their shows, but I had never spoken to him. I little dreamed that I would one day become best man at his wedding or that he would become best man at mine.
After leaving the Royal College of Music he had become a singing teacher of growing fame. I snapped him up for my "Sir Timothy" in Avon and he was to become the old father in The Tinners, but what mattered in the end most was that he noticed my "composers voice" when rehearsing Avon and offered to make it more effective.
I have never ceased to be most grateful for these singing lessons. He used to stay with us at Mill Hill when working at the Dinely studios and in return gave me these voice production lessons free of charge. No one who has not had such lessons can realise how important it is to learn to produce the voice properly.
I had had lessons in singing from Dawson Freer, but he had never taken me to the basis of the art as Antony did. The great secret is what Antony calls "basing". A tenor has to imagine himself a baritone, a baritone a bass, a soprano as a contralto, a contralto as if she were a man. The lower you develop your voice the higher you will be able to go. If the tenor tries to make himself consciously higher he will end in a screech. This applies to speakers as well as singers. So many speakers with high voices imagine, when faced with a larger hall than usual that they have to "raise their voices" when really they have to lower it. If they try to raise their voices, they will end in an inaudible screech, which may damage their vocal chords. It is pathetic how little people know about this.
Public speakers are often among the most ignorant of these truths. They are apparently not taught anything about voice production at their colleges, or if they are, it is just to rely on electrical aids, which is about the worst advice that could be given them for as everyone with a naturally open throat knows, electrical gadgets only succeed in blurring the sound of people who are lucky enough to retain the open throat from childhood. What is necessary is the cultivation of this "open throat" if you are not lucky enough to possess it naturally, and if this is so, as it is in most cases, the best way to cultivate it is through "basing" in singing in a large hall.
It is pathetic to see a musical actor carrying in a microphone on the stage. I always feel like shouting in my basic tone; "Why cant you use the voice God gave you?" I feel like crying "Throw the wretched thing away and learn how to speak."
It was 1950 and the "Powers that Be" announced that something should be done to celebrate the occasion. Among these was a competition for a school opera sponsored by the Council for Social Services. They proposed to approach a number of composers to write operas suitable for schools and also held an open competition, for librettos for these composers. Needless to say I was not one of the composers accounted worthy of being approached. I had only written four operas and was therefore quite unsuitable for being asked to provide a fifth! Better to approach composers who had never written an opera than one who was tarnished by association with the communists!
However I thought I would enter for the libretto competition, which was anonymous, so I only had to invent a pseudonym.
What I decided to do was to translate one of Euripides plays which might be used as a school text and present it in the form of an opera libretto with spoken dialogue but with opportunity for music, song and traditional numbers.
I chose the most tragic of all Euripides plays the "Rhesus".
Rhesus is a young Prince who comes late to join the Trojan forces with the boast that he can quickly finish off the War which is in its tenth year. He naturally raises the suspicion and dislike of the old stagers like Hector, who have been doing their best for the last ten years to win victory for Troy.
To this I joined a scene from Homers "Odyssey", in which Odysseus extracts the Trojan password for the night from a captured spy and with its aid manages to raid the Trojan Camp, kill the boastful young Rhesus and carry off the famous Horses as a prize for the Greeks.
The Trojans are left with their old champion Hector, to carry on the war as best he may.
I knew that this was the kind of story that might go down in a school, and after I had translated Euripides "Rhesus" and added my bit from Homers "Odyssey" I sent it in as one of the possible librettos.
The Council for Social Services accepted it as one of their librettos and it was chosen by one of their composers but when he found out who had written it, he promptly sent it back to me with the injunction: "You had better set it yourself." It was in this roundabout way that I came to write my school opera though I had never been one of the original composers approached.
So I set about composing music for what I had expected to be set by another composer. I tried hard to think back to my school days and imagine how it might come off at a place like Mill Hill. I knew that a school with a musical tradition such as Mill Hill used to be in those days could muster a few baritones and one tenor and I knew that there might be one boy soprano capable of taking a solo part. I thought that most of the chorus would be trebles and altos (i.e. boys that were about to break their voices). I also knew that most of the orchestra would be recorders and percussion with a strong pianist with possibly a few friends of the School who took part when invited.
My first result received the approbation of Mr. Bernard Shore, who wrote "This is just the kind of work to recommend for performance in schools." I was hoping that such recommendation might lead to something or that my old school might take it up. But though Berty Ricks, who was then the reigning play producer, seemed quite keen, the musical staff did not back him up. No doubt they feared that it would mean a lot of extra work for them in addition to the usual routine. So the idea was turned down.
Though I have now reached the nineties, I still hope to find a School that has the "guts" to put it on and have promised to dedicate the work to that school, of whatever kind it may be. So the first one gets the dedication.
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