Interview from The Opera Group

Posted on Saturday, September 3, 2011

The Opera Group posted a brief interview with me about the two projects I'm working on with them next year, so I thought I'd replicate it here. The two projects in question are Fire, commissioned as part of the 20x12 PRSF Cultural Olympiad initiative by The Opera Group and Salisbury Festival. Fire will feature choirs from festivals around the UK, including Salisbury, Brighton and Spitalfields, together with fire artists The World Famous. The second piece is the chamber opera The Firework Maker's Daughter, a co-commission with ROH2, featuring librettist Glyn Maxwell and based on the story by Philip Pullman.

David Bruce
What attracts you about Philip Pullman's book The Firework Maker's Daughter ?  

Philip Pullman wrote that he once came across some stage designs for an old play called The Elephant of Siam or The Fire Fiend and that he was so intrigued by the title that he ended up writing this story to fit it. There was similarly an instant appeal to me in writing an opera that featured a singing elephant, a jungle and a huge firework competition. There's nothing better than an impossible challenge! The story Pullman wrote really is genius - it has the deceptively simple richness of an old folk tale, and yet its themes - the empowerment of a young girl; the challenges of growing up; the importance of friendship - seem much more relevant and less didactic than many Victorian tales.

I don't think of the piece as an 'opera for children' - call me a big child, but it's just a story I'm interested in. And in any case, I much prefer Pullman's suggestion that our aim should be to write something, about which people say "that's so good, even children will
like it".

You are also writing another piece for The Opera Group in 2012 – a collaboration with a live fire artist - Is there any links between your writing for Fire and The Firework Maker's Daughter?

It's a funny coincidence but no, there's not really a connection, other than my general interest in nature and the elements. I'm also drawn to things that in literature would be called 'magic realism' - the sort of magic and mystery found in our every day lives. There's plenty of that in The Firework Maker's Daughter; and the Fire piece seems to be turning into a kind of prayer to the mystery of fire.

Where do you write? In a garden-shed? At a computer?

I have a very cluttered room at home full of papers, scores, instruments and computer screens. I guess I use a weird mixture of hi-tech and lo-tech. I have a veritable orchestra of instruments and will often experiment on them to come up with ideas. This hands-on, physical aspect of a piece is very important to me. Other times I will get an idea while I'm out for a walk and sing it into my iPhone recording app! Alongside that I tend to write and even sketch directly
onto the computer and I really enjoy being able to chisel away like a sculptor at the structure of a piece as I hear it through the computer speakers. For all the flaws of computer-playback, this aspect really allows my imagination to soar. 



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