Giving birth

Posted on Thursday, March 14, 2013

(Chroma and the cast in the sitzprobe for The Firework-Maker's Daughter)

It's the third week of opera rehearsals, and things are building to a head. The premiere is less than 10 days away and next week the whole crew moves up to Hull for the final week and the premiere in Hull Truck. Tonight is the 'sitzprobe' - the first time I'll get to hear orchestra and singers together. It does feel a little like I'm in the delivery ward and experiencing all the worries, stresses and exhaustion of an expectant father.

The first time the singers+piano ran through the whole show last week, I was left with one of those feelings familiar from instrumental rehearsals. Things are still at an early stage and so inevitably many things aren't right yet. 99% of the things that aren't right everyone involved is totally aware of, that's what these things are for. Next time they will remember to take a breath here, or move that prop over there and next time it will go infinitely more smoothly (as indeed it did only a couple of days ago). But it's inescapably quite upsetting to see your baby mangled in this way. Many young composers who arrive in their first instrumental workshops you will see in some kind of state of bewildered panic/anxiety at this point. I've learned through bitter experience it's just something you have to sit through and trust all will come right. It's funny though that you still have the feeling even if you learn to handle it a bit better.

Somehow this was all compounded for me last week by the arrival of George Benjamin's Written on Skin at the Opera House. It's a piece of mesmerising beauty, and one of those very rare entities - a new opera that actually works. It feels like the fulfillment of everything George's music has promised for so long. As my mum could tell you, I tend to be highly critical of new operas and the fact is statistically inescapable that almost all of them will be failures in one way or another. And although there were a few aspects to Written on Skin I could criticise, it felt like something so deeply thought-through and successfully navigated, so beautifully finished, I could only shout for joy 'so this is possible'! From where I stand today, I take that only as a positive, but caught up as I have been in my operatic labour ward, it made me feel very inadequate for a day or two. A good job my arrogant ego always fights its way back in the end!

Speaking of egos, nice to fulfill one minor life ambition and get myself on a poster on the underground:


Jonathan Bennett commenting on Giving birth:
Monday, March 25, 2013 at 10:48

The reason I googled David Bruce today (I had never heard of him before) and posted this comment is because I was a member of the lucky audience at The Firework Maker's Daughter on Saturday night. It really was an amazing event and I want to thank composer and collaborators, and spread the word that this is a piece not to miss.

What I found extraordinary - almost unbelievable - was the way David Bruce's writing fell so naturally and completely into the operatic genre. Even some of the greats are at times self-consciously operatic, but right from the beginning the audience completely accepted that this was a story that had to be told in this way. The music, the words, the stage direction were all integrated in sucking us in to being totally involved in what was going on. It is impossible to imagine that anyone who goes along won't love it.

Thinking back at the end, I would be intrigued to know what the opera would feel like from the musical point of view alone, on CD or if Radio 3 broadcast it (and I hope they do). I suspect that the flow of musical emotion that worked so well on stage would stand on its own too. However you would listen to it in a different way, I think you would become more aware that operatic conventions are present (arias, recitatives, ensembles, etc) and the way they are used to build and release tension, create humorous relief, and portray the characters and their journey.

However it was the total performance which convinced so well, so in that sense the credit is wider than the composer's. The five singers gave it their all, but the fact that they could do so without any sense of strain or sounding uncomfortable does reflect the musical achievement. The direction was very clever, allowing development of characters even though the same singers doubled up to create other parts, and with ingenious use of shadow puppetry to allow some of the less stageable parts of the story to fit seamlessly with the action acted out. It is notable that it creates a part for a countertenor which completely lacks the feeling of artifice which often goes with that voice.

The programme mentions that David Bruce was in a way inspired by Magic Flute, and some of the references are explicit - for example there are trials of fire and water. However the real similarity is the way it sucks the audience in to a world which is magical and surreal, combining a moral allegory with issues of relationships and moments of witty humour. In the same way it surely deserves to enter standard repertory - and I would like to think that organisers of chamber opera ensembles around the world take notice and think of scheduling it.

The opera is based on a children's story, and advertised as suitable for children of 8+ quite a few of whom were in the audience (including my own daughter). But in a sense it isn't a children's opera, any more than Hansel and Gretel or La Cenerentola are, it is a grown up opera which is totally compelling for its audience even the younger ones. There was not the slightest sign of any fidgeting among those children who were probably past bedtime at the end - but I think it is just as remarkable that there was no fidgeting among the adults. How often is that true for a 2 hour piece of modern classical music?


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