How not to write an opera

How not to write an opera

Matthew Hilton

I don’t know how it is with you, but when I get hit by heartbreak I busy myself with charity work. So there I was, unpacking books at the Amnesty International fair in Carcassonne, France, when right in front of me in silver letters on navy blue was: Gangs & Countergangs.

I pulled the book out of the box; it opened at a photograph of a bunch of people posing with what looked like fake weapons. They looked as though they had dressed from a thrift shop: crumpled hats, raincoats tied with string and floppy trousers, posed like a corny sculpture in memory of something or other. Something in me clicked. I said: opera.

Heartbreak had turned into a conduit. I read the blue and silver book and scholarly works and memoirs giving all the angles on the Mau Mau Rebellion in British Colony Kenya in 1953. I invented seven characters and inhabited them. Cruising the local industrial zone I became the female lead, Kioni, looking for someone to kill. Snatches of lyric, costume sketches, movement diagrams went down on paper. My focus held: a melodrama - the cast singing soliloquy rather than clumsy dialogue.

He felt that would threaten the integrity of his vision and wanted me to wait. We had a fight and that was that.

Down the line a kindly insider named Bill Bankes-Jones of Tête à Tête said, “I’ve never heard of a libretto that hadn’t first been commissioned through a composer.” I never thought then that I was swimming against the tide. I kept at it. Though I knew little about the opera world, music had touched the inside of my life. Mother was a concert violinist and worked nights. She would stand at our door, her evening dress covered by a tatty raincoat and wave bye-bye.

At a summer camp, fourteen years old, I was cast in Mozart’s Die Entführung aus dem Serail as the deaf mute. Fame.

When I’d done a first draft I showed it to a musician friend. He grooved on it and said yes. Music was his life. But he was also a family man with a swimming pool to support. I asked him to lay down a medley of what he wrote onto a DVD to send to funding agencies and production companies. He felt that would threaten the integrity of his vision and wanted me to wait. We had a fight and that was that.

I wanted a score built up from improvisation, chanting the text and having drums guitar sax pick up and into it.

Time passed, life changed. But Mau Mau - the Opera had bitten deeper than I thought. I unburied all I’d written: the blocks of text, the scattered notes and sketches, laid them out, re-sequenced them, dropped and added and wrote a second version. I went to The Composers Site and placed an announcement. I used the phrase “baroquely perverse with its roots in fact”. I had the smoke dream that the piece should hit audiences in the old colonies, both for its wide range of forms of English and for historical shirt-tail tugging. I posted off to opera companies in South Africa, Australia, Canada. I cooked up an opening phrase “…a person like me can never imagine how busy a person like you must be.” Zilch.

A young Australian composer who happened to be coming over to France got in touch. His probing of the libretto was live and deep and I heard enough of his music to think it possible. We met by the river Dordogne, flowing smooth between old stone banks, children dodged round the table where we talked, matching sun hats and beers. He conjured up some fragments on a synthesiser but I wasn’t convinced and told him so. He sent me more snippets after he’d flown back and I hung my faith on him, sent some hard found cash and signed a home-made contract.

Is my piece really such a monster?

At the end of that process his version exists, but I had caught the tail of a better idea listening to Kenyan entertainers of the fifties and sixties. I wanted a score built up from improvisation, chanting the text and having drums guitar sax pick up and into it. I re-framed the project as a summer school workshop and started looking for hosts.

Then I had my show-biz lucky break. At least that is how I understood what happened. Scanning the Guardian, I caught English National Opera’s new boss saying how shocked he was by the whiteness of the company. I zapped off an email direct and, saints alive, a reply came asking me to forward my libretto. Suddenly, as pilots say, the holes in the cheese lined up and my thing was on someone’s desk face up. After a two month sit upon they ask me to call them with a day and an hour. I call every twenty minutes that day. They apologise and re-arrange. Same thing. No further contact, deathly hush. They make me feel like Hitler’s mother. Is my piece really such a monster? And then came COVID and they said everything is on hold so I’m busy re-writing it for radio, five bursts of nine minutes each. Coo-coo - is there anybody out there?

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