I’ve always been interested in collaborative art forms. Some of my very early and most joyful memories are of being taken by my wonderful mother, grandmother and uncle to see plays, musicals and ballet. The magic of words, music and movement coming together to stupendous effect at these performances has continued to inspire me throughout my life.
Up until a couple of years ago, my musical collaborations had been on a relatively small scale and involved me working with one or two musicians and usually performing the words myself (for instance, the music and poetry project OPUL that I share with my partner, James Iremonger). However in 2014 I was accepted onto the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme, and it was through that amazing experience that I met a group of extraordinary composers including Samantha Fernando and Lliam Paterson. At one of the residential weeks in Aldeburgh, Lliam asked if I might be interested in writing a libretto for a new opera company. It was such an exciting offer! The company was brand new, based in London and interested in making new opera in new ways, with young artists in unusual spaces. I jumped at the chance.
He explained that the idea for the first project was to create a new operatic version of Snow White. I loved this idea and remember an enchanting walk Lliam and I took through the fields of rushes at Snape Maltings, discussing the many narrative and temporal possibilities for setting the drama. One of the ideas that was always very core to the project was to draw on early myths and tales that pre-date the somewhat cleaned up version of Snow White that many of us know from the Disney film. The Opera Story, as the new company was to be called, would keep story at the forefront of their operas and this was great news for a writer. In some opera projects – as we had explained to us during the Jerwood Opera Writing Course – the libretto is the starting point but also seen to be of less importance than the musical components which come next.
Writing the libretto was a completely gorgeous experience. Since my first collection of poetry, Condition of Fire, which was a response to Ovid’s Metamorphoses, I have enjoyed working from and reimagining pre-existing texts and stories. When engaging with such rich material, the challenge is to find your own way to tell a very well-known story, and opera adds in its own challenges in that often when set to music some words can be lost. This may be for many reasons – when we sing words the timing of the sounds change, the pitch and volume modulate and all this is set against a musical backdrop that may support or compete with the singers. On the other hand, thankfully, there are so many ways the music, set, direction and acting can enhance the communication of the story, and in this case the fact that Snow White was such a well-known tale to begin with was ultimately very freeing.
Often poets are recruited to write libretti, as they are ideally able to use language in a way that is concise and rhythmic, even musical. This can make the job of the composer easier as you can imagine how difficult it could be to set a novel or even a typical play to music. A poem, if working well, can communicate much without having to use too many words, and the spaces in poetic writing offer room for music and drama. My libretto isn’t a poem or a play, but some mixture of the two specially designed for the operatic form.
Unfortunately Lliam ended up not being able to compose for this opera, though for good reasons as he had too much other work on his plate, and instead the folks at The Opera Story came up with the brilliant idea of inviting not one but three talented young composers to create the music, one for each act. I first met these fabulous composers, Lucie Treacher, Lewis Murphy and Tom Floyd, at a full day workshop at the home of Artistic Director, Hamish Mackay, nearly a year ago. Executive Director Manuel Fajardo joined us, and together we discussed the intricacies of each scene and character. It was such a special experience to have all these creative brains working together to envisage how the story would evolve. With the help of the three composers, the brilliant director James Hurley who brought so much research and insightful observation to the process, and the kind support and input of Hamish and Manuel along the way, we got to a point where the libretto was ready to pass on to the composers and my role was, essentially, complete.
As months have passed since I submitted the final draft of the libretto, I can hardly contain or express my excitement at the prospect of finally getting to see the finished opera at the Bussey Building in less than a week’s time. To have an idea begin as a poetic spark in one’s heart and mind, and to be so close to seeing it blazing in full voice, music, light, costume, set and drama on stage, is almost more than I can comprehend. It takes me back to the joy of those early childhood memories, when stories shimmered to life on stage in a way that was truly magical.
I want to express my gratitude to all the many, many people involved whose hard work has brought Snow to life, and I hope you will be able to join us at one of the performances in London this week: http://theoperastory.com.