Julian Anderson speaks about his forthcoming opera 'Thebans'

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There can be few events in a composer’s life more thrilling than the birth of an opera. In Julian Anderson’s case it appears everything has been pointing to this moment. Following prodigious talent and international acclaim in just about every major genre – orchestral, choral, ensemble, chamber, dance – at 46 Anderson is about to release his first opera, Thebans. It is a timeless and thrilling tale: Anderson has worked with his librettist, the celebrated playwright Frank McGuinness, to re-work Sophocles’ Oedipus trilogy, a myth filled with murder and incest, political ambition, love and loyalty.

The opera has been commissioned by English National Opera and the much-anticipated premiere will be given in London on 3 May (performances run till 3 June). The superb creative team includes celebrated director Pierre Audi, conductor Edward Gardner and an outstanding cast of ENO regulars: Roland Wood as the tormented Oedipus, Susan Bickley as his wife/mother Jocasta, Julia Sporsén as the doomed Antigone, and Peter Hoare as Creon.

The opera is a co-production with Theater Bonn which will give the German premiere in May 2015.

Julian Anderson speaks here to Sonia Stevenson about Thebans, its inspiration, structure and music.

How did the opera come about and how does it relate to your other works?

‘In 2006 Ed Gardner, English National Opera’s Music Director, approached me after hearing the premiere of my chorus and orchestra work Heaven is Shy of Earth at the BBC Proms. In a sense, the music I wrote for that work’s mezzo-soprano soloist – who not only sings lines from an Emily Dickinson poem, but takes on the character of Dickinson herself – was a pre-study for an opera. Neither was this my first foray into operatic writing. Unbeknown to most, in 1999, between commissions, I quietly began sketching an opera based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest. The sketches went well, but at that stage I didn’t feel ready to tackle an entire opera and the manuscript went in a drawer (I hope to return to it someday). In the meantime, however, I was drawn to the Oedipus trilogy which I had studied at school, and when the commission came through from ENO it was clear to me that this would be the perfect subject.’

What in particular attracted you to the Oedipus tale?

‘One of the most important aspects of this trilogy lies in the fact that none of its characters are perfect. At one end of the scale you have (in Oedipus at Colonus) the elderly Oedipus at the seemingly wise and holy end of his life, who nonetheless speaks a terrible curse upon his own son. And at the other, you have Creon who is appallingly flawed and brutal, but has equally attractive and persuasive qualities. These inconsistencies, these changes of heart, are what fuel the music. Opera is a rare medium where multiple meanings coexist simultaneously; where a character’s words can tell you one thing, but the music tells you another. From the first moment I read the Oedipus plays I was immediately struck by the feeling that these characters needed to sing.’

How much have you stuck to Sophocles’ narrative and how has that informed the way your music unfolds?

‘There is some debate as to what order Sophocles’ plays should be presented in. The chronological order puts Oedipus the King first, followed by Oedipus at Colonus and finally Antigone. However some, myself included, feel that placing Antigone in the middle adds extra meaning to the way the drama unfolds. My opera represents the three plays as one grand narrative. Act 1 covers Oedipus’ time as arrogant king of the plague ridden city of Thebes and his subsequent fall from grace as he becomes the scapegoat for the city’s ills. The music changes with his character. Act 2 races forward in time to when Creon has taken charge of the city. He is a suave and persuasive speaker who preaches simple answers with Stalin-esque consequences for the people he comes to subjugate. The music here is initially very rigid, with restricted rhythmic writing and monolithic lines, but breaks down into something much more flowing as the people rebel. Finally Act 3 returns in time to the point of Oedipus’ death in a sacred wood outside Athens. He searches for an ending just as the music searches for a place to return to. As he finally steps forward into a great light, the music gathers itself into an almighty crescendo; emphatic, yet on the point of something else.’

You have gained respect in many genres, especially for the vividness of your orchestral writing and for the affinity with which you write for chorus. How have you gone about writing for each – orchestra and chorus – in the opera?

‘From the start ENO wanted a work that would use all their forces, especially the chorus. The Oedipus plays could not be a better vehicle. The opera uses the chorus in many different guises. In Act 1 they are in dialogue with the characters and commentate on the action. In Act 2 they aid, abet and argue, starting as victims singing in a mindless obedient way before breaking rank as chaos ensues. In Act 3 the chorus is entirely off-stage and their ethereal voices conjure up the sounds of nature and the voice of Zeus. In this, as in other factors, I was partly inspired by Janáček who uses his chorus to evoke the voice of nature in some operas.

The role of the orchestra is even more important and needs to be as flexible as possible. It adds another voice to the drama; one that can subvert just as much as it supports. For instance, there are moments when two characters are locked in tension, but I hold back the orchestra deliberately; only later does it erupt. It’s important to constantly think dramatically and this has stretched my musical vocabulary, making me think and reflect. This is thrilling; in fact this project has been the greatest thrill of my life.’

Opera is by its very nature a collaborative effort. How have you found the process of collaboration?

‘Firstly I was privileged to work on the libretto with the wonderful writer Frank McGuiness, whose Sophocles adaptations are the basis of the opera. Frank has an extraordinary sensitivity to the needs of opera and was happy to cut (and allowed me to cut still further) so that the text is not only sing-able, but truly thrilling and memorable in its brevity. I have also had enormous pleasure working with the creative team at ENO, with the director Pierre Audi whose work and musicality I have long admired, the designer Tom Pye who has brought to life some glorious recent productions, and Ed Gardner, without whom none of this would have happened, and who has conducted my music many times. Finally, my thanks go to ENO’s Artistic Director, John Berry, for his invaluable support for the project. This dream team allowed me to do what I needed to do. The opera has evolved and is different from when I first imagined it, as it should be. The drama is vivid and strong; I don’t want people to know what’s hit them until they’ve left the opera house.’