Violet, Tom Coult’s first opera, opens the 2022 Aldeburgh Festival next month on 3 June. The 85-minute piece with a text by writer Alice Birch (Anatomy of a Suicide, We Want You to Watch) tells the story of a parochial, traditionalist community whose time quite literally disappears. Each passing day grows progressively shorter, losing more hours every time.   

The opera, Coult says in a break from rehearsals, is about “what people do with their last hours…Do they escape? Do they go down with the ship? Do they do things they otherwise wouldn’t dare?” The titular character, trapped in an unfulfilling marriage and community, is “the only person in this village who, rather than being terrified, is elated because something is finally happening to her.”

The role of Violet is sung by soprano Anna Dennis, with her husband played by baritone Richard Burkhard. Dennis previously premiered Coult’s song cycle Wholesome Counsels at Oxford Lieder in 2021. Their Maid, “a sort of confidante”, says Coult, is sung by Frances Gregory, with tenor Andrew Mackenzie-Wicks taking the role of The Clockkeeper, who maintains the village’s central clocktower.

Coult’s score will be performed by 13 instrumentalists of the London Sinfonietta, conducted by Andrew Gourlay.  Alongside the ensemble, audiences can expect “a few treats I’ve smuggled in”, which include pitch pipes, dog clickers, two metronomes, honey spoons, and a Kalimba (a 17-key thumb piano). A departure for Coult is in the use of recorded and electronically-treated sounds in the opera, which he has devised with the assistance of composer Jasmin Kent Rodgman.  

The experience and perception of time is an ongoing preoccupation of Coult’s music. This was seen in his 2011 Piano Trio “The Chronophage”, which explores processes of acceleration and deceleration, and is partly inspired by the lurching movement of the Corpus Clock in Cambridge. His 2013 work for chamber ensemble Four Perpetual Motions also experiments with musical mechanisms, winding up and down its fast and slow material in contrary motions. Wholesome Counsels sets texts that consider moments of intense action (‘how to escape from a fire’), periods of anticipation (animals sensing weather), as well as instances of regret and melancholy remembrance.

Coult has pointed to various influences on the piece. “Alice and I discussed a couple of Lars von Trier films - Melancholia and Dogville - a fair bit”, he says. “The former because of the way the end of the world comes but nothing can be done about it …The latter because of its insular village setting, but also the way it has these ritualistically demarcated scenes.”

Another inspiration was Florian Zeller’s play The Father, particularly in “the way it starts off as this very conventional piece of living-room naturalism, but bit by bit the play itself seems to disintegrate.” “A similar thing happens in Caryl Churchill’s Far Away”, Coult adds, “where we zoom out from a domestic scene to reveal a world that’s malfunctioning.”

The production is directed by Jude Christian, with lighting from Jackie Semesh, sets by Rosie Elnile and, animation from Adam Sinclair and costumes by Cécile Trémolières. “Jude is just wonderful”, Coult says, “…she’s creating a really lovely atmosphere where the cast can explore their characters and relationships in the room and teasing out all kinds of nuances in the piece.”

Violet, commissioned by Britten Pears Arts and Music Theatre Wales in association with Theater Ulm., opens at the Aldeburgh Festival on 3 June, before touring to London, Cardiff, Mold, and Buxton. BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Violet on 18 June. Coult discusses Violet on the Thoroughly Good podcast here; the Financial Times interviewed Coult about the opera here.