Composer Emily Howard's first full-length chamber opera, premiering today on the opening night of the Aldeburgh Festival this week, is based on a science fiction short story in which the crime of coldness is punished by invisibility. I could say a few things about the symbolism of this theme and how very much one wishes it could be true for certain people in public life, but you can work that out for yourselves. Instead, let's go over to Emily for her insights into the creative process. Toitoitoi for the performances! JD
The Invisible Opera
A guest post by Emily Howard
My first full-length chamber opera To See The Invisible[trailer] premieres this week on the opening night of this year’s Aldeburgh Festival, and we’re nearing the end of the production period. In the next few days we’ll have stage and orchestra rehearsals followed by the dress rehearsal and I can honestly say that these last few weeks have been a real eye-opener for me. Before now, I actually had no idea that there would be so many people involved in making an opera work. I’ve enjoyed working closely with librettist Selma Dimitrijevic, director Dan Ayling and music director Richard Baker for some time now, and in addition to this, collaborating with a wonderful cast of singers, Birmingham Contemporary Music Group, a full opera production team as well the Aldeburgh staff over the last few weeks has been an amazing experience. That’s a lot of people and I’m delighted to have learnt a whole lot of new information.
I wonder how many other composers have had a similar experience during the production of their first opera? The feeling that in fact you are part of a giant machine and that there are many more cogs in the system than you had possibly imagined? Set Design, lighting, costume and the most amazing number of very practical considerations that in some cases can end up re-shaping your music in places. I love it. I love the collaborative nature of working as part of an opera team, and the fact that the problem solving involved has to factor in so many dimensions, with music being one of them.
My first outing in opera was a mini-opera Zátopek! commissioned by Second Movement for New Music 20x12, part of the London Cultural Olympiad. I created this with writer Selma Dimitrijevic and we were keen to work together again. We began to discuss the idea of shunning as a central theme for an opera at least five years ago in 2013, and this was the starting point for To See The Invisible.
In 2014 Selma and I linked up with director Dan Ayling, and we all decided that it would be beneficial to approach opera development in a tripartite fashion: composer, librettist and director in discussion from the outset. In particular, we spent significant time together on artistic residencies at Snape Maltings developing materials and ideas, a period that I believe was hugely valuable for the opera. We are all very strong-minded and the three-way conversation enabled us to discuss the many layers of the opera from very different perspectives.
To See The Invisibleis loosely based on a short sci-fi story To See The Invisible Manby American writer Robert Silverberg. The way we came to discover this wonderful short story is worth telling. Selma was working on the libretto in 2016 and staying with her brother in Croatia. One day she described the story that she was working on to him, and he said “that reminds me of Robert Silverberg’s short sci-fi story” and directed Selma to his bookshelf. Selma then realised that this was a story she had read in her childhood and that it was now resurfacing in our opera! We had been searching for the ‘crux’ of the theme of shunning, and what the crime would be – and finding the Silverberg story clarified this complete for us, as we encountered the concept of the crime of coldness around which his story hinges.
In the opera, like in the Silverberg, our protagonist, The Invisible, is sentenced to a year of invisibility for committing a crime of coldness. The Invisible’s physical journey through the world of warmth, and emotional journey from hope to despair are also rooted in the Silverberg short story. But there are significant differences as well: the opera begins a lot earlier than the story: we see the arrest, and there is a court scene where The Invisible receives the sentence. In the opera, we also experience the toll this takes on The Invisible’s family.
In my concert music as well as my music for stage, I am always excited by the collision and union of disparate ideas from diverse sources: the subsequent translation of these hybrid ideas into sound is the crux of my creative process, and never more so than in the musical score for To See The Invisible. In the opera, it has therefore been my aim to create hugely contrasting types of music that interact with each other in unexpected ways.
Writing concert music is deeply rewarding in a completely different way from writing music for the stage and over the last decade I’ve written a number of works using ideas from science and mathematics as creative catalysts. These include my string quartet Afference(2014-15), receiving a performance given by the Piatti Quartet in Aldeburgh, and orchestral works sphere(2017) and Magnetite(2007), both being performed in Aldeburgh by BBC National Orchestra of Wales conducted by Mark Wigglesworth as part of my residency this year.
Emily Howard, June 2018