|Rehearsing the factory scene...|
Photo: Julian Guidera
PAUL FINCHAM WRITES:
However hard we might try to shape our lives, ultimately so much depends on random happenings. The genesis of The Happy Princess, my first opera and the most significant commission to date in my second career as a composer, is no exception.
I was introduced by Marina Abel Smith to Karen Gillingham who runs the Learning and Participation division at Garsington; she and I met and she then connected me with Jess.
Jess and I found we had a lot in common (about life as well as music). Jess listened to some of the music I had composed over the last few years and then suggested that she put forward a pitch to Karen for us to write a youth opera based on Oscar Wilde’s The Happy Prince. There was some initial discussion about writing a 20 minute piece, everything went quiet for a while and then out of the blue, whilst I was at a wedding reception in Delhi(!), an e mail popped up confirming the commission for a performance of a 60-minute youth opera for the main stage at Garsington in summer 2019.
Deep breath. I had never written an opera (at least not since a rock opera when I was a schoolboy). I had recently taken up composing again after a break of some 30 years, put together a CD of short, intimate pieces recorded in my home studio, delivered a film score for a successful low/micro-budget feature film and written a Christmas carol for the London Philharmonic Choir.
But writing an opera - setting the text for around 80 singers making up three choirs and a professional soprano as well as arranging the score for an eight-piece band....How would I do that?......But what an enthralling opportunity to work with what many regard as the leading Learning and Participation division in the country.
JD: What’s been the most challenging thing(s) about the project for you?
I should add that the necessary process of mastering the computer software for the vocal score and full score, almost from scratch, was quite some challenge (and a sincere thank you to the clever folk at Dorico for their patient support throughout).
What are the most exciting and rewarding aspects of it?
I entirely endorse Britten’s mantra that composers should not occupy ivory towers. Ultimately the most rewarding aspect of writing The Happy Princesshas been working with Jess and with the creative team at Garsington and then finally (it seemed a long time after I started writing it) witnessing it all being drawn together under the conductor, Jonathan Swinard, leading up to the premiere - which is of course the most exciting aspect of all!
|Lara being fitted with a prototype |
of her Princess costume
Photo: Julian Guidera
What have you learned through writing the opera that you maybe didn’t expect to learn?
I learnt that writing an opera is (like writing a film score) as much as anything about collaboration: first and foremost, of course, with the librettist, but alongside that with the production team, which at every level provided insightful feedback throughout the process. That brought home to me the paramount importance of respecting text and narrative: every bar you write must be faithful to the drama. From start to finish virtually everything I wrote evolved. Only one set piece (the simple love duet for the Princess and the Swallow in scene 9) survives in exactly the form in which it began. By the time I penned the last notes of the opera I felt I was in a different space from where I had started.
What do you like most about working with a youth company?
Enthusiasm, excitement, energy!
What do you hope to write next?
Whilst writing HP I kept my head down, writing a score for a short film and taking on one other small commission to compose a wedding anthem – which, unbelievably, is being performed on the same day as the premiere of HP by a choir comprising singers from the Glyndebourne Opera chorus!
What next? I will likely go wherever it takes me - I would like to write another feature film score, I certainly aim to write more choral music, possibly another Christmas carol. I finished HP feeling elated but pretty drained; it felt as though it had been in my in tray a long time (it was around 15 months from start to finish, including orchestration).
But if someone calls me on Saturday and asks whether I’d consider writing another youth opera…I am pretty sure I know what the answer would be. And of course I would love to work with you again - though I understand you're in demand! [thanks :) jd]
THE HAPPY PRINCESS world premiere is at Garsington Opera on Friday 2 August, directed by Karen Gillingham and conducted by Jonathan Swinard