Writing an opera, a few reflections

The Bridge follows a man’s progress through early diagnosis and the experiences of living with Alzheimer’s. It is part fantasy, part fractured memory, and the meeting of research and real life as we gain insight into the existence of the main character and the world that unfolds around him.  

From initial confusion with his wife over something as trivial as a cup of tea, we follow his course through frustration and fear with occasional twinges of humour as it becomes apparent that there is something amiss. As members of the audience, we catch intermittent glimpses into his life, seeing snippets of the world as he perceives it, rather than what may be regarded as an empirically ‘true’ timeline of events.  

Moving on from diagnosis through well-meaning but occasionally misguided help, the world of our protagonist becomes increasingly internalised and disconnected from the environment, while simultaneously remaining no less vibrant and emotionally meaningful.  

As time continues to pass, we notice clarity and solace in occasional memories. A photograph, a song, the warmth of love. We see that these things may be ephemeral, as the present, memory, and fantasy envelop the mind like separate planes of origami being folded in, constantly shifting in aspect, but nonetheless maintaining their own intangible consistency.  

In short, this is an opera about grief and love. It is easy to see how any artistic output dealing with the core subject matter could be laden with grief. That is an understandable and well-trodden path. It is as much about fear and loss as it is about retained memory, care for others, hope, and the ability to empathise with a reality at times jarringly different to one’s own. It is about acceptance, and finding a way to exist in the present, not only for the person with the diagnosis but for those around them. To square that circle of what has been, may have been, and could still be yet to come. 

As a creative rather than medical endeavour this work cannot cure anything, but perhaps we can provide a little more understanding for some, solace to others and inspiration to a few. 

* * *

“To my mind, most opera characters don’t know they are singing until they think they are singing in the story…”

Compared to instrumental music or even standard “song”, I was struck by how many different layers of meaning and reality could be implied within the operatic genre. Implicit within most sung material is the idea of words, on a superficial level these can tell you a lot about the emotional state of a given character, their desires, and motivations however this is only incredibly superficial.

Alongside this there is the musical content, an apparently happy text recalling an event sung over a minor/sad chord progression implies something very different from the same text sung over something happy. This tension can open avenues towards commentary on a subject matter rather than simply demonstration or documentation of fictious events.

Parallel to these considerations come the elements of performance; a singer may lean into a note, warm a phrase, or slightly attack an entry and this gives life to a subtlety beyond what is purely on the notated page, often in ways I had not fully anticipated.

Working on the next plane of understanding, we reach a musical world external to the singers; namely that inhabited by overture, musical as opposed to textural structure, and the non-diegetic (outside of the world as perceived by the characters on stage) nature of most operatic music. To my mind, most opera characters don’t know they are singing until they think they are singing in the story.

In terms of text, it is very rare for a story or libretto to map 1:1 to the idea of a musical structure. For example, while music may outright repeat material to form a sense of continuity or recapitulation, it is very unusally that written works (Jabberwocky aside) specifically use the same material at the beginning and the end. Conversely this is almost de rigueur in classical symphonic writing.

Non-diegetic music short-circuits this facile understanding of structure and enables the score to better represent the libretto at a meta-textual level rather than simply mirroring the action word for word. In short, the sound world that the characters in the story don’t hear, bridges the gap between the written word and the sung word, creating a way that the two different media of word and music can achieve compatibility while not destroying the internal consistency of the other.

* * *

Reflecting the protagonist’s increasingly agitated and occasionally disconnected mind.

The Bridge is an attempt to invert expectations. It would be very easy to travel from comfortable harmonies towards fragmented dissonance towards the conclusion. Instead the overall sound world follows that of the baritone lead. There are moments towards the start where the mischievous and satirical nature of the works shines though with the major/minor tonality evoking a domesticated environment better suited to Wallace and Gromit than serious opera.

This gives way to a more disjunct and fragmented atmosphere of evolving modalities, rolling various augmented and diminished chords, reflecting the protagonist’s increasingly agitated and occasionally disconnected mind.

When matters are addressed the baritone climbs out to the other side towards tonality again: initially battered by the excessive chirpiness.

As a composer working in this medium there is a certain pressure to create newness, to embrace something which the public may not comprehend until long after I have passed away. While creating a legacy and history would be nice, I am more interested in helping those around me. I have tried to stay true to my principals of writing interesting and articulate music, without falling too far into the introspective navel gazing implicit within almost any artwork emerging from a creator with a western c.20th background.  

More to follow…


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