In English, the opera is called Vastation; in German, it’s Wüstung.
There’s a little information (in German) about it on the Biennale website.
This has been a really unusual collaboration for me, certainly compared to that with Emily Hall. Why? Because it has been conducted almost entirely through Skype. Because Samy is miles away from London.
What this means is that, most of all, he and I have met in the work itself. I’ve done numerous drafts of plot summaries and of the three acts, six scenes, of the opera. But, so far, I’ve only heard a few minutes of finished music. This was performed at a little teaser concert. I wasn’t there. Samy sent me an mp3.
To my surprise, this distance-collaborating has worked very well. It’s surprising what a rapport one can develop, speaking through screens – once you get over the slight time lag, which is a bit like communicating with an astronaut in low orbit.
In some ways, it’s easier to become passionately animated – in discussion – when you’re not across a cafe table from the person you’re talking to; and when there aren’t other people at other tables earwigging.
Vastation/Wüstung is based on an idea Samy had. He wanted to write about a powerful woman, a politician probably, to be sung by a strong contralto. He also wanted to include some science fictional elements – perhaps to do with biotechnology. He wanted, in essence, to write a futuristic political thriller.
As we developed the idea, it seemed to me that we should push the idea of a female politician as far as we could – grant her as much power as we could. (I had not seen Borgen – and our politician is very different to Birgitte.)
And so, without giving too much away, our politician is Anna – the President of a small, unnamed country. When we meet her, it is the eve of a general election; she will either be re-elected or kicked out of office. In her final party rally (opening scene), Anna makes a huge mistake. During her set-piece speech, she deviates from the script and lets out the words, ‘We are too weak’. She suggests her country might be invaded by a neighbour, despite having the means to defend themselves. This is a veiled reference to ‘Vastation’, a sound-weapon her country’s scientists have developed.
By saying this, Anna has given the media terribly destructive soundbite. And made a terrible impression. She’s probably, it seems, lost the election.
Her Campaign Manager chews her out for this (scene two), and Anna reacts by asking him to do whatever is necessary to get her re-elected.
Meanwhile, Anna’s affable husband, Harry, has decided to help her win back power in his own, extreme way; and her daughter, Lola, is desperate to gain her mother’s attention, and her love.
If you didn’t follow this synopsis, I’m not surprised. I can never really understand those plot summaries you get in boxed sets. It’s only by seeing operas that – live or on DVD – that I ever understand what happens in them. Let’s just say, the opera tries to do that thing I’ve always admired in Shakespeare’s plays and The Godfather films as well as in many, many operas – of moving from hugely public scenes to very private scenes.
Writing a full opera libretto has been an exercise in directness. The ambiguity needs to be in the music. Each line of dialogue must be purposeful, singable and dramatic.
I have been building up to this for a while. A couple of years ago, I was lucky enough to secure a Jerwood Opera Writing Fellowship. This took me up to Snape Maltings and put me in the company of a lot of experienced composers, writers and directors who were interested in trying out opera. The Fellowships were initiated by Jonathan Reekie (Chief Executive of Aldeburgh Music) who, I believe, had become fed up of seeing how catastropically badly so many artists handled their first opera commission – because they hadn’t had a chance to experiment and make mistakes on a smaller scale.
During the three spread-out weeks we were resident in Aldeburgh, we were able to try out mini-operas that expanded from one minute to ten. We also had mentors, with whom we could discuss our epic fails and minor triumphs. I was extremely lucky to have Stephen Plaice in my corner. He’s survived being in the ring with Harrison Birtwistle, so can handle pretty much anything that comes his way.
If I hadn’t been through these three weeks, I would – I think – have made pretty much a complete bollox of the commission.
Instead, I hope I’ve given Samy a well-constructed skeleton to flesh out with his music.
But an opera can’t be Skyped – and I’ll see how well we have succeeded next May, in Munich and Regensburg.
There’s a little preview video of the Regensburg production here.