John Batten

Julian Anderson in conversation with Rivka Jacobson

Julian Anderson is a distinguished composer whose works to date include The Discovery of Heaven (which received the 2013 South Bank Sky Arts Award) and Harmony, which received its premiere at the opening night of the 2013 Proms season.

His opera Thebans, created with librettist and playwright Frank McGuiness, is currently premiering at the English National Opera. This retelling of Sophocles’ story of Oedipus and his daughter Antigone has been lauded in national reviews.

RJ: Where did you get the idea for the opera?

JA: I had the idea when I was 16. The idea was prompted by my translation of Oedipus Rex from Greek into English in preparation for my A-level. I found it very difficult to translate, but then I came across a pivotal line in the dispute between Oedipus and Tiresias, in which Oedipus says at one point, ‘You would provoke a stone to anger’. I thought that I must have made a mistake. And then I suddenly realised that was exactly what it meant. And I was stunned and astounded; the characters came alive for me in this instant, and I felt these characters need to sing, not just speak these lines. I got the idea for the project at that very moment,

The idea stayed with me and when the ENO commissioned a full-scale opera from me that would use the full resources of the house, including the chorus, the full orchestra and a lot of soloists, I felt that this project would do that.

RJ: To what extent does the composer have an input into the libretto?

JA: Upon meeting Frank I realised that he was a very flexible and open person.

He absolutely agreed with me about the new order (with Oedipus at Colonus rather than Antigone concluding the opera) and helped me to cut me the text of his play line by line. We ended up with a libretto that I was very happy to set.

RJ: As a composer, do you work from the libretto, or from the music?

JA: I had some vague ideas about textures and sounds that could be used for different characters but really I started work when I got the libretto.

RJ: Would you say that music is a vehicle for drama?

JA: The situation is quite varied. The text in Donizetti is not so important; what is important in Donizetti is the vehicle for the brilliance, the sexiness, the florescence of the voice. But in the later Verdi, particularly Otello and Falstaff,the text is almost as important as in the music. And of course Strauss wrote an opera, Capriccio, which is about the question of which is more important, the words or the music.

RJ: Did you write Thebans expecting that the audience would have prior knowledge of the story?

JA: I wrote Thebans without the assumption that anyone in the audience would know the text or drama at all. I wanted to get these characters across in a very dramatic and vivid manner; I didn’t want to pay too much attention as to whether it’s really like the Sophocles or not. I had to make decisions in every act as to what to cut: for example, after a lot of thought, we cut a very famous speech, in which Oedipus says that he doesn’t ever wish to see the light of day again. A very famous opera oratorio by Stravinsky does set that speech, but in a very calm, cold and heartbreakingly neutral way, which is very moving, because it is such a poignant moment. Another opera by the Romanian composer George Enescu sets this speech in a very romantic way. I felt that both the romantic and detached approach to this speech had both been very well done.

As well as this operatic reason for cutting it, there was also a dramatic reason. I wanted to put the dramatic weight onto Oedipus’ aria when he comes onto the stage blinded. At that point, the music simply stops and he stands there: one of the crucial moments of the opera is actually a silence.

RJ: Can you tell me something about the pacing of the opera?

JA: Act One unfolds at a normal pace, at normal stage and operatic time. Act Two is accelerated, and is like a vortex at the centre of the opera, which sucks everything in to a kind of hell, and gets more and more violent until its spews all of the characters out at the end of the act. There are moments in that act where the time freezes, such as the death song of Antigone, which is deliberately placed in contrast to the violent accelerations which happen around it. In order to accentuate the violence, the compression of time is absolutely essential. This accentuates the narrow vision of Creon and the bully state that he has created. This is symbolised by a remorselessly constant pulsation which does not change through the whole of the act and is like a searchlight that is stalking the characters. At the beginning of Act Two, I use a device which I use nowhere else, a voice without orchestral accompaniment. By delaying the entrance of the orchestra by about a minute, when you hear the orchestra, you realise the difference in the sound, in its rhythmic simplicity. In Act Three there is a more meditative, deathlike, dreamlike time; it is ambiguous as to whether Oedipus is imagining the entire act. In order to represent the forest in Colonus in which Oedipus is dying, I thought it would be interesting to turn the orchestra into a forest sonically, to remind us that nature is omnipresent and underpins the entire act. There are some unusual brass sounds and string tuning to create this jungle-like, wild, outdoor feeling.

Acts Two and Three have cinematic qualities in their approaches to time, with fast-forwards, flashbacks and loops of time. I was very much thinking of the films of Tarkovsky, particularly Stalker and Nostalgia, and I wanted to introduce their dreamlike, hovering dreamlike state to the opera. The set in Act Three even looks a bit like a Tarkovsky set with its mysterious and elusive quality.

RJ: How do various characters and family relationships develop throughout the opera?

JA: The opera ends with one of the most crucial words in the whole drama- father- but what I like about the plot is that there is no central character. Creon is the only one that sings prominently in all three acts. His character is like a snake through the grass of the opera. Oedipus gives a nice symmetry to the opera in that he only sings in Act One and Three. Antigone appears in Act One but doesn’t sing; a quite deliberate illusion on my part was that I wanted to give an impression that she did sing in Act One even though we don’t hear her. When we see her in Act Two, she is a very vivid presence on stage, and quite deliberately, at her first entrance onstage, there is a huge, bright chord, and she enters on a rather high note saying exactly who she is and what she believes in.

RJ: Is the sweetness of Antigone’s aria required as light relief?

JA: The sweetness of Antigone’s aria in Act Two is to give her the space of the individual against the collective mentality; that is why it is there, not to provide anything more ‘gentle’. At the end of the aria, she is buried by a very big chord, which from the top of the orchestra to the bottom, gradually suffocates her. As a character, she is associated with the English horn, which has a rather autumn-like quality to it, and when she isn’t singing, the horn takes over her lines. As she leaves the stage, the cor anglais continues her line and as it is extinguished by this chord, we hear her being buried alive.

RJ: Which composers have influenced you most? 

JA: My melodies have very much been influenced by folk music from Macedonia, Bulgaria and Romania, and by Jewish folk music. I admire Mozart very much and I have learnt a lot dramatically from Don Giovanni, particularly in its strange handling of time and character. Amongst more modern composers, I have been influenced by Wagner (any modern composer of an opera should look at Wagner), Schoenberg’s opera Moses und Aron, Berg’s Wozzeck for his dramatic compression, and Janáček, again for the economy with which he sets up characters. I have also been influenced by Stockhausen, Oliver Nelson, Gérard Grisey, and perhaps the Canadian composer Vivier. It’s a motley collection of people!

The family for me is Mozart, Britten, Berg, Janáček, Michael Tippett and Monteverdi. For example, I used the trillo, a repeated decorated note common in Monterverdi operas, for the moment when Oedipus is first addressing Tiresias. I wanted to take the beauty of the voice that you get in Monteverdi and use it within my own style.

I was also aware of some more experimental operas, such as Die Soldaten by Zimmermann, a filmic opera with three different stages and layers of orchestration. That complemented the more traditional side of my operatic diet.

RJ: Did you try to avoid certain aspects of these operatic greats to create your own signature?

JA: Yes and no. In some cases, I felt these influences would emerge. I tried to swallow them; you never know how you’re going to digest these influences. I like to innovate of course, but also I like to feed on tradition. That’s what called having your cake and eating it! Even the most avant-garde composer is feeding off influences and it could be rather fatal to set out to be original.

RJ: What’s the next project for you?

JA: I’ve just finished a string quartet lasting 18 minutes, which was for the Arditti string quartet, which was premiered recently at the Wigmore Hall. I wrote the bulk of the work after I had finished the opera. The next thing is a concerto for violin and orchestra which will be co-commissioned for the London Philharmonic, the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra Berlin and the Seattle Symphony, for a wonderful violinist Carolin Widmann, in collaboration with Edward Gardner, who will be conducting the Deutsche Symphony Orchestra. That collaboration has been very happy and I’m glad it is being renewed in the concerto. The intensity Ed brings to the opera is a dream, it’s almost unbearable. The way he drives Act Two, for example, is searing, it’s incredible.

RJ: How do you feel after having written this opera?

JA: I’ll never be the same again! Anyone who has written a huge opera like that would be affected. The opera is 107 minutes, by far the longest piece I’ve ever written. When you see your music onstage, as part of a drama, you can see your own music being driven differently, and that makes you think differently about your own compositional process. I’ve become a bit of an addict and I would like to do another one, but I’m sure that it would be different to this one. With this project, it was very important to my composition that I had thought about these characters for so many years. I remember quoting in an A-level essay Antigone’s line ‘I did it and I don’t deny it’, which is the first line in Act Two. That experience with the characters always tells. On the first night, I finally felt that these characters had escaped from my head after thirty years.

RJ: What made you want to become a composer?

JA: Football! I noticed when I was seven that I could hear in my head music that I knew without it being played. My father was a very good amateur violinist and was very musically aware, and when he played records on the radio of the standard rep, he would tell me what an oboe, a flute, or a violin was, when I heard the sounds, and he would explain the stories of the pieces. At prep school I always found athletics and games boring, and to relieve the tedium of the dreadful game, I would play these pieces I carried around in my head. When I was about nine, I decided that instead of playing one of the pieces I knew I would make it up. I could read music but did not know how to write it down. When I had been doing this for a year I became a bit worried, because I had a lot of music in my head, and some of it I had revised more than once, and I thought that I needed to work out a way of writing it down. I went to the very good local library in the holidays and started systematically borrowing records and scores and very gradually went through the repertoire learning how to read a score. I began to write my pieces down at the age of eleven. I didn’t realise how long it would take to write these pieces: the first piece took a year and at the age of eleven, a year is a very, very long time! It took forever and I was gobsmacked by how much labour it was, and I began to wonder quite seriously whether it was the right thing to do.

RJ: Did you show your compositions to anyone?

JA: No. When I was nearly fourteen I showed some music to a music teacher at my school and he gave me various bits of advice. When I was seventeen I went to study with a very good composition teacher, John Lambert, who took me under my wing. I studied with Alexander Goehr for a number of years and I also went to study for a few months in France with Tristan Murail, who was a pioneer of spectral music. When I was 23 I got my first commission for an orchestral piece from the Dartington Summer School, where I had studied for two years.  This is no longer the first piece in my catalogue, which is now a string quartet which I wrote when I was 17. At the time I was told was unplayable, but it was premiered last year by the Arditti Quartet, exactly as I wrote it.

RJ: How did it feel for you seeing your first opera staged by the English National Opera?

JA: It was amazing. My mother was at the dress rehearsal and the second performance; she didn’t come to the premiere because she thought it would be too nerve-wracking. I will never forget it as long as I live. It’s very difficult to describe it: it’s almost like an out-of-body experience. I was in floods of tears which I had to wipe away very quickly when I took my bow.

RJ: How long did this project take?

JA: Nearly eight years. Four years really of my composing life. The first act I wrote twice because I wasn’t happy with the first version. I felt it was more like a cartoon of the opera than the opera itself. I also had the problem of writing for male voices. As the orchestra usually has a lower register than the female voice, it is much easier to write for the female voice than a male tenor voice, which is right in the middle of the sound. In the first version of Act One I had not sufficiently considered this, and although revising it created a considerable delay, I had to get it right. Apart from Antigone and Jocasta, all the voices are male, and I had to think about this question of the male voice a lot.

RJ: Do you think opera houses are willing nowadays to stage more unfamiliar modern operas?

JA: Many of the expansions in operatic repertoire have been started here in the English National Opera, or its predecessor, which was Sadler’s Wells Opera. ENO did Janáček, Janáček, Janáček. They’ve discovered so many British composers, such as Mark-Anthony Turnage. There are still some very great 20th Century operas that we have never seen in this country, such as those by Ionesco and Messiaen’s St Francis of Assisi. The operatic repertoire does have room to expand. The situation in this country used to be quite static but now it is more adventurous.