17 July 2015
Insight: Macbeth, or how I came to compose operas
© Kira Doherty
UK-based Luke Styles writes about his one-act opera Macbeth, his background in theatre and how this led him to become a composer of operas. Macbeth will be premiered at Glyndebourne on 25 August, with more performances on 27-29 August. A further performance at the Royal Opera House Linbury Studio Theatre will take place on 9 September 2015. A new work by Styles will also be heard in Melbourne on 13 August 2015, performed by the new Inventi Ensemble.
> More Insight articles by the AMC's Represented and Associate artists.
Macbeth is my fifth opera to date and is the culmination of my three years as Glyndebourne's first young composer in residence, between September 2011 and September 2014. Macbeth builds on the experience of developing, collaborating and composing the other four operas, between 2011 and 2015, and is the longest and most ambitious of them all. It presents an all-male cast, a chamber orchestra formed from the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO) and a rather well-known historical text as its primary ingredients. It is a one-act chamber opera lasting approximately 75 minutes and was specifically composed (and developed) for Glyndebourne, its singers and performance space. It premieres at Glyndebourne at the end of August and then moves to the Royal Opera House Covent Garden in September.
I came to opera from a background in the theatre, the foundations of which were laid as a high school student in Sydney. I was lucky enough to be selected as a music student at Newtown High School of the Performing Arts. I quickly took more and more to the drama lessons on offer and ended up becoming just as much a drama student as a music student. The first three years of drama involved subject areas with no speaking. These were: movement, mime, mask and circus skills. Before we could speak on stage we had to learn to move, become aware of our bodies and how to communicate physically. From the third year onwards students were invited to audition for companies, which would rehearse outside of school hours. I joined these companies until the end of high school, to work towards productions of plays. This experience introduced the idea of a director into the creation of work. These directors were people who led (often with a very light touch) the theatre-making process, which still involved a large amount of devised work though now structured within the context of a play/an existing text and geared towards a staged production.
Outside of school, as a teenager, I began working professionally on TV dramas such as Home and Away and, as a 16-year-old, I secured a role in the feature film Dark City (directed by Alex Proyas, starring Kiefer Sutherland, William Hurt and Rufus Sewell). Despite this experience I felt limited, as a teenage actor, to interpreting the work of other artists and I wanted to create my own work. Therefore, at the end of high school and as a direct result of this work as an actor, I decided to become a composer. Composition offered me a way to express my own voice, and I felt I could bring my interest in character, internal motivation and drama from acting into a musical form through composition. Since high school I have followed a traditional path of conservatoire and university composition studies (including the Royal Academy of Music London, University of Music and Performing Arts Vienna tutored by Detlev-Mueller Siemens, University of Music Karlsruhe with Wolfgang Rihm and Kings College London, with George Benjamin) but nonetheless the works I am creating now are firmly connected to the principles and practises of these early experiences of making work, collaboratively.
As a composer, the theatrical is at the heart of everything I create, be it a string quartet or an opera. Before tackling opera directly, something that I had in mind since first starting to compose, I worked theatrically, composing incidental music for plays, dance works, circus works, music for silent films and works for musicians and actors. In 2010 I gained my first chance to directly experiment with operatic form, as part of the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme in Aldeburgh/UK. As part of a phenomenal group of composers/writers/directors I wrote three short 5-minute operas and one, more developed 11-minute work for the Aldeburgh Festival, which was staged, had a mini set and a small cast and band.
This training laid the foundations for the next three Glyndebourne operas; two youth operas Lovers Walk and Tycho's Dream and a work for the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Glyndebourne singers, Wakening Shadow, conducted by Vladimir Jurowski. In addition to this I also created the cabaret opera Unborn In America with the librettist and director Peter Cant, which my own company Ensemble Amorpha produced as part of the Vaults Festival 2015 in London.
Composing these operas, producing one of them, attending lots of opera and being part of the Glyndebourne company (attending rehearsals, conducting and learning about how an opera company works) made me well informed as to the process I wanted to undertake in creating Macbeth. I believe that you need to get your hands dirty with opera, make work, workshop ideas and above all collaborate. If a composer is interested in opera, they must be interested in the theatre and the theatre is not the realm of the solitary creator. The ivory tower composer, secluded and churning out masterpieces is a 19th-century myth that I hope, in the 21st Century, we are moving away from.
I knew that I wanted to develop Macbeth closely with a director whom I already knew, so that there was already an established sense of trust and understanding between us. This was Ted Huffman, whom I met on the Jerwood Opera Writing Programme and who became both the librettist and director of Macbeth. We were able to secure four week-long development periods with singers and a pianist over 18 months, at Glyndebourne. We felt this was vital to test our choices for what parts of the play to turn into an opera, to find the right voices for the characters and for us both to know the work (in some form) before rehearsals. This is a process that is very common in musical theatre but rare in opera. The willingness to invest in development reflects Glyndebourne's commitment to having a composer as part of the company working with all parts of the organisation to make work, from the inside.
Without this development period the work would be very different. In fact Macbeth began life as Jaws the Opera. Ted and I were interested in taking something that would be impossible as an opera and use this impossibility as the friction for the drama of staging the operatically absurd. Copyright issues were the main obstacles to Jaws, and Macbeth evolved through asking ourselves what the main operatic elements were that drew us to Jaws and where we might find these things elsewhere. Once we settled on Macbeth we changed direction a number of times as to which Macbeth story we wanted to tell. These changes were very much a reaction to what we were hearing in development, and were also informed by practical dramaturgical and musical decisions about the opera. We started with female witches and the inclusion of the super-natural; where we have ended up is with an opera for an all-male cast set within real events. As you might imagine the journey from Jaws to the current Macbeth has taken us far from where we started, but we would only have been able to come to this point as a result of our process.
There was no orchestra involved in the workshops, but testing out the music (with piano, me hitting the odd percussion instrument and the involvement of a host of extraordinary singers) meant that I was able to start thinking about orchestration in the workshops. Because of this and also the importance of dramaturgical decisions simultaneous to development composing, I started to gain a sense of strong percussive and low instrumental colours in the orchestration, attributes of the composition process which often only emerges as the last piece of the puzzle. Hence orchestration was part of our structural decision making and particularly the use of the percussionists, function as framing devices for the scenes, which at times move very rapidly as we condense the play into a 75-minute opera.
Our first workshops saw us playing with two potential operas, which Glyndebourne then had a say in choosing which should be turned into a complete work. The overwhelming affinity I feel towards Shakespeare's writing came through immediately, making Macbeth the obvious choice. I have previously set Shakespeare in my work Vanity for Glyndebourne in 2013 (this work uses four of Shakespeare's sonnets and is for female chorus, tenor and bass baritone soloists and violin - more details on AMC Online). Shakespeare's words immediately suggest music to me, and Macbeth in particular provided a narrative that allowed my music to go darker and more sensual than ever before. People may come to the work already knowing the story of Macbeth and this is a particularly good advantage in opera. By taking a well-known, existing work, it can sit as a kind of object which people are already familiar with, and from this point myself and Ted can craft our own work wherein our departures from and interpretations of Shakespeare's original work are additional to just understanding 'what happens' in Macbeth.
For our production we had to make hard choices about what material we could keep in order to turn this play into a 75-minute opera. Luckily, Macbeth is already one of Shakespeare's shortest plays. We did make some drastic dramaturgical decisions, mainly by insisting that every scene make sense in the context of a fictionalised version of 'the present'. This means that our version focuses much more on the human side of the play and much less explicitly with the supernatural elements that are so famous in the original.
While we were creating this new Macbeth, the news cycle was full of horrifically violent wars and revolutions happening throughout the world, which reminded us of the destabilised political situation found in Shakespeare's play. We didn't make this adaptation specifically about any one of these events or places, but they contributed to our understanding of the political murders in Macbeth. The way that Macbeth learns to lie, to deceive, and to murder throughout the work was echoed, for us, in the way that totalitarian leaders today have no shame in making statements that run totally contrary to any objective facts.
The choice to compose the opera for exclusively male voices (excluding the counter tenor voice) came about for a few reasons. The choice links to the historical precedent of Shakespeare's time, where his plays were performed with all male actors. The use of male voices also creates a distinct and clear sound world and heightens the strangeness that draws me to the theatre of opera, in that this sound world does not reflect the real world (we don't live in a world of all male voices, thankfully!).
The vocal style of Macbeth draws on recitativo and aria traditions from Monteverdi to the present day although its aesthetic and melodic identity are firmly my own. It employs a small orchestra of 12 musicians (flute, oboe, clarinet/bass clarinet, trumpet, trombone, two percussionists, harp, piano, violin, viola, cello) supporting and at times engulfing the cast in the orchestral sound world. This particular instrumentation allows me to conjure war, chaos, intimacy and seduction in the work. I make key timbral associations with characters and emotions in my composing. Also percussion and brass are used as a type of ritornelli in between scenes, creating a very filmic editing-like effect to the action. This helps make the work feel like it is rooted in the 21st century through a quasi baroque technique (ritornello), whilst other factors, such as the use of recitativo, more explicitly evoke earlier periods. I also draw on Renaissance and Baroque traditions (Cavalli in particular) in the treatment of the text. This is not neo-Baroque composition but the text is never repeated (with one minor exception) and recitativo is employed to move through large amounts of text, where the clarity of words, their meaning and narrative function are paramount.
I hope to continue to be a composer of operas and there are some exciting new opera projects on the horizon. My background, training and passion for opera all encourage me towards making opera the central focus of my creative life, but I would not want this to be at the expense of other theatrical forms, orchestral or chamber music, the latter of which I have a very large catalogue of works from string quartets and song cycles to recorder works and classical jazz mash-ups (follow links to examples on SoundCloud). I see myself as a composer of the theatre very much in the tradition of Handel, Mozart, Verdi, Wagner and Britten. I am a collaborator who makes work with people, for an audience and the community. I've been lucky to have a lot of work made and performed in Europe (particularly the UK and Germany), but there is a gap in my cultural identity in making work as an Australian for Australia. Hopefully one day I will have the chance to compose an Australian opera. Our history is full of great operatic stories and characters dying to burst onto the stage.
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