10 Jun 2011
Luke Bedford’s Seven Angels
There has been much eager anticipation for Luke Bedford’s opera Seven Angels.
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Three quarters of the way through this discussion, a question that inhabits the mind of anyone putting any thought to the subject — but no one dare ask — was rhetoricised, “what is opera?”
There has been much eager anticipation for Luke Bedford’s opera Seven Angels.
Bedford is one of the finest British composers of his generation. Any new piece of his is big news, but what makes Seven Angels significant is that Bedford writes especially well for voice. It’s his first opera, and its genesis shows how thoughtfully he’s taken to writing for the stage.
Seven Angels was inspired by John Milton’s Paradise Lost. “You can’t set Paradise Lost,” says Glyn Maxwell, the poet who wrote the libretto. “You have to read it, absorb it and then have a response.” The narrative is allegory, not literal setting. “We knew that we wanted to use Paradise Lost as a template in some way and to bring out issues of climate change and environmental destruction,” says Bedford. He, Maxwell and director John Fulljames worked together closely from the start. “The very rough outline of the story and the idea of the angels narrating it came from these sessions, if I remember correctly. Then Glyn went away and did a first draft synopsis, which beautifully collected together all the fragments of text and story that we had.”
In the new opera, seven angels have been falling from above and arrive in a deserted place. They try to work out who they are and where they are. Using such clues as they have, such as the wind and rain, they begin to construct a story that explains how this place was ruined. So each of the Angels acts as a narrator and also a character in the story they are telling.
Their story concerns a King and Queen, who have a beautiful garden; their son, the Prince; the Waitress, who serves him along with other members of the royal household; and three delegates from other lands who have travelled to see the garden. Eventually, the “Infinity of Plenty” the garden is supposed to represent is revealed as illusion. At the end of scene six, the Angels’ story breaks down and we are left with just the seven figures in their deserted landscape. However two of the Angels refuse to give up on the story and continue on into that world. “We are all that the Garden was,” sing the Waitress and the Prince. “We are all that the Garden is.”
Reading Glyn Maxwell’s text for Seven Angels is intriguing. On paper, their lines overlap, blank spaces indicating blank spaces in the score, perhaps. Intuitively, you can feel how Bedford’s setting might sound — wavering, dream-like textures, harmonies that flow effortlessly, creating atmosphere and wonder. Sometimes the text is set in dense blocs, which read with turbulent rhythm. Not all poets write well for the stage, but Glyn Maxwell is also a playwright. His experience in the theatre informs the way he writes for music. He’s written several libretti for opera, and texts for film. Drama is thus inherently linked to his work.
“Once we had something like a full libretto,” says Bedford, “I went away and tried working on sections of it. Sometimes I had an inkling of the music that I need to write straight away, other times not! The very opening of the opera was one of the hardest sections and took three or four drafts of very different material to get right. Whenever there was a section that I felt needed more, or more often less, text I would ask Glyn and he would be very understanding. Sometimes I asked for slightly different words at certain moments, so they fitted the music better. But by and large Glyn’s text just needed me to add some music to it.”
Bedford has collaborated with Maxwell before. Bedford’s Good Dream She Has stems from the idea of Adam and Eve, dreaming in Eden before the Fall. Seven Angels is a much larger piece. “There’s certainly a link between the kind of material in Good Dream and the opening section of the opera for example. In both pieces there are familiar tonal triads but they are chiseled out from their familiar surroundings and reseen in a new light.”
Bedford’s Seven Angels is, however, much larger and more ambitious. “One of the things I enjoyed about writing a ninety-minute-long work was being forced into having big changes of mood; of music; of style! So you’ll find some manically fast music, despair and even the dreaded word ‘humour’ in there too.”
“As there is a fair amount of narration by the Angels, I had to try to work out a way of telling the story musically. It is really important that the words are clear and understandable at these moments. So I worked on ways of incorporating recitative-like moments into the piece. If you look through the score, you will see quite a few senza misura bars, where the singer has a degree of rhythmical freedom. I found this was extremely useful in allowing the singers to help bring out the words.”
“Having said that, I didn’t want to have any sort of traditional aria and recitative-type structure in the piece. The music must be able to flow in and out of these narrated moments and I think the technique I found allows me to do that. Apart from the seven singers, there is an ensemble of twelve players. It’s quite an unusual line-up, not least as there are four violas in there and a concentration on lower, darker wind sounds. It could be the first opera where the contrabassoon part has more pages than the flute!” This is “Paradise Lost” after all, and the orchestration is atmospheric. Apart from the four violas and contrabass there are steel drums, piano, analogue radio, crotales, tam tam, cymbals, lion’s roar, a whip and rainstick.
What kind of opera is this where there are almost as many singers as instrumental players? In Bedford’s music, speech translates into beautifully expressive form. Bedford is the Wigmore Hall’s first composer in residence, and several of his works, like Or voit tout en aventure, are classics in new music terms. “The voice is something so fundamental and natural to us. It is the channel, through which composers can address audiences in a very direct way. It’s very humanness, with all the qualities and disadvantages that entails, is what appeals to me so much about the voice.”
“Writing for the stage”, he adds, “is indeed quite different from concert pieces. It feels as if there’s an extra dimension that you have to think about and it took me a little time at first to adjust to this,” says Bedford. “But once I got into the soundworld of the opera, I felt I could write quite quickly as there’s not only the text but the drama propelling where the music should go. The early workshops (with Maxwell and Fulljames) were really instructive for me, just to see what a difference it makes when someone is just standing singing from music, to when they start moving around and interacting with others. Suddenly this extra dimension comes to life.”
John Fulljames is director and artist Takamine Tadasu created the designs. Because Bedford and Maxwell worked so closely with Fulljames and Tadasu from the start, the production has grown organically from the opera. “They’ve come up with something that I think is going to look very special. The whole stage will be covered in over a thousand books and almost all the props will be created out of these books. Even the King and Queen’s garden will be one enormous pop-up book! As John has been involved in the project from the beginning, he’s seen how Glyn and I have shaped it, so he has a deep and sensitive understanding of what we’re trying to achieve.”.
Fulljames has just been appointed Associate Director of Opera at The Royal Opera House. This is good news, for Fulljames is one of the most promising directors in the business. He and the company he founded, The Opera Group, created the outstanding second production of George Benjamin’s Into The Little Hill, reviewed in depth here on Opera Today. Fulljames’s work has appeared at Wexford, Aldeburgh, the Linbury Theatre, the Young Vic, Opera North and throughout Europe.
Luke Bedford’s Seven Angels premieres in Birmingham on 17th June. The Birmingham Contemporary Music Group then tours to Cardiff, Glasgow, Brighton and Oxford, and comes to the Linbury at the Royal Opera House in London on 12th July. It’s also part of the Latitude Festival in Suffolk, a multi-genre event that attracts audiences who might not normally venture into opera or art music.