Opera takes you into another dimension
Composer Michael Berkeley tells Terry Grimley about his collaboration with writer Ian McEwan.
Composer Michael Berkeley and the Booker-Prizewinning novelist Ian McEwan first collaborated as long ago as 1982 on their anti-Cold War oratorio Or Shall We Die?
As their second collaboration, the opera For You, finally had its premiere last October, it seems that they work together roughly once every quarter of a century.
“We are trying to improve on that this time,” laughed Berkeley when I called him at his home in mid-Wales yesterday, revealing the intriguing possibility that the two friends (Berkeley’s wife is McEwan’s literary agent) may now go on to write a musical together.
Or Shall We Die? had a somewhat sniffy critical reception for its Bernstein-like mix of styles, although it has recently been revived and Berkeley even claims that some reviewers have apologised for their initial reactions.
“I was very young at the time and I wanted to write something about the then proliferation of nuclear weapons,” he recalls.
“I wanted to write something that had a more immediate effect, that was more tonal and melodic.
“There are still things I like in it and Ian likes it too, because I think the thing for him is lyricism.
“We’ve been friends ever since and we’ve been saying we really want to do something.
“Then Music Theatre Wales came up with this commission and I really wanted to work with him.”
He points out that his previous operas had both been based on classic texts. The first, Baa Baa Black Sheep, is about Rudyard Kipling’s abused childhood and draws on The Jungle Book, while the second was a classic romantic novel, Jane Eyre.
“I really wanted to get away from classics and do something contemporary. Ian was writing On Chesil Beach at the time and in between slabs of that – not that it’s a long book – he would come up with scenes and we would talk them through.
“We had been for a walk in the woods and discussed the broad architecture of it.
“Because he was writing the novel at the same time I would keep catching up with him, and he felt it was like an express train coming up behind him.”
For You is about Charles, an egotistical, womanising conductor-composer, but the underlying theme which interested both librettist and composer was the abuse of power.
There are relatively few operas about composers but, somehow not surprisingly, there are two by Richard Strauss. Then there is Janacek’s Destiny and, in a slightly different category, operas about real composers of earlier periods like Pfitzner’s Palestrina, Peter Maxwell Davies’s Taverner and (two for the price of one) Rimsky-Korsakov’s Mozart and Salieri.
A tricky challenge that arose from this choice of profession for their protagonist was that Berkeley had to compose some of the character’s music.
“That was the ultimate challenge for me,” he admits. “This is an example of the kind of problem that can arise between a librettist and a composer. Ian despises the Wagner idea of the egotistical artist but on the other hand I rather love Wagner.
“If this composer couldn’t write something that was very powerful the story falls down because he wouldn’t be a very successful composer and he wouldn’t have all the trappings of fame.”
Opera is in any case a larger than life medium, he argues, where “you can take things into another dimension but still be credible.”
For You was to have been premiered a year ago in Brecon, but the illness of the singer originally cast as Charles led to a postponement and it actually had its first performance at the Royal Opera House’s Linbury Studio in October.
Plans for a production in Rome with an expanded orchestra have also been delayed, as an incidental casualty of Italian politics.
“There are places in it where I always thought it would be lovely to have a slightly larger body of strings,” Berkeley explains, acknowledging that what would once have been seen as a kind of potted opera has become the norm for new pieces.
“They don’t grow on trees, opportunities to do full-scale operas,” he agrees.
“But I quite like the Music Theatre Wales ethos that you can take music theatre to all sorts of places that wouldn’t otherwise see it and do something personal.”
Berkeley has just signed off his residency with the National Orchestra of Wales and is taking a pause from composing, though there is a piece for solo cello in the pipeline for Adrian Brendel.
But that musical with Ian McEwan is at least a serious possibility.
“It would be a much more Brechtian kind of piece because I think we both feel that there are so many musicals which have become very sentimental.
“The thing about doing a musical is that it’s a very different beast to a through-composed opera.
It would be essentially a series of numbers and I think it would be setting out a very different style.”
Berkeley points out that his own style has become much less conservative and tonal than it was at the time of Or Shall We Die, though at 60 he is now at an age where he is thinking about synthesis and re-engaging with lyricism.
“I think as one gets older one starts to put things together, so I’m not frightened of lyricism now.
“That’s the great challenge, to have a personal style. When I wrote the Clarinet Concerto, for example, there was a turbulence about it that I felt I wanted to write at that time, but if someone had asked me to write a little choral piece while I was doing it, I could have done that.
“Ian has just written an un-rhyming pop song which I’ve set in a Blossom Dearie, Annie Ross sort of style.
“I’ve always said that any composer worth his salt should be able to write a memorable tune, and I think the opera is a marriage of the two, to a certain extent.”
* Music Theatre Wales performs For You at Birmingham Repertory Theatre on July 4 at 7.30pm (Box office: 0121 236 4455).