On February 25th, Glyndebourne Opera stages the premiere of Nothing, a new opera by David Bruce, the composer of The Firework Maker’s Daughter. It’s based on an award-winning novel by Janne Teller, has a libretto by Glyn Maxwell and is directed by Bijan Sheibani with designs by Giles Cadle. There are only four performances of this latest addition to Glyndebourne’s pioneering work in opera for young people, with Sian Edwards directing the Southbank Sinfonia who will be mentoring twenty young musicians who will share the pit with them. The opera’s composer found time to give us some insights into the work’s background and his own inspirations…
OMH What attracted you to the novel upon which the opera is based? It seems like a very Shakespearean concept – as in King Lear with all the references to ‘Nothing shall come of nothing’ and so on, and of course to Hamlet – ‘To be, or not to be…’
DB It is quite Shakespearean in his darker mode – there are hints of Macbeth, Hamlet and others. As soon as I read the book I liked the fact that it dealt with life and death issues but that neither of the two competing world-views in evidence amongst the characters in the story is entirely convincing. It feels like there is an enormous gaping hole, circling around the question of what actually is the point/meaning of life, and this felt like a very fertile place for music to become involved, as music has this amazing capacity to convey complex and even competing emotions simultaneously. As someone who is an eternal optimist, but who simultaneously holds quite a nihilistic outlook on life, I felt the story allowed me to express in music those conflicting feelings. For example, the words of the central character Pierre on the page do look very bleak and one dimensional – ‘Nothing is worth doing, so I will do nothing’ – but as soon as you give those lines to an opera singer, and perhaps make them rather lyrical, they take on a very different and multi-layered sense. This kind of tension is very much what I have my eye out for when I’m looking for an operatic story.
On the other side of the story is the rest of the class who set about trying to prove Pierre wrong. They initially collect objects that matter to them to build a ‘Pile of Meaning’. Later in the story they start forcing each other to give things up and they become more and more vindictive. I really enjoyed writing the increasingly vicious responses of the class and the ‘collective madness’ that overwhelms them. We all know that the school playground can be one of the most terrifying and dramatic places, and giving the chorus these menacingly rhythmic, playground-chant-style moments was a lot of fun. As soon as I saw the chorus from Glyndebourne Youth Opera rehearsing the piece I could feel their energy, commitment, and indeed something of their scariness, and I knew we were on to a winner.
OMH What are the challenges in bringing a novel to the operatic stage?
DB Any opera is insanely challenging, it’s like a giant multi-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. One of the biggest decisions we made was to miss out a chunk towards the latter third of the book. There were a number of reasons for this, but one of the strongest ones was that we wanted the story to be told entirely by the young people themselves – the section we cut includes various adults who become aware of what the children are up to.
OMH The Firework Maker’s Daughter was aimed at 5-8 year olds, and this one is presumably aimed at young adults. How do you go about involving a particular age group in an opera?
DB I don’t think of it that way. I simply wrote the piece I wanted to write. If anything, in Nothing, I was conscious of not wanting to write a ‘youth opera’, which to me sounds like something a little lame and ‘do-goody’. I wanted to write something as hard-hitting as the most dark and violent works in the operatic canon, and if anything, the fact that the unsettling tale is told entirely by young people would hopefully just add to its impact. An early influence at the outset of the work was a clip we saw on YouTube of When the Mountain Changed its Clothing by Heiner Goebbels, in which a geometrically arranged choir of school girls yell things like ‘What do little girls dream about?… knives… and blood’. The unsettling and potentially terrifying power of the girls in that clip was definitely something we remembered as we started work on the piece.
I guess throughout the process I’ve had a concern at the back of my mind about how this will all go down, both with the participants and any young people watching, but my mind has been increasingly put at ease, both by being able to judge it in rehearsal, and by seeing the thrill and excitement from the chorus as they get into their roles. Having a teenage daughter myself, I’ve also realized that a lot of the books they read and films they watch have just such dark subjects. It’s important not to patronize them by thinking we have to sanitize the world too much for them. I’m incredibly proud of Glyndebourne and also the Royal Opera House who co-commissioned this piece for having the bravery to see this and commit to it in such a major way.
OMH Do you think that there are particular aspects of opera which can engage young people and encourage them to explore further?
DB Up-close, it’s very difficult not to get swept up by the passion and commitment of a good opera singer. I was lucky enough to develop my operatic composing skills with the group Tête à Tête, whose very name comes from that desire for an intimate and direct connection between performer and audience. I would say the right kind of contemporary chamber opera, as Tête à Tête and others create, would be likely to win a younger audience over. We shouldn’t forget however that in many cases, a lot of the true power of an opera may only reveal itself to people who have experienced more of the complexities and nuances of grown-up life and I don’t see anything wrong with that.
OMH This is your first time working at Glyndebourne. Could you say a little about what it is like to be involved in the production of your opera there?
DB I first came to Glyndebourne about 20 years ago to see Janáček’s The Makropoulos Case, a performance which has stayed with me, and a piece which has actually influenced Nothing directly. I remember distinctly my ‘comp’ seat in the front row (it was a dress rehearsal) and it’s hard to believe I now find myself sitting in the same seat listening to my own music. Alongside this tremendous privilege, the commitment of everyone at Glyndebourne is little short of miraculous. It feels like the same level of commitment the house would give to a work in their main season. I feel incredibly lucky.
OMH What are the major influences on your music, in terms of which composers, teachers and/or directors have had an effect on your style and ideas?
DB I trained with two British masters of the Modernist school – George Benjamin at RCM and Harrison Birtwistle at Kings College London, and although it may come as a surprise to people who hear my often tuneful and pulse-based music, they both still exert a major influence on me. George is a constant inspiration for his exquisite orchestral palette (the use of solo strings in Written on Skin for example, influenced my writing in Nothing); and Birtwistle for his fantastic sense of form and drama. He always spoke in these fabulous metaphors which invariably captured precisely what was wrong/right with a piece (“You showed your hand too early in this piece” he once said, for example, as if a piece of music were a game of poker between the composer and the audience) and I’m often aware of those kind of things when I’m writing a piece.
As my own voice has developed, the main focus for me is a sort of bold directness, with someone like Janáček as a primary model. I aim for forms which surprise and/or feel unusual or unique, but which have an apparent simplicity and clarity to them. I like irresistibly visceral music, whether it’s a thumping rhythmic groove or a searing lament. My music also focuses a lot on colour and atmosphere – it’s as if I can’t help but paint some kind of picture or scene, which perhaps inevitably made me a good match for the opera world.
For further information and booking, click here: glyndebourne.com/tickets-and-whats-on/events/2016/nothing