For this ‘composer’, the act of operatic creation is a case of stitching together the mouldering body parts of the greats.
Decisions, decisions, decisions. I have never been very good at decisions. Some people leap into decision-making as if they were at the beach. They stride down to the water’s edge and without flinching dive into the ocean, surfacing with a whip of the head and the spray of achievement. I tend to walk down slowly, then inch my way out through the water, jumping up over the waves, whimpering a little as the cold water splashes on my witchety-grub body until I can’t bear it anymore and finally plunge in.
I have the same approach when it comes to creativity. Over the last months I have been working on a new show called Opera – The Opera. It takes the best music and characters from the great operas and stuffs them into a new story, which will be performed in November by the post graduate opera students of the Western Australian Academy of the Performing Arts in Perth.
I admit I have shamelessly stolen music from the greats – Mozart, Puccini, Verdi, Dvořák, Rossini and Wagner. Hours of copying out music from these giants fills me with even more admiration for the sheer amount of music they got through, and at such a high level. It’s safe to say they didn’t have too many problems making decisions. If Mozart composed at my speed he would have written precisely two operas in his life, and about three half-finished piano concertos. I have agonised every minute of this two-hour show: the story structure, the characters, the music. My greatest fear is that if you make even a small number of bum creative decisions you veer off the path of theatrical honesty into the dark bushes of stupidity from which there is no return.
It is a strange fact that as the world has sped up, compositional speed has slowed down. Rossini averaged about two operas every year over 19 years and in some years managed four. In contrast modern composers write like snails. American composer John Corigliano was commissioned in 1980 to write an opera, The Ghosts of Versailles, for the 100th anniversary of the Metropolitan Opera in 1983. He missed the deadline by eight years! Rossini could have written another 17 operas in the same amount of time.
“For Rossini, writing an opera was pretty much like writing a newspaper article“
Maybe our attitude to creativity has changed over a hundred years or so. For Rossini, writing an opera was pretty much like writing a newspaper article. Sure it was a big undertaking, but he worked at such speed (The Barber of Seville was supposedly composed in three weeks) that obviously he didn’t agonise over every syllable. The opera needed to be produced as quickly as possible in order to make money, so he just got on with it. Nowadays a new opera is a much rarer commodity. You take it more seriously, like a novel, making sure everything is as perfect as it can be because you only get one shot. But that extra time can also take the heat out of the piece. If you’ve worked on an opera for eight years I imagine you might be heartily sick of the whole thing.
For me, writing anything is not much fun. It’s like sitting in Frankenstein’s laboratory, stitching together body parts, adding a humorous eyebrow there and a bit of heart there. The only fun part is when you stand back, hook the monster up to the electricity of live performance and throw the switch. I can’t wait to see it on its feet, lurching about the stage, listening to the audience reaction, hearing where it falls flat or where they become engaged with the characters and their journey. Only then do you know whether all those thousands of tiny decisions have been worth it.
Guy Noble’s Opera! – The Opera premieres at the Roundhouse Theatre, WAAPA from November 11-17