Sydney Chamber Opera stages haunting work The Lighthouse by Master of the Queen’s Music.

The mysterious disappearance in 1900 of three lighthouse keepers in the remote Flannan isles hardly seems like a subject screaming to be turned into an opera. But it’s just the kind of dark tale that would appeal to reclusive British composer Sir Peter Maxwell Davies, who, 79 years after the event, wrote a libretto and score based on a story that haunts his town in the rugged Orkney islands to this day. 

“Talking to former lighthouse keepers in the Orkney islands who were very superstitious about the whole thing, I learned a great deal from them,” says Davies over the phone. “The mystery was never solved and I wanted to give a solution of my own invention that left it open so you don’t know quite what happens at the end.” 

With an all-male cast of three and a 12-piece ensemble including honky tonk and banjo, The Lighthouse, to be staged this week by Sydney Chamber Opera, creates a claustrophobic, cabin-fever atmosphere that perfectly captures the imagined descent into madness that leads the men to abandon their post, never to return. According to the 78-year-old composer, a boat still goes out on stormy nights in Orkney to service the lighthouses, though their operation has been automated for years. “But I did go out to the lighthouse myself,” he recalls. “It was a very spooky experience indeed going up there. It’s been deserted for many years and it’s boarded up, and the whole place did feel very spooky. 

“Walking down to the jetty feels very familiar but very strange – there’s still carved into the stone near the bottom is the name of one of the last keepers on the island. I wondered whether I did do the right thing in imagining those goings on in the lighthouse, but having been there I thought, ‘Yes, this place is so spooky that anything is possible!’” 

The spirit of another English composer, Benjamin Britten, presides over the opera – his ghost story The Turn of the Screw and the seaside turmoil of Peter Grimes and Billy Budd come to mind. “I acknowledge his influence on me with great pleasure, and the presence of the sea and the fishing community at Aldeburgh influenced him tremendously,” says Davies, who has been a beloved fixture of Hoy, Orkney for more than 40 years, founding the St Magnus Festival there in 1977 and often drawing from local events in his work. Indeed, well-wishers from the town came to their resident composer’s aid when he recently fell on hard times in the wake of a financially crippling legal battle and separation from his partner, leaving food on his doorstep. 

As with Britten’s Noye’s Fludde, written specifically for amateur chamber groups, Davies believes in the importance of chamber opera as a medium to reach out to small communities. A recent touring production of The Lighthouse in Britain made it to Irish villages. “People went to the opera not once but seven times who had never been to the opera before!” he enthuses. “This kind of work getting out to the people is very, very important.”

He has also used opera as a force for political and social commentary, thumbing his nose at the London Olympics in the upcoming  The Trojan Games and exploring activism in Nazi Germany, the Deep South and the Cultural Revolution in Kommilitonen!, a recent Juilliard production of which was in turn championed by Occupy Wall Street protesters in New York during its run. 

Despite his avant-garde edge and often prickly atonal style, Sir Peter has found a broader audience since being named Master of the Queen’s Music in 2004. The Royal Wedding and Diamond Jubilee have kept him busy composing for the Queen in recent years. “I do a Christmas carol for her every year for the Chapel Royal of St James,” he says of his official duties. “I haven’t written this year’s yet – but don’t worry, I will get on with it! 

“It’s been a chance to give serious music of all kinds a real profile. The Queen has been absolutely helpful in this role,” he continues. “I know the Queen’s taste and what she likes and doesn’t like, and I don’t want to subject her to things she doesn’t like, but that hasn’t stopped me dedicating a very brittle symphony to her for the Jubilee, which was done at the Proms.” 

The musical equivalent to the Poet Laureate, the Master of the Queen’s Music is a ten-year post coming up for renewal in 2014. I tell Davies it must be like choosing a new James Bond, and imagine the likes of Thomas Adès or Welsh choral composer Paul Mealor as next in line. But Davies can’t comment on who is under consideration as his successor. 

It’s a world away from his post at the Elder Conservatorium in Adelaide in the 1960s – “hell of a long time ago!” – where he encountered Australian composers Richard Meale and Nigel Butterley. “I had a wonderful group of students there and got to know Peter Sculthorpe from Oxford. They were absolutely brilliant and I have always enjoyed going back to Australia. 

“I thought, ‘this is where the future will lie in music, particularly because I was damn sure there was a big Asian influence.” 

One of the legacies of Sir Peter’s time Down Under is a “wonderful Shiraz” created by winemaker Peter Lehmann in the composer’s honour and named after his cycle Eight Songs for a Mad King, first performed at the Barossa Festival in 1993.

He says he is thrilled The Lighthouse has made it to far-flung Australia. “I want to wish Sydney Chamber Opera good all the best with my opera, and to say thank you so much for doing it.”

Sydney Chamber Opera‘s The Lighthouse, directed by Kip Williams, runs at Carriageworks from November 24–28. View event details here.