I recently gave a paper on my upcoming opera alongside collaborators Dr Jorge Balça (stage director, librettist) and Dr Rachel Hann (scenography, lighting) at the Festival D’Aix-en-Provence. For context, “the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence is an annual international music festival which takes place each summer in Aix-en-Provence, principally in July. Devoted mainly to opera, it also includes concerts of orchestral, chamber, vocal and solo instrumental music.” [Wikipedia]
This year’s festival took place both online and in person and was very well attended. The point of presenting at this event is to garner interest in our opera project and hopefully make a connection with an opera house who would want to help produce it. This presentation follows on from our workshops with the Gulbenkian Foundation which you can read about here and here, and also watch on my YouTube channel here.
I document the process of presenting at this festival in a video on my YouTube channel here.
What follows is my music part of the presentation, which gives an idea about my perspective and approach to composing this opera.
When the narrative explores conservative characters, the music matches and is more traditional. When we meet the queer community, the music is freer and experimental. Music is also used as an outfit for characters: when the queer community enter, especially the drag queens, we hear them sing in established gay anthems that may or may not be recognised by an audience. When we get to know these characters in more depth and their back story, the music is freer and experimental and explores an ‘open space of frequency’. During these experimental atonal moments, the audience will no doubt hear particular styles in the music, whether this be ‘postmodern’, ‘avant garde’, ‘experimental’, ‘atonal’, so on. We are all in the same system of rules, and labels are applied to everything as a means of understanding it. What is more challenging for a listener is breaking consistency. Once an audience thinks the opera is ‘traditional’ (for example), it’s not, it’s ‘experimental’ (for example). As a composer I’m especially interested in what lies between these labels and styles, what is that point at which music changes from being ‘traditional’ to being ‘experimental’ (for instance). I think those in-between moments are the most concentrated form of uncertainty a listener can experience and something I want to explore more in this opera. The opera is about how identity does not have to be consistent and can change from moment to moment. This inconsistency is the most challenging concept to grasp when it comes to applying definitions to things, and so playing with musical styles and finding the ‘in-between moments’ is how I feel this concept can be explored musically.
There’s a second opera representing the protagonist’s inner thoughts that’s played through headphones. The audience can choose whether or not they want to listen to this part. The music in the headphones part always contrasts with what is on stage but also compliments it (it’s not two competing operas, they work together). When the music is traditional on stage, it’s avant garde in the headphones part and vice versa. This represents the protagonist’s inner thoughts conflicting with their external circumstances as they struggle to find their identity in that moment, but also how the external and internal can influence each other and work together.
During our workshop at the Gulbenkian Foundation, we experimented with ear-bud headphones and found that they blocked off the sound in the room and on stage. We decided to experiment with bone conductor headphones and we workshopped these in the UK. The bone conductor headphones work well for what we are trying to do because they allow a listener to hear what is on stage and also hear an additional headphone part without the two competing with each other. The bone conductor headphones also mask the sound source and so provide an interesting ethereal quality better suited to representing our protagonist’s inner thoughts.
You can watch the whole process of my writing this opera so far in a selection of study vlogs that can be found on my YouTube channel here.