2 OCTOBER 1976, Page 25

English Opera Composers (1)

Nicholas Maw

Rodney Milnes

It was Sir Thomas Beecham who remarked that the two greatest English opera comPosers were Handel and Delius. Before the second world war opera, like royalty, was imported. This may be a generalisation, but it is true that Balfe, Wallace, Stanford, Smyth, Hoist and Vaughan Williams—not to mention Delius himself—have not taken root. Careful revival of their works might Show whether or not our neglect is justified. But the post-1945 operatic explosion is still hard to explain. From being the Land ohne Musik, Britain suddenly found herself with three home opera companies performing nightly in London. The vocal material was already there: some of the best singers of the time were British—Eva Turner, Heddle Nash, Maggie Teyte—and more followed.

But there were two new elements. First, audiences. Despite sterling work in London by the magnificent Lilian Baylis (who seems to me a figure of immeasurably greater artistic significance than Diaghilev) and elsewhere by others, opera was still 'special', and imported, and largely social. Those who for one unpleasant reason or another had been in Europe discovered that in Lander mit Alusik opera was part of everyday life. Perhaps the most bizarre evidence for this discovery was a week's season by the Naples San Carlo company at Filey Holiday Camp In 1946. They played to audiences of 1,700 nightly, and special trains brought guests from London wearing badges showing a little man waving his hat and shouting Hurray, it's Butlin's!' The fact that this Proletarian Glyndebourne could not happen today may say something about so-called social progress in the last thirty years.

Second, the composers. Britten, the Pallas Athene of British opera, sprang fully armed from some scarcely definable divine head. The sensational premiere of Peter Grimes at Sadler's Wells in 1945 (by 1947 it was playing to over 80 per cent capacity at Covent Garden) and the hardly less significant Premiere of The Rape of Lucretia (1946) Which then played for eighty-three (repeat, eighty-three) consecutive performances, Meant that British opera was born. More Vaughan Williams, then Bliss, Walton, IIPpett, and a whole new generation of °Peril composers, all of whom admit that Without Britten's example (and help—his English Opera Group has either commissioned or first performed works by Walton, Birtwistle, Musgrave and Williamson) their Work would never have got off the ground. Not that all is well. Composers write 0. Peras. Then opera houses perform them, (bioth because (I presume) they want to and ,kbow) because they would get stick if they "Inn't. Fine, but just as Maurice Baring said it was the second editions of his books that were rare, so it is that the revivals of new operas are fewer than they ought to be. One reason is the same as in Baring's case—they are not awfully good. There are other reasons, among them that it is not easy to write an opera, or perform it, and today's composers get fewer chances in a still comparatively unoperatic country than the great masters did in theirs.

Some of the points to be discussed in this occasional series about today's English opera composers are: why do they write in a genre that many feel is defunct ; who are they writing for; what are they writing about ; what are the physical problems of writing; and, incidentally, how do they write? The last is perhaps the least important : how a composer puts his music together is his own business, and if you must know there are specialist magazines that will tell you. More important are the what and the to whom.

Nicholas Maw is almost unique in that his first (and hitherto only) two operas are both comedies. Both are successful, which makes him truly unique; if you go back to Mozart or Rossini, you will note that neither La finta semplice nor La cambiale di matrimonio are exactly mainstays of the international repertoire. Nor for that matter are Maw's One Man Show (1964) or The Rising of the Moon (1970), but the reason has less to do with their quality than with the way opera is organised in this (until thirty years ago) unoperatic country. One Man Show (libretto Arthur Jacobs) I have not seen, but 1 have 'read' it, and as far as I can tell from 'reading' it seems an extremely witty and well organised comedy. Loosely based on Saki's short story about the man with the tattooed back, it satirises pseudish aspects of the art world with jaundiced but sprightly humour that is matched by the sympathy with which it celebrates the emotional life of the unwitting art-object. Show was commissioned by the old LCC to open the Jeannetta Cochrane Theatre and was performed by students of the old Opera School. This association with two defunct bodies, coupled with the fact that in its revised form it lasts c. ninety minutes—that is to say it should form part of a double bill, a form to which audiences are relentlessly hostile unless it is exclusively composed of Cav. and Pag.—must have something to do with its non-revival. It was well received, and there are few operas I want to see more.

Rising, which I have seen twice only, was commissioned and staged by Glyndebourne. In two seasons it played sixteen performances to over 80 per cent capacity, which by current standards makes it a resounding success. I found the wit and warmth of the piece as enjoyable as its technical dexterity was stunning. I can think of no more wholly successful opera written or performed here in the last decade. So what went wrong? Maw believes that a success in one UK opera house diminishes the chances of a production in any other: there are simply not enough to go round, and those there are prefer to concentrate on staging new works rather than reviving semi-new ones, however accomplished. Maw is encouraged by a planned production in Austria, believing that an international success is crucial to an English opera's survival.

There may be a more basic reason for Rising's faltering progress. On the surface it is an uproarious comedy about the British army in Ireland, and that is one of those subjects that is simply not funny today. Even as one who believes that comedy is the only possible way to say something serious, I can see why managements baulk. Yet this is still without reason. There were those in 1970 who thought the work should be referred to the Race Relations Board since it portrayed the Irish peasantry as drunken, loud-mouthed cowards. They failed to notice that the British soldiers were depicted as loud-mouthed, drunken, hag-ridden amateurs, and that the Irish won hands down. I would add that despite determined Hibernian efforts to emulate them, the proper place for stage Irishmen is still the stage, and that not even the British army is quite so ludicrous as the endearing caricature engineered by Maw and his librettist, Beverley Cross. Apart from obvious musical characterisation, the setting is ultimately irrelevant. Maw calls the piece a 'romantic comedy', albeit one 'capable of tipping over into tragedy' and there is far more than just ethnic insult in itself a fairly harmless pastime—to Cross's text, which nods heavily in the direction of Hofmannsthal and must be the most skilfully organised and resonant libretto written for a comic opera since the days of that great man. Perhaps Wexford would be the perfect place for a revival— if Maw could be persuaded to devise reduced orchestration. Whatever else you can say about the Irish that they haven't already said themselves, they have a sense of humour.

The action of Rising describes the descent of the 31st Lancers on an Irish village in 1875. They are led by the fatuous Colonel Lord Jowler, Max von Zastrow (a Prussian officer on secondment and a professional amongst amateurs), and the ineffectual adjutant. The resisting Irish consist of Lynch, a stage Irishman if ever there was one, and as grotesque as Jowler, the doughty virgin Cathleen, who tries to put backbone into her male compatriots in much the same way that Zastrow does the British soldiers, and Brother Timothy, as ineffectual as the adjutant, the monk in whose ruined monastery the cavalry bivouack. In between come the womenfolk : Jowler's wife Eugenie, Zastrow's wife Elisabeth (a Marschallinfigure and veteran of as many erotic campaigns as Zastrow is of military) and Atalanta, the adjutant's massively silly daughter. Thus, in descending order of ludicrousness, you have three groups of quasimirror images: Jowler/Eugenie/Lynch Adjutant/Atalanta/Timothy; Zastrow Elisabeth/Cathleen; to whom can be added the similarly related supporting characters of Corporal Haywood, Cathleen's mother and Donal O'Dowd, who propel the action.

The catalyst is Cornet Beaumont, the flute-playing water-colourist who joins the regiment in Act I and enters clutching a bunch of freshly plucked meadow-saffron. The military reserve their fury for him rather than the Irish: Zastrow proposes an initiation ceremony—the effeminate botanist must smoke three cigars, drink three bottles of champagne, and sleep with three women before dawn. The denouement is predictable: the wily Irish lead Beaumont to the inn where the regimental ladies are sleeping. Act 2 is plotted with Feydeauesque precision and hilarity, though the couplings—two of them utterly unfarcical-are not so predictable, as Zastrow is involved in them. In Act 3 all is revealed to hugely comic effect, and the cavalry retreat in disorder leaving the Irish triumphant. Beaumont has brought Elisabeth her first tender and fulfilling amorous encounter, and awakened Cathleen's heroic heart to love—without, however, there being anything so sticky as a romantic happy end.

Of the many things to be said about Rising, the first is that it is wildly, not to say Wildely, funny. Maw is professional enough to insist that a commission be appropriately filled—for instance, the dinner interval is catered for almost literally, and he had to write parts for two European singers, though you would never have known if you hadn't been told, so essential do the Zastrows seem to the plot. On at least one level, Rising is ideal Glyndebourne fodder. Therein lies one possible drawback : Colin Graham's production, perhaps, and Osbert Lancaster's decor, certainly, emphasised the broadly comic at the expense of the romantic or serious elements. This may have proved a liability as far as other productions were concerned—you had to look for the meat. Although the libretto is as long and detailed (and witty) as one of Hofmannsthal's, the opera is shorter than most of Strauss'saround two hours and a quarter. As far as the music is concerned, it is not the neoexpressionism, the free atonality, the semiserialism, the tellingly spare use of Leitmotiv or the luxuriant orchestral texture that are as important as that music's constant aptness to the dramatic situation, the easy fluency of the word-setting and the subtlety and depth of the characterisation. Within the stylistic framework, Maw uses parody (military marches, for instance, or Lynch inevitably singing the words of 'The Rising of the Moon' to the tune of 'The Wearing of the Green'), straight scene-painting, exceptionally erotic love music, and such traditional operatic forms as the lullaby, the love duet, even the waltz song. Even more important to my mind is the crucial matter of dramatic pace, which for a second opera is quite brilliantly contrived. As Maw has said, somewhat ruefully, in the nineteenth century and earlier, composers could have a dozen or so bashes until they got their operas right (how many of Mozart's twenty-one stage works can you name ?); today you have two stabs at most before you are written off.

So, here we have at the age of forty perhaps the most naturally gifted English opera composer, with two successful works to his name in that most difficult of all genres— comic opera—whose progress has been limited by reasons largely beyond his control. What of the past and, rather more important for those who believe as he does, rather guardedly, in the future of opera as a form of expression, what of the future? Toscanini likened the world of music to a primaeval jungle. Maw compares the practical world of opera to a whorehouse where you keep your eyes wide open and have to make fearful compromises. He meant rehearsal periods, with busybodies telling you what to cut and how to change your scoring; as for the latter, he knew (rightly) that once the orchestra had come to grips with his uniquely full-blooded orchestral writing—a process that would take longer than an unsubsidised opera house could afford (again rightly)—the balance problem would recede. It did: Rising of the Moon is vividiy but exactly scored.

The second part of this essay will appear next week.