Librettist & musician
I was blessed in that my first exposure to opera was Mozart’s Don Giovanni, in which drama and music reach their most perfect balance. By the age of 7 I had absorbed the piano/vocal score word-for-word and note -for -note. By this stage I was an only moderately motivated student of the piano, for whom the fascination with musical notation lay more in how they could be rearranged than in their faithful reproduction at the keyboard. At this stage I was, I suppose, a composer.
My mother, with whom I was privileged to share the earth for almost 67 years, saw this propensity in me and and encouraged my musical interest without force-feeding me. Her own high octane, which shared with her own mother and brother, was literature, but for her music was the food less of love than of logic. Very early I was exposed to the flamenco and cante hondo shellac discs which she acquired while visiting Spain on business trips with my father. Those rough-diamond gypsy voices and unpolished street bands had a resonance with me that I rediscovered in my later adventures in the blues and jazz.
I was a solitary child, but happy in my solitude. A congenital condition excluded me from vigorous physical exercise and this combined with trauma following the death of my father, caused me to miss large slabs of schooling. Much of this enforced truancy was filled by the study of orchestral scores, especially of the Romantics of the early 20th century. Benjamin Britten, who cast such a giant shadow over opera in English, also grounded me in idiomatic instrumental writing in the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra, then almost a new work.
Somewhat later a childhood friend of my mother took to visiting our home and brought with him a sheaf of sheet music copies from the Great American Songbook – Gershwin, Cole Porter, Rodgers and Hart among others. This again was an invaluable entry ticket into the world of jazz.
I took up the trumpet, which has remained my career instrument, partially through the influence of Look Back In Anger, in which John Osborne’s anti-hero Jimmy Porter plays jazz trumpet. This has had a bearing on the subject choice of both my operas in which the central figures both fit the anti-heroic mould. The protagonist of The Circumnavigator is a lone yachtsman who fakes a round-the-world voyage, while Tom, the boy-hero of The Water Babies -based on a book which has engaged me on many levels since my early childhood – undergoes a stern and sometimes brutal initiation while emerging a grown-up version of the feisty urchin he was at the beginning. The themes which for me recommend it are Kingsley’s love of nature, passion for social justice, breadth of vision and his eye for wit and irony.
I love opera but I find very few operas engaging. Those that do often often have a theme in which the lives of those of lower social standing, even outcasts, are celebrated rather those of high birth and nobility. Aside from the above mentioned Don Giovanni, my choice, not necessarily from a purely musical viewpoint, would include Carmen, Boris Godunov, Wozzeck, Porgy and Bess and The Threepenny Opera of Kurt Weill.
The water babies
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