ENO Mini-Operas: Starting point

I’ve been wanting to write an opera for a long, long time now. I have a big opera project on the simmer but have also long considered the idea of a Milhaud-style mini-opera. Then along has come ENO’s Mini-Operas project, a three-part competition for librettists, composers and filmmakers.

Part One is now complete and the libretti are all online, so it’s over to us composers now. I’m not sure whether I’ll manage to complete a score for this with everything else that’s going on right now – we’re homeless for the next month or so until we can get the bathroom finished in our new/old house plus I need to find me a dayjob for the couple of months before my Masters degree starts, so time is tight, but I really really want to give it a go.

So I’ve picked my libretto – Shaun Gardiner’s On Harrowdown Hill – and am starting to pull together a few ideas.

Firstly, the limitations: The score must be 5-7 minutes long, and a recording must be submitted. This means no cloud-cuckoo-land-please-can-I-have-David-Hobson-on-loan writing for voices or instruments I can’t have. I need to work with what I know I can get hold of at short notice. I have about 5 weeks from this point to write, record and submit the score.

So, to the libretto. I was really very taken by Gardiner’s use of language and the way he has laid out the text – he seems to have really thought about how the music might surround it, while I felt some of the others were a little wordy. I also like the Waiting for Godot feel to it and the possibility of using a chorus too.

However, on the down side, the story is a little unbalanced in that all the main characters are male: The Inspector, the Advisor and the Journalist are all described clearly in the libretto as being male. The Journalists and The Politicians don’t have genders assigned and could probably be mixed, but in reality politicians are usually men, so a male chorus for that group would probably work well.

My personal feeling is that either all-male or all-female casts of pretty much anything can get a bit samey. It can also be hard to tell a number of characters of the same gender apart unless the costuming/makeup/writing is radically different for each one. Plus I know very few singers and most of those are female!

So I have a small dilemma to start with: Do I stick with the letter of the libretto and try to work around a predominantly male cast and perhaps re-use singers for different roles? Or do I fudge it a bit and make one or more of those characters a female part for the variation in timbre and tessitura that will provide? Writing one part for a counter-tenor then getting it performed by a woman might be another solution, resulting in a score which is true to the libretto but also balanced and practical for a recording. I may even write a part for myself – I’m no trained singer, but I might be able to make it work, and my range is an unusally low contralto – I’ve sung tenor in choirs in the past, which might make it plausible.

So far my plan is (probably):

The Inspector: bass-baritone
The Advisor: tenor/low contralto
The Journalist: counter-tenor/alto
The Journalists: chorus of women’s voices
The Politicians: chorus of men’s voices

Thinking cap is on… as is trying to find people to sing! If you’re a singer – either solo or choral – have recording equipment and are interested in being involved, please let me know!

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