ENO Mini Opera: The final cut

On Harrowdown Hill - cover artUh… wow. What a weekend. I’m absolutely exhausted, but it’s SO been worth it. As I said on Twitter the other day, all SQUEE all of the time!

I’m not entirely sure where to start with this, but I guess the logical point is to say that On Harrowdown Hill is FINISHED! And not only finished, but submitted to ENO and on its way to being considered for the next round of the competition. Have a listen:

I’m not thinking too much about the next round. I would LOVE to be shortlisted, and would be an unstoppable ball of squee were I to be picked for the mentorship with Nico Muhly, but even if it goes no further, it’s been a massively worthwhile thing to do.

I think I said earlier that is the first time I’ve written in short score, which was purely for the expediency of having the vocal parts done in time for the singers to learn them while I worked on the (mostly) MIDI instrumental parts (small piece of trivia: I discovered last night, while reading The Muse That Sings, that this is how John Adams did Nixon in China and Death of Klinghoffer too – and for the same reason!). So it was a bit of a new experience, and orchestrating was actually a little harder than I thought it would be because I’d got so used to having the piano sound in my head that it was quite difficult to get rid of it from anywhere.

The beginning ended up fairly lush for me, really, all those strings, but as it went along it got sparser and sparser until at the end it’s just single notes in flute or electric violin underpinning the voice, and finally – after a quiet flourish across the ensemble – it’s just The Inspector. Partly this because I wanted to emphasise how isolated The Inspector feels by the end of it – he’s been thrown to the wolves and there’s nobody defending him; and partly it was down to a lack of time to write anything more complex while preserving that feeling. Oddly, I think the ending is possibly the part I like the best. I like how little underpinning there is. To me it feels both beautiful and really, really bleak, so hoping others feel the same way 🙂

For the fanfarey “They wanted a war”, I ended up cutting out snippets from each of the two piano parts to make the flute part, and doubling some of the bass gestures in the cello for a warmer tone. I think, had there been more time in which to write, and more duration to play with, I would probably have done something smoother with the transition into this section, but Chrissie’s marvellously wicked electric violin noise really helps make the transition sound not as twee as it did when it was just the piano.

I did want to refine and include some more percussion, but there just wasn’t enough time to even think about it – if I go back over it in a bit (which I may) then that’s probably where I’d start.

But overall I’m pleased with how it’s ended up. It’s not perfect, but I kind of like the rough edges too – they sort of go with the vulnerability of The Inspector and – I hope – reinforce his fragile state.

As I think I mentioned in an earlier post, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at writing an opera for ages, but it’s kind of a daunting thing to start and while I have my chosen topic, I’ve been a little nervous about starting real work on it – maybe I wouldn’t enjoy it that much, maybe I wouldn’t grasp key things about how the drama should work, maybe I’d spend 10 years on it and it still wouldn’t be finished. But this little toe in the operatic water has made me really determined to push on and try a larger project – it’s been so much fun, so satisfying and interesting that I really can’t wait to try my hand at another one.

I’ve hugely enjoyed working with the text and feeling my way through the dramatic differences between words and music, even when that meant I had to cut text or music I really liked. It’s been amazing being able to work with real performers, which still feels like a bit of a novelty for me. And even on the level of the mundanely technical, I’ve learned a heap of stuff – how to get Finale to print out timecode in a score, how to set Logic up properly to deal with a multi-timbral instrument so that it doesn’t overload the computer (DEFINITELY a bonus!). I even finally discovered how to normalise an audio track without having to bounce it in place! WHEE! That one’s eluded me for ages (yes, I’m sure it’s in the manual somewhere but I couldn’t find it).

So, there it is. All done and submitted. So it’s time for a list of thank-yous, because like any opera I couldn’t have done it entirely on my own, so a great big thank you to…

  • Shaun Gardiner for his wonderful libretto & banter on Twitter
  • Charles Turner for agreeing so early in the piece to sing the part of The Inspector – it really wouldn’t have had half the impact if I’d had to sing it!
  • Andrew Pickett for asking if there might be a part for a counter-tenor and thereby not only contributing a great voice (and more excellent Twitter banter) but ensuring that the final product was not marred by my having to sing any of the major parts at all.
  • Nick Allen for volunteering for the tenor part at a point where I had thought it might have to be a tenor-free zone
  • Chrissie Caulfied for agreeing to make scary, scary noises with her electric violin – I really think this lifts the whole thing and makes it all more dramatic
  • Jenni Pinnock, Tamara Tempera, Kris Martin-Baker and Rachel Rhodes for helping out with the chorus of Journalists
  • Chip Michael for his fabulous TwtrSymphony experience, compiled into a marvellously useful email that helped me know what to specify for the recordings to have any hope of making it all sound like everyone was in one room, not on various sides of the Atlantic. It’s not perfect in that regard, but a lot closer than it would have been without Chip’s advice.
  • and – of course! – English National Opera for running the competition in the first place – a great idea and a fantastic experience – I can’t wait to see what results from the video round!

Want to say something about the new opera or its process? Got a question? That’s what the comments are for!