A COMPULSIVE NARRATOR:
THE OPERAS OF JUDITH WEIR
Over the past year, in unexpected and undemonstrative ways, the UK opera world seems to be remembering that Judith Weir is one of its most original creators. It is nigh on twenty years since her first large scale opera, A Night at the Chinese Opera (1987), was launched by Kent Opera. Norman Platt, the general director, had had the foresight to commission a children's opera from Weir, The Black Spider (1985) and recognized a musical dramatist in embryo. Prior to these actual staged operas, Weir had brought a rare narrative panache to the often glum and earnest contemporary concert hall of the 1980's in a series of works that blurred the boundaries between drama and music. A Night at the Chinese Opera was a critical and public success, establishing Weir as a rare natural opera composer and led to further opera commissions that were written in quick succession: for Scottish Opera, The Vanishing Bridegroom (1990), and for English National Opera, Blond Eckbert (1994) . All three were televised and received US premieres at either Santa Fe or St. Louis, but then, bar a few appearances here and there, they did not get staged as much as they deserved. Kent Opera, as is well known, was brutally axed, and though A Night at the Chinese Opera has been under discussion many times for revival by major companies in the UK, nothing has materialized. Scottish Opera's projected revival of The Vanishing Bridegroom fell through, despite the work being a notable success with public and critics, and Blond Eckbert, for ENO, came at a time of regime change and deficit and was not revived, though it was through ENO in the Nicholas Payne era that a chamber version was first mooted and the piece has received three separate productions in Germany, where the literary fairy-tale upon which the opera is based is a classic. Fortunately, a recording was made on the short lived Collins label which has been recently reissued on the NMC label, who also recorded A Night at the Chinese Opera when it resurfaced for a single concert performance by the Scottish Chamber Orchestra in 1999. But, on the whole, considering the quality of the pieces under discussion, such neglect is indicative of the marginal state of new opera in our culture. Fortunately Weir's smaller dramatic works, of which more later, have become part of the repertoire and receive many performances and stagings.
Recently there have been chances to reappraise Weir's three big operas. The Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama mounted an accomplished production of The Vanishing Bridegroom in the summer of 2005; and another student production at the Royal Academy of Music of A Night at the Chinese Opera was widely covered by the critics, Blond Eckbert is now also resurfacing in a chamber version by the composer herself to be toured by The Opera Group, who in a very short time have cut a swathe for themselves with their imaginative commitment to new work and unusual repertoire. And then there's Armida, as well. What, you ask? Well, you would have thought that the first work by a major contemporary musical dramatist in 12 years to bear the moniker ‘opera’ would garner some attention; but no, and maybe there is a cautionary tale here. Channel 4 screened this new piece, directed by Margaret Williams (a long time collaborator who had also directed Scipio’s Dream  -a reworking of Mozart, and the television production of Blond Eckbert), a made fortelevision opera updating an old Crusading story much beloved of opera composers from previous centuries, (Lully, Jommelli, Handel, Haydn, Rossini and Dvorak) to a contemporary war-zone, on Christmas Day 2005, along with a splendidly detailed documentary, but with turkey, relatives and re-runs of The Wizard of Oz no-one much seems to have watched it, or even reviewed it. Reschedule please, C4, so more people can assess where this piece stands in relation to Weir's other prodigious musico- dramatic accomplishments.
Judith has the edge over many of her contemporaries by being thoroughly in control of her dramatic language. She writes her own libretti, joining the august company of Wagner, Mussorgsky and Janácek, but, she also knows the value of collaboration. Her career is marked by distinguished relationships with directors, film-makers, choreographers, storytellers and singers, accounting for the theatrical fluency of her work and the difficulty us commentators have in pigeon-holing her works. Narrative is the key. As Judith herself puts it in a programme note she wrote for a chamber reduction of Waltraute's Narration from Wagner's Götterdämmerung: "Nothing excites me more in opera than those moments when someone says 'Listen ! I've got something to tell you'." And like Wagner, despite profound differences in scale and emotional environment, her operas resound in moments where crucial information is imparted to us by someone recounting a tale. In fact, the whole of Blond Eckbert is driven by such a device; it is Berthe's fourteen minute narration, recounting her early life around which the rest of the opera revolves.
Narrative was possibly revolutionary stuff for the 1970's and 80's. At many opera studio forums, much earnest discussion centered upon the death (or irrelevance) of narrative - much as it did on tonality in music. In contrast to some notable contemporaries Weir did not affect a disdain of a crumbly old opera tradition, but, rather, engaged in a quizzical, yet affectionate, dialogue with it. She has herself cited that superb moment in the last act of Rigoletto when Rigoletto recieves the sack containing, as he thinks, the Duke, only to hear the hit tune La donna è mobile sung by the supposed dead body offstage - a moment so impudent in its dramaturgy as to be both chilling and telling - and an almost comic harbinger of the theatre of the absurd both at the same time. This duality is at the very core of Weir's work and it is most revealing that she should have chosen Stravinsky's Oedipus Rex as one of her Private Passions on BBC Radio 3, and also writing an article on that piece (from a personal point of view, which gives much insight into her own predilections as a musical dramatist) for the 1991 ENO Opera Guide. Stravinsky and Cocteau's work, with its deadpan narration and stylized use of Latin - a dead language- to retell the story, shows a lethal control of dramatic irony, echoing musical devices that were deeply unfashionable in 1928. Leonard Bernstein has pointed out parallels with Aida, there are allusions to Handel, Meyerbeer, Greek tavern music and more; yet no-one could accuse that score of being pastiche. It is a veritable sourcebook for Weir's work, who similarly can transmute recognizable allusions, both musical and dramatic, into something personal whose authorship is never in doubt.
What counts as opera in Judith's oeuvre will be, I'm sure, sustenance for scholars in years to come. Some of her earliest works could be dubbed 'operas-in-waiting' - for reasons of scale they inhabit a concert hall, but have narrative/dramatic techniques that are identical to her fully fledged stage works. The most reductionist of these, and her calling card, performed by many leading and student singers, is King Harald's Saga (1979), a twelve-minute 'Grand Opera in three acts' for unaccompanied soprano singing eight solo roles and a chorus representing the Norwegian army (Imagine the panoply, time and padding Meyerbeer would have needed to recount the same events!) . Taking not only the narrative, but the deadpan tone from Icelandic sources, the hugely epic events are recounted with speed, economy and comic understatement. In The Consolations of Scholarship (1985), described as a 'music drama' for soprano and nine instruments, a Yuan dynasty tale unfolds (this piece is the embryo for A Night at the Chinese Opera with which it shares both narrative and musical material) through plain narration and philosophical discourse. Both these early pieces have since been fully staged, further confusing exactly what classifies as opera within her oeuvre. In Caryl Churchill's play, The Skriker (National Theatre 1994), for which Weir provided incidental music, a mini opera suddenly appeared in its midst; and in HEAVEN ABLAZE in his Breast (1989), a retelling of E.T.A Hoffmann's The Sandman (source of the Olympia story for Offenbach and Delibes) eight dancers, six singers and two pianos, dancing, opera, spoken word and extended vocal techniques are intriguingly enmeshed. Lately, when Weir has not written many theatre pieces and has become noted for her chamber music, we come across a totally new departure in Future Perfect (2000), a collaboration with Indian performing storyteller Vayu Naidu, where the music is incidental, but contains written-in options to accommodate all outcomes of the improvised story.
It is an old adage in the opera world that no matter how interesting the concept, it is the music that matters; and recent re-acquaintance with Judith's operas has shown just how fresh, individual and new-minted this music is. It is welcoming, it belongs to a recognizable tradition, it is tonal, it is melodic. But, more importantly it is not the neo- Puccini/Berg all purpose post-romantic bland brew that the above adjectives might imply (‘available’ - as one opera director I know has it). Deriving from minimalism in early works, her style has evolved into a finely honed symphonic and motivic discourse that has had an ongoing relationship with many outside sources, notably folk music, from which she has drawn a fluent and highly idiosyncratic melodic vein. Sometimes her use of naturalistic speech rhythms bring her close to Janácek, though, in A Night at the Chinese Opera, these do not propel; but, due to their being duplicated simultaneously by the orchestra, seem to both support and undermine the text - a very quirky and instantly recognizable trait. A major part of the novelty and surprise of A Night at the Chinese Opera when it appeared was its structure of tightly organized self-contained scenes, in essence, a number opera. This approach contrasted mightily with so many contemporary operas where it was evident the composer was really only interested in being in the pit and not up on stage, conceiving a pseudo- Wagnerian discourse that seemed to treat voices or theatrical timing as inconveniences. The brightness and scintillating texture of this opera and its uproariously funny moments showed, once and for all, that earnestness was not essential to writing an opera that dealt with serious issues. In The Vanishing Bridegroom, Weir seems to be re-inventing herself. The vocal writing is much more operatic, the tessitura more strenuous, the tint of the score much darker; and the acts unfold in continuous structures, not stopping and starting in between scenes. Blond Eckbert inhabits a structural middle ground - the two acts are rigorously symmetrical in design and divided into scenes, but the breaks between these scenes are fluid. The musical language is the darkest of all, tortured and often chromatic, as befits this introverted tale of loneliness, but always with a near Gallic feel of grace and balance.
The extreme skill with which Weir imports foreign objects into her scores, for atmospheric or ethnic purposes, and assimilates them so thoroughly into the musical fabric, draws to mind an incongruous parallel with Puccini, who similarly can achieve a strong sense of place and context by integration. Both composers, in their incredibly different styles, can weave the contours of folk or other ideas into the texture of their scores so that the 'found' objects are absorbed organically, without the slightest hint of grafting. Thus, in A Night at the Chinese Opera , pentatonic writing pervades the score, not evoking early twentieth century chinoiserie; but it does permit the parodic second act, an interrupted performance of the play, The Chao Family Orphan, with its reduced orchestra of mainly flutes, violas, basses and percussion to provide, in the composer’s words, ‘imaginative reconstructions of Chinese originals’ to assimilate effortlessly with the through-composed sections that surround it. In The Vanishing Bridegroom, where three separate Highland tales are combined giving the semblance of a family saga, evocations of traditional music abound, notably the wailing violins playing distorted reels accompanying the ill fated wedding in part one and the plucky heroine of the third part’s introductory song, that uses Scotch snap rhythms. In Blond Eckbert, the local colouring is subtler, but still pervasive. Set in the Harz Mountains, this literary fairy tale by Ludwig Tieck (1797) has more sophisticated musical and dramatic allusions, from shadowy echoes of Weberesque hunting songs and horn calls, Schubert lieder (both already familiar in her work from The Black Spider and HEAVEN ABLAZE in his Breast) and even an omniscient wood bird (an inescapable reminder of Wagner's Siegfried) who sings a pithy ditty:
BIRD: (suddenly blunt and shrewd) ‘Waldeinsamkeit’ I feel all right;
Alone in a wood,
Things go as they should.
All day and all night;
Nothing could be more characteristic of Weir than this little passage, barely accompanied at all, with intermittently chattering woodwind chords and sudden, disconcerting silences. It is haunting and familiar all at the same time. Is it a folksong? Maybe. There is a strong pentatonic feel; and then the penny drops. It is a distillation from Wagner's waldvogel: the contours of the melody are incredibly close, and yet, in feeling, so very different.
Blond Eckbert, a new version of which will be unveiled this month at the Linbury Studio, was an interestingly scaled piece for the London Coliseum, for which it was conceived. Judith mentioned at the time that she wanted an experience similar to Siegfried of very few characters (four in all) dwarfed by a huge stage. The original production by Tim Hopkins and designed by Nigel Lowery was extraordinary, a piece of theatrical art, which involved film and some of the most striking visual imagery, the amplitude and profligacy of which contrasted strongly with Weir’s fiercely pared back score - a score that is extremely intense and forces you to listen, but runs at only 65 minutes. Written for standard symphony orchestra, the writing is austere and exposed, like a collection of disparate chamber groups. For this new version, Weir has cut nearly 300 bars (citing the space on stage - Linbury versus the Coliseum - for such pruning) and rescored the opera for a chamber group consisting of oboe, harp and two each of clarinets (+ bass clar.), horns, violins and 'cellos. Owing to the newly pruned score the first half of the evening will contrast ‘real’ musical fairy tales (as opposed to the literary Tieck) by young composer Kenneth Hesketh and a short piece conceived for the concert platform by Weir: Really? (2002). This is a nine minute piece predominately based on the Brothers' Grimm, for singer (involving speech, sprechstimme, and singing), and three instruments, as Judith puts it ‘written to illustrate my thoughts about the many ways in which music helps, and hinders, storytelling’. It will be instructive to see how this will offset Blond Eckbert in its new guise. It should, by rights, win the piece new friends, and maybe encourage opera companies to revisit the original - or even better, coax this composer to write again for the lyric stage where she is so undeniably in her element.
© Julian Grant 2006. This article appeared in the June 2006 edition of OPERA magazine.