SPINNING A NEW YARN:
KNITTING THE ODYSSEY
In June of this year, on a remote American island retreat, surrounded by a Pelléas-like forest, I was putting the finishing touches to my latest opera when news intruded. On the National Public Radio there was a flash about a group of teenage US marines who had butchered defenseless Iraqi civilians, captured in the act on film. I was struck by a subsequent psychologist's account of the incident which emphasized that these marines were mere teenage boys, often from tough backgrounds who, though moulded into a fighting machine, were then asked to act as policemen, charged with keeping the peace. No wonder, the psychologist argued, these boys snapped under the strain of being put in such an equivocal situation.
This chimed strongly with Hattie Naylor's and my own take on the character of Odysseus: a warrior trained to kill. Yet, we were dealing with a man who was not a teenage marine, but rather a mature leader and legendary trickster, famed for living on his wits.
The Odysseus to whom we are introduced in our childhood is first a hero of brightly coloured children's books, a victim of superior forces who has fabulous Boys’ Own adventures, outwitting monsters and treacherous ladies of dubious repute. He then goes on to triumph over interlopers in his palace, appropriately restored to the arms of his faithful wife. Even as adults, we are still drawn to the glamour of this character, rooting for him, knowing full well, having read The Iliad, that Odysseus's picaresque adventures are actually penance for past misdeeds - not only the slaughter of Troy, but the totally wanton destruction of Cicones.
Operatic precedents conveniently fudge the issue of Odysseus' accountability for his past actions; in Monteverdi’s and Badoero’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria and Fauré’s and René Fauchois’s Pénélope, the emphasis is on a journey to resolution and domestic harmony. In our version, by contrast, Odysseus is a flawed con man, a smooth and suave psychopath, whose tales of his own adventures conjure up a nightmare of blood letting, which ultimately does him in.
Hattie Naylor and I settled on Odysseus for our subject after I had read a wonderfully vital version of the Odyssey she had crafted for a youth theatre in Bristol, in which the most powerful gods were played by the youngest children. Fortunately, she was happy to revisit the subject; but this time round, it would be the obverse - a war-blackened saga leavened with even blacker humour. Both Hattie and I reckoned that our vision might have been right up Tim Burton's street.
As it happened, there was more to this team than just composer and librettist. Our commission was from Tête-à-Tête, whose founder and director, Bill Bankes-Jones, had already asked me to write two miniature operatic sketches for the mixed bills, 'Shorts' (1998) and 'Six Pack' (2001). For this company, the choice of a well worn subject and, indeed, an evening by just one composer, seemed a retreat into conventionality; but, a chance conversation at Scottish Opera led to a connection that transformed the entire project in a most unforeseen way: a marriage of opera with the traditional crafts of the Shetlands.
Knitting, weaving and spinning, crafts which had been associated with forced labour only then to be abandoned during the oil boom of the 1970s, was having something of a renascence. Several exploratory trips served as fact finding missions; and I remember vividly when, in May 2004, in a wind swept Shetland croft, seeing a complex knitting pattern and having it explained to me patiently and being struck by the sudden realization that an aural correlation to the sumptuous graphic could be found, not so much by mathematical construction, but rather, by contour and density. It was the lace knitting, rather than the more colourful and traditional Fair Isle patterning, that exercised my musical imagination. Here, only when the knitting is finished and pulled into its final tension is the intricate and subtle patterning which creates the lace effect finally revealed. I found this to be an intriguing way of developing basic musical material, and it operates dramatically too; a passage in the opening scene where Odysseus taunts Hecuba recurs in ever fuller versions throughout the opera as various powerful ladies fling the taunts back at him, culminating in a full blown curse just before the end.
My personal epiphany notwithstanding, it struck as all that the Odyssey is rife with references to the crafts we were investigating, most obviously Penelope at her loom; then there was Odysseus's island hopping, which resonated most naturally with life in the Shetlands. Yet, connectivity aside, there was still trepidation when Tête-à-Tête embarked on a three week rehearsal period in Bethnal Green and Fair Isle, filmed by BBC2's The Culture Show, of an unfinished draft of the opera. Would this improbable cocktail of talent work at all? Starting with a simple skills-sharing session (knitting singers and singing knitters) within days what had seemed improbable became inevitable.
The finished opera is not an Odyssey relocated to the Shetlands (the BBC's working title A Shetland Odyssey was misleading), although when it comes to names and places, the libretto sticks to the originals (and at one fleeting point in the music, I could not resist including a traditional Shetland spinning song, Doon da routh, because it has phrase lengths lasting seven beats, corresponding to a weaving pattern--and also because it took over my head and simply had to be exorcised! The melody emerges in the opera accompanying Circe and some pigs doing the conga).
The smallish touring company for which the piece is designed comprises 18 artists (six singers, five craftspeople, seven instrumentalists). If the try-outs are anything to go by, the singing and acting talents of the spinners, weavers and knitters will be in evidence, as will the knitting abilities of the singers. Odysseus is the sole male voice, with the five female singers taking on all other roles, including sailors, suitors, even the Cyclops, not to mention the formidable women pitted against him: Hecuba, Circe, Nausicaa, the Sirens, Scylla, Charybdis and Penelope.
Elizabeth Johnston, the very first knitter engaged by Bill Bankes Jones, exhorted him to 'make knitting cool'. I reckon I'm asking him to do the same for opera. How these two most un-cool elements will combine to explore the psychological ravages of war is anyone's guess. Rest assured, though, being part of the team concocting the hybrid has been one cool adventure.
© Julian Grant 2006. This article appeared in the October 2006 edition of OPERA magazine.