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Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The Greek Legacy

By Andrew Clements

This article was originally published in the Edinburgh International Festival programme, where the Next Wave Festival presentation of Greek (Dec 5-9) premiered in 2017.

In March 2018 the Royal Opera gave the first performance of Mark-Anthony Turnage’s latest stage work, Coraline, an ‘opera for family audiences’ based on the 2002 fantasy novella by Neil Gaiman. It was Turnage’s second commission from the Royal Opera. The previous one, Anna Nicole, had its premiere at Covent Garden in 2011 to the accompaniment of more hype and razzamatazz than any other new work introduced there in the previous 30 years. Anna Nicole had its US premiere at the 2013 BAM Next Wave Festival to similar fanfare. Turnage has travelled a long way from the operatic debutant who composed Greek in the mid-1980s and who at the time wondered whether he had been wise to get involved in such an artistically treacherous art form. ‘I didn’t want to write an opera at all’, he has said of his feelings then. ‘I agreed with Boulez about burning down the opera houses... Opera was not a natural thing for me and I had no interest in it until I decided to do Greek.’

When he began to compose that first opera, in 1986, Turnage was 26; he had a burgeoning reputation as one of the brightest and most distinctive talents among younger British composers, a reputation built on about a dozen, mostly instrumental, works. It had been Hans Werner Henze, whom Turnage had first met in 1983 at the Tanglewood summer school in Massachusetts, who had detected in him the ingredients needed to become a successful music-theatre composer. Henze worked hard to convince Turnage that he possessed those qualities, backing up that judgment with a commission for an opera for the first Munich Biennale, where Greek received its premiere in June 1988; its first British performances were two months later at the Edinburgh International Festival.

Henze had even suggested a possible starting-point to Turnage, steering him towards the plays of Edward Bond, who had supplied the librettos for two of Henze’s own operas: We Come to the River and The English Cat. In the event, however, Turnage followed his own instincts and instead approached the dramatist Steven Berkoff, asking him which of his plays he thought might form the basis of an opera. So it was on Berkoff’s advice that Turnage eventually settled on Greek, a version of the Oedipus myth relocated to the East End of London in the 1970s; he enlisted Jonathan Moore, who was also to direct the Munich premiere, to help him extract a libretto from the richly textured play.

It proved an instinctively appropriate choice, for the varied registers of Berkoff’s language, with dialogue whose tone ranges from the earthily vernacular to lofty, almost Shakespearean imagery, chimed perfectly with the musical idiom that Turnage had already forged for himself. That idiom has its roots not only in composers from the 20th-century art-music tradition, including Berg, Britten, Stravinsky and Turnage’s own teacher Oliver Knussen, but also in jazz, blues and rock. It all gave an edgy pungency and muscularity to the soundworld of the opera. Early in the composition process Turnage realized that the text could be conveyed successfully only in a mixture of speech and song: ‘I wanted the score to be direct and I felt too that all the bad language couldn’t be set to music. It has to be delivered quickly. There are a lot of swear words at key moments in Greek, so there is a lot of speech’.

After the premiere there was the perception, too, that by choosing such subject matter, giving it a sharp political edge and expressing the drama in such vivid musical terms, Turnage had been deliberately courting controversy. More than any other of his works it was Greek that gained him a reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of British music: ‘I was suddenly changed from being an establishment figure… into somebody who was the exact opposite’. That image would persist through much of the next decade, through the composition of his first orchestral works, which were the product of his association with Simon Rattle and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, and of the evening-long concert suite Blood on the Floor, with its elements of jazz and improvisation.

But just as it changed Turnage’s image, so the success of Greek to some extent changed the course of his career. As he admitted, ‘Although I haven’t written anything like it since, it was an important work for me and exorcised quite a few demons on the way’. Yet even after that watershed Turnage was never going to become an ‘opera composer’ in the traditional sense of the term: that is, someone who would generate a string of stage works in rapid succession. As it happens, his work-list contains just three more operas from the following three decades, including next year’s premiere. Another stage work, The Country of the Blind, a one-act opera based on a short story by H.G. Wells, has been withdrawn by the composer. The monodrama Twice through the Heart, based on poems by Jackie Kay, was originally intended as a chamber opera and formed one half of a double bill with The Country of the Blind at their first performance in 1997; but it is more accurately categorized as a concert work, a scena or song cycle for mezzo-soprano and ensemble.

The two subsequent operas that remain in the official Turnage canon, then, are The Silver Tassie, first performed by English National Opera in 2000, and Anna Nicole. In almost every respect — dramatic tone, musical style, subject matter — they are as different from each other as two works by the same composer could ever possibly be, yet each in its distinct way owes a debt to Greek, to what Turnage learnt from composing that work and to the theatrical confidence he gained from doing it so effectively.

For The Silver Tassie, with a libretto by Amanda Holden based on Sean O’Casey’s play about an Irish footballer who goes to fight in World War I and returns home in a wheelchair, Greek seems almost to have served as something to react against rather than as a platform on which to build. ‘If I’m really honest’, Turnage has said, ‘when I first got the commission for Greek I was disappointed that I was allowed an ensemble of only 18 players, though it would have been wrong for Greek to have had a large orchestra. But with The Silver Tassie I felt that it would be great to write something that made a big noise on stage.’ For all its impressive qualities — the assurance of the vocal writing and the orchestral interludes, the quasisymphonic shape of the four acts, the striking use of the chorus to sustain the drama through the second act — The Silver Tassie is in many respects the most conventional stage work Turnage has written, and one that dramatically and sometimes musically owes a lot to the example of Britten’s operas.

By contrast though, in its tone at least, Anna Nicole is sometimes recognizably the work of the composer of that first opera, even if Richard Thomas’s libretto (about the life and squalid death of the Texan pole dancer turned Playboy model and billionaire’s wife Anna Nicole Smith) is all too deliberately demotic and lacks the imaginative flights that give the text of Greek such buoyancy, both on the page and in performance. There is a satirical, cartoon-like edge to some of the characterizations in Anna Nicole that looks back to the way in which the ‘hero’ Eddy’s family is portrayed in Greek; but, for all its own subversive qualities, the earlier work possesses a moral dimension that seems to be deliberately avoided in Anna Nicole. Turnage’s music has naturally evolved and widened its stylistic reach too; the chorus writing in particular looks towards the world of musical theatre, but the way in which the various musical elements, whether from Broadway or pop, jazz or expressionism, are woven into a thoroughly self-consistent and personal style in Anna Nicole is as effective as it was almost a quarter of a century earlier in Greek.

© Andrew Clements
Andrew Clements is a music critic for the Guardian and author of the Faber handbook on Mark-Anthony Turnage. This article was jointly commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival and Scottish Opera for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival 2017 programme.

© 2018 Brooklyn Academy of Music, Inc. All rights reserved.

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