The Greek Legacy

By Andrew Clements

This kind of article was originally published inside 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. the idea was Turnage’s second commission coming from the Royal Opera. The previous one, Anna Nicole, had its premiere at Covent Garden in 2011 to the accompaniment of more hype as well as razzamatazz than any different brand new work introduced there inside 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 coming from the operatic debutant who composed Greek inside the mid-1980s as well as 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 as well as I had no interest inside the idea until I decided to do Greek.’

When he began to compose of which first opera, in 1986, Turnage was 26; he had a burgeoning reputation among the brightest as well as most distinctive talents among younger British composers, a reputation built on about a dozen, mostly instrumental, works. the idea 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 of which he possessed those qualities, backing up of which judgment that has 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 2 of Henze’s own operas: We Come to the River as well as The English Cat. inside the event, however, Turnage followed his own instincts as well as instead approached the dramatist Steven Berkoff, asking him which of his plays he thought might form the basis of an opera. So the idea was on Berkoff’s advice of which Turnage eventually settled on Greek, a type of the Oedipus myth relocated to the East End of London inside the 1970s; he enlisted Jonathan Moore, who was also to direct the Munich premiere, to help him extract a libretto coming from the richly textured play.

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

After the premiere there was the perception, too, of which by choosing such subject matter, giving the idea a sharp political edge as well as expressing the drama in such vivid musical terms, Turnage had been deliberately courting controversy. More than any different of his works the idea was Greek of which gained him a reputation as the ‘angry young man’ of British music: ‘I was suddenly changed coming from being an establishment figure… into somebody who was the exact opposite’. of which image would likely 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 as well as the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, as well as of the evening-long concert suite Blood on the Floor, with its elements of jazz as well as improvisation.

nevertheless just as the idea 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 the idea since, the idea was an important work for me as well as exorcised quite a few demons on the way’. Yet even after of which watershed Turnage was never going to become an ‘opera composer’ inside the traditional sense of the term: of which will be, someone who would likely generate a string of stage works in rapid succession. As the idea happens, his work-list contains just three more operas coming 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 as well as formed one half of a double bill with The Country of the Blind at their first performance in 1997; nevertheless the idea will be more accurately categorized as a concert work, a scena or song cycle for mezzo-soprano as well as ensemble.

The two subsequent operas of which remain inside the official Turnage canon, then, are The Silver Tassie, first performed by English National Opera in 2000, as well as Anna Nicole. In almost every respect — dramatic tone, musical style, subject matter — they are as different coming from each different 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 coming from composing of which work as well as to the theatrical confidence he gained coming from doing the idea so effectively.

For The Silver Tassie, that has a libretto by Amanda Holden based on Sean O’Casey’s play about an Irish footballer who goes to fight in World War I as well as 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 actually honest’, Turnage has said, ‘when I first got the commission for Greek I was disappointed of which I was allowed an ensemble of only 18 players, though the idea would likely have been wrong for Greek to have had a large orchestra. nevertheless with The Silver Tassie I felt of which the idea would likely be great to write something of which made a big noise on stage.’ For all its impressive qualities — the assurance of the vocal writing as well as 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 will be in many respects the most conventional stage work Turnage has written, as well as one of which dramatically as well as sometimes musically owes a lot to the example of Britten’s operas.

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

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

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

The Greek Legacy

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