One of England’s leading composers talks about his ‘last’ opera, Promised End, based on Shakespeare’s King Lear
What drew you to King Lear?
In about 2003 or ’04 I planned to do one more opera in my life. I had originally had the idea to do a Greek tragedy in a quasi-Baroque modern style. But then one night I dreamt of not a Greek tragedy in Baroque style, but King Lear in Japanese style. I hadn’t seen King Lear for years so I went out and bought a copy, re-read it, and wondered why I’d had this dream coming from nowhere. But as often in my life I've dreamt pieces, I generally take that as a message from somewhere and I’m inclined to act on it. So when I came back to England, I went to see my friend Frank Kermode, [the literary critic and Shakespeare expert], the obvious person to see on this subject.
You’d worked with Kermode before?
I’d collaborated with him maybe 10-12 years ago on Sing Ariel, my setting of the one poem by this productive writer of remarkable books, both of literary criticism and of something more properly defined as philosophy. So we became close friends, and the great thing about being a friend of Kermode’s was that he held your hand and led you to things which you either hadn’t appreciated before or didn’t know, and that is the kind of friendship that is most valuable in one’s life.
So how has it turned out?
The opera starts with Lear, disappointed and confused that he no longer seems to command the respect in the court that was his own. It perhaps parallels one’s situation as one grows older, and retirement and irrelevance make one feel one’s no longer in the centre of things. It’s about men who had influence and power who got it wrong – one [Lear] through exaggerated self-esteem and vanity, and the other [Gloucester] through banality – two great qualities which characterise human beings.
Are there significant differences from the play?
I don’t use Shakespeare’s ending where Edmund recants when he’s dying, which I consider quite banal. My end is more Brechtian: a fascist Edmund stands and is applauded. There’s no come-uppance – he triumphs. He’s defeated the French, Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan are both in love with him, and so is everybody else, as happens when dictators emerge. At the same time Lear, through his madness, has learnt a certain amount of wisdom. And he’s learnt it partly through the Fool who tells the truth, and the Fool and Cordelia in my version are one. They’re never seen ‘in the same room’ in Shakespeare’s play; possibly the same boy who played Cordelia could have played the Fool. But whatever Shakespeare may or may not have done, they sit very well together because they are the two people in the play who tell the truth.
You’ve had some bad experiences in past opera productions, haven’t you.
I think one of the problems of opera production is that an opera has a text, and the music already does a production of that text. If you have a director who has too many of his own ideas, and particularly ideas derived not from his knowledge of the score but from his knowledge of the text, he will contradict it. Artistically I find that offensive, and don’t like it when it’s done to me.
Whereas you’ve now found a more congenial director.
James Conway is someone who really draws considerable invention and variety – because I’m not suggesting that opera direction should just be a matter of respectfulness or anything like that: there’s got to be invention. But he invents out of being a good musician and out of the work. And he’s put together a jolly good cast – I mean it hasn’t taken place yet, but from the rehearsals with English Touring Opera I think it’s marvellous. Roderick Earle and Nigel Robson play the two main parts, and everybody else is very good indeed.
Promised End will be premiered by English Touring Opera on 9 October at the Linbury Studio Theatre.
Interview by Daniel Jaffé