In opera there are often far more dramaturgical possibilities if we all know what a character wants, but they sing about something completely different; a classic example is “Là ci darem la mano” from Mozart’s Don Giovanni – we all know the Don has ugly ambitions to add the bride-on-her-wedding-day to his long list of seductions. And so we savour the contrast between the sweetness of the best-tune-in-the-opera and this ‘insider knowledge’ of what’s really going on.
This dramatic tension, this way of allowing the audience to supply the crucial information, can be taken a step further to encompass the entire plot. One of the first times I felt I’d accomplished something that made a genuine artistic statement was with a mini-opera I wrote for Tête à Tête back in 2002 called Has It Happened Yet? It features three very elderly ladies in various states of decrepitude who are wheeled out by their perky nurse to watch a solar eclipse. It’s unclear to the audience whether any of them are in any state to take it in, and as one of the glories of nature rolls by in a musical interlude, the old ladies stare out at us, saying nothing. Then one of them repeats the line she’s been saying throughout – ‘has it happened yet?’ – and the piece ends. Nowhere in the opera is there any explicit expression of what the piece is about, but reflections on mortality, on the mystery of nature – and more all floated around in the air for the audience themselves to discover.
More recently I wrote an opera based on Janne Teller’s novel Nothing, co-commissioned by Glyndebourne and the Royal Opera House, and premiered in Glyndebourne in February 2016. In the story, Pierre Anton (just Pierre in our version) stands up in class on the first day of school and says Nothing Matters – it’s all meaningless, it’s all pointless. He goes off and sits at the top of a plum tree for the rest of the opera, pouring scorn and plums on anyone who comes within earshot. The rest of the class are somewhat perturbed by this and set out to prove him wrong. They collect personal possessions they feel have ‘meaning’, and when this proves to be insufficient, they agree to nominate each other for the items they must give up. This soon spirals downhill and leads them down a very dark path with grotesque and horrific consequences.
What I particularly admire in the book is that the whole question of ‘meaning’ – whether there is any, and if so, what it is – is left completely unanswered – it is left to the reader to make up their own mind. Is Pierre actually correct? – an uncomfortable but possible interpretation, particularly since the actions of the rest of the class are, by the end of the story, clearly misguided to say the least. Or is there a third option somewhere in between – or a fourth or a fifth?
I knew from my experience with Has It Happened Yet? that in such ambiguities music could usefully flourish, saying so much more than words could ever say, and allowing the audience themselves to supply the missing details.