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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

The novel of the opera

By Norman Lebrecht / July 8, 2004

Down in the mists of Greenwich, miles from the nearest Ring, they are dusting off Graham Greene's only opera. Never seen it, say the buffs. Worth a tube trip for curiosity value. Add it to the stock of esoterica for the bar chat at Bayreuth.

That's how opera fans go about their business, collecting wayside works for the inevitable Wagnerian longueurs. Some of these almost-rans are of more than passing interest, indicating how opera might have matured had it kept pace with the rest of the creative world. But while every other art remade itself several times in the past century, opera stuck to formula and shut the book on self-renewal.

Considering the immensity of its contribution to 19th century opera, it is anomalous that English literature has been bypassed by the opera house in modern times. In the heyday of romanticism, the works of Sir Walter Scott spawned more than 50 operas, from Rossini's version of The Lady of the Lake (1819) to Bizet's Fair Maid of Perth (1867), not forgetting Donizetti's sanguinary bel canto adaptation of The Lady of Lammermoor (1835) with its mother of all mad scenes. 

Shakespeare supplied more opera plots to the trade than any other author. Byron was twice a source for Verdi with The Two Foscari and The Corsair, and twice for Donizetti. Wagner based Rienzi on a novel by Bulwer-Lytton. Oscar Wilde was the source for Richard Strauss in Salome (1905) and Bernard Shaw for Oscar Strauss in The Chocolate Soldier (1908).

Then the shutters fell. For all the vitality of the contemporary English novel, opera for some reason lost the plot. While dramatic theatre is gripped by literary ferment and ballet is forever looking to cut the edge, opera fled the front lines of creation. Formaldehyded in singing lines, periwigged in gesture, opera lives in terror of being exposed as an anachronism. It sticks therefore to its safety zone, the distant past. The only modern opera of any account to be based on a recent novel is Krzysztof Penderecki's 1969 setting of Aldous Huxley's The Devils of Loudun, a would-be shocker that gets revived here and there for the naked antics of its fornicating nuns.

Just imagine what might ensue if a Zadie Smith story were to be made into an opera before the paperback came out. Or if Covent Garden had latched onto Philip Pullman before the National Theatre blew him into box-office dynamite. Lamentably it has become axiomatic that no living English novelist will reach the opera stage.

The last time it seemed feasible was in the early 1960s when a buzz of post-Brittenites attacked opera from various directions. While Alexander Goehr engaged in political protest and Harrison Birtwistle in raw violence, Malcolm Williamson approached the best novelist of the day and asked if he could set his new bestseller for Sadlers Wells.

Graham Greene was in transitional mode. Our Man in Havana in 1958 had marked his first attempt at comedy. 'An entertainment' he called it, basing seedy Jim Wormwold, a vacuum-cleaner salesman in a banana republic, on the ever-struggling Julian Maclaren-Ross, a gifted, drunken London writer who paid his rent by selling domestic appliances door to door. Greene assented instantly to the offer of an opera. 'By all means have it,' he told Williamson. 'I'd like two tickets to the first night.'

Rostrum Opera, the ensemble behind Williamson, had no money. 'I thought, vacuum cleaners?' recalls Rostrum founder, Russell Brown, 'I'll go to Hoover. They said: how much do you want? and wrote a cheque on the spot.' 

By the time Williamson had a libretto to work on, Our Man in Havana was on at everybody's local as a successful Hollywood movie, directed by Carol Reed, with Alec Guinness unforgettable in the title role. Williamson's librettist, it so happened, was Reed's production partner, Sidney Gilliat, who was also writing the St Trinian films. Small world.

The opera attracted modest attention and mixed reviews. The Times' music critic, William Mann, complained that it trivialised a good yarn. Desmond-Shawe-Taylor in the Sunday Times praised its effervescence, spontaneity and convincing atmospherics. Greene, who attended the opening night on July 2, 1963 with his brother Hugh, the director-general of the BBC, wrote a wry letter to the Times, accusing its critic of confusing the opera with the movie. 'As the author of the film script,' he remarked, 'may I say that I infinitely preferred Mr Gilliatt's libretto?' He found the music 'very satisfactory'.

Our Man in Havana went on in 1966 to KarlMarxstadt in East Germany and Debrecen in deepest Hungary. It was next seen at Ystad, Sweden, in 1981 and in a college production at London's Cochrane Theatre in 1987. A fresh run, the first in 17 years, is being put on this week at the Greenwich Theatre by students and faculty of Trinity College of Music.

It would be precipitate to draw general conclusions about opera and the English novel from a single work, but there are indicators that Our Man in Havana was made to last. Greene made a point of telling anyone who asked, myself included, how much he had enjoyed the opera and how he would like to see adaptations of other works of his. The Trinity production comes as an appetiser to the Almeida's new musical of Brighton Rock which opens in September, with a score by John Barry and direction by Michael Attenborough whose father, Dickie, was the iconic Pinkie in the 1947 John Boulting movie. What everyone remembers of The Third Man is its zither theme. There is an inner music to Greene, which makes the failure of his only opera the more perplexing.

Malcolm Williamson went on to make an opera of a second modern novel, The Violins of Saint-Jacques by Patrick Leigh Fermor. An instant hit in November 1966, it was revived by English National Opera over four consecutive seasons and taken on a six week tour. Williamson, an amiable Australian, was made Master of the Queen's Musick in 1975, after which he was smitten by creative infertility until his death last year.

Few composers have pursued his interest in recent fiction, with the exceptions of the Dane Poul Ruders who made a useful opera out of Margaret Attwood's A Handmaid's Tale and the dull Nicholas Maw, whose Covent Garden version of Sophie's Choice seemed more rooted in the movie than in William Styron's original novel. 

Where contact occurs between novelist and composer - as, for instance, between Ian McEwan and Michael Berkeley who have produced one oratorio and are talking of another - it is invariably for a concert work, never an opera.

The loss of engagement lies not in a failure of dialogue between composers and writers but in an opera industry that resoultuely ignores creative progress. Where theatres employ a dramaturg to search for and develop new writing, opera houses employ a person of the same title whose job it is to ensure that everything is done in coherence with established tradition, admitting no novelty (or new novels). Where theatre peers ahead, opera looks back. Only one new opera, Nixon in China, has been taken into the international repertoire in the past two decades, during which time we have read a hundred new novels that will last the test of time. Without renewal, there is no hope. Our Man in Havana was an isolated failure, but its fate can be read as a signature on opera's death certificate. 


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]



(c) La Scena Musicale 2001