Composing 'Emily'

The hardest thing you’ll ever do

Originally written for Sound and Music in advance of the first performance of my opera Emily

At a recent panel discussion organised by Sound & Music at the Royal Opera House, Jonathan Reekie (Chief Executive at Aldeburgh) warned the assembled composers, in ominous tones, that putting on an opera would be “the hardest thing you’ll ever do”. I was just about to embark on the production of my first full-length opera, so this caused my eyebrows to rise. I already had half a dozen smaller music-theatre works under my belt (single-act pieces, staged to a greater or lesser extent), which were not all that hard to do, and I didn’t think it would be that much more difficult to mount a full-length work, albeit fully staged, with around 50 people involved, for a run of several nights.

How wrong I was!

Merely writing a 2-hour opera (and libretto, too, in my case), copying up the full score, rehearsal score, and parts, and delivering it all on time is relatively speaking the easy part. This took me around 18 months and was both utterly absorbing and cathartic. The opera is about Emily Davison, the Suffragette who was killed while protesting at the Epsom Derby in 1913, 100 years ago. In the course of my research I learned so much about Davison and the Suffragettes and I was staggered by the way they were treated by the authorities, by their sacrifices, and by the tenacity with which they fought, against the odds, for a right which, today, is so taken for granted that many don’t even bother to vote at all.

I decided that I would also direct this show, as I knew the piece inside out and I had a clear vision for how it should work on stage. Given that I have an amount of “business” experience I was also the de facto producer. Not that this is a one-man effort – far from it – I’m working with an excellent team. We also needed a cast, sets, promotion, an orchestra, a chorus, and of course funding: just some of the many difficult hurdles which made me start to think that Mr Reekie was not far off the mark at all.

Funding was probably the least fun part of the whole project, a feeling that I suspect I share with many. We were successful with the PRS for Music Foundation and the RVW Trust, along with the local town council in Todmorden, West Yorkshire, where the production is taking place. There is a lot of local involvement in the opera, and we convinced many local businesses to help us either “in kind” or with small amounts of sponsorship, which soon add up. We even took part in the local carnival, in costume, and bagged 3rd prize: another £50 in the kitty!

Casting was done with some assistance from the nearby RNCM, and also by simple word of mouth recommendation. As a result we have an excellent and exciting cast of principals. Our highly enthusuastic chorus comes from the local population: mainly from the local choral society and amateur operatic groups. The music director is an amazing musician who runs the choral society, but by day he’s a solicitor. The orchestra (of 13) is made up of first-rate players from the surrounding area, an all-ages mixture of retired pros, conservatoire students, and everything in between.

Designing the opera has been one of many pleasures in this production. I’ve been working with Lara Booth who I first came across at the RNCM’s Albert Herring – her early 20th century design was just the feel I was looking for. When it comes to construction, we’ve a team of local DIY-ers led by one of my neighbours, a former engineer who builds panto sets as a hobby! The results so far are stunning…

This brief overview of some of the challenges I’ve met mounting this opera certainly backs up Mr Reekie’s assertion. I’d say that rather than this 2-hour show being four times as challenging to organise as the previous half-hour shows I’ve done, it’s more like 20 times the work, but also 20 times the fun. And the curtain hasn’t even gone up yet...