CLASSICAL MUSIC / A sheep that bites: The revival of Rudyard Kipling's fortunes has now spawned an opera. Robert Hanks explores tonight's Cheltenham premiere

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THE BEST popular image of Kipling is a caricature by Max Beerbohm. He drew him as a little man with a bristling moustache, arm in arm with Britannia, kicking his legs out jauntily and tooting angrily on a tin trumpet, with the caption: 'Mr Rudyard Kipling taking a bloomin' day aht on the blasted 'eath, along with Britannia, 'is gurl.' The jingoism, the over-elaborate aping of a proletarian accent - this is the Kipling, self-appointed propagandist for British imperialism, who as imperialism faded became a longstanding embarrassment to English literature.

Even when he has been appreciated, the appreciation has often been grudging. Orwell, in 1942, swallowed his distaste for Kipling's politics far enough to admit how striking much of his verse is. But he saw his chief virtue as purely historical - he depicted a side of the Anglo-Indian experience that other writers had ignored - and could bring himself to place Britain's first Nobel laureate no higher than a 'good bad poet'.

This folklore picture of Kipling overlooks the depths and complexity of his work: he has a talent unmatched in English fiction for putting himself in the other man's shoes, for faithfully reproducing the point of view of ordinary soldiers, civil servants and labourers; an almost obsessive minuteness of observation; and, above all, a phenomenal energy. Like Updike, he could produce prose of a density and verve that make it exhausting to read.

In recent years, critical opinion has swung behind Kipling, and the judgement of the Nobel Academy has come to look not so much wrong-headed as premature. (Most of the work on which his reputation now rests, ruthless, complex short stories, such as 'Mrs Bathurst' and 'Mary Postgate', were written after he won the prize, in 1907 at the age of 42.) When Michael Berkeley began thinking about an opera based on The Jungle Book, he spoke to a number of possible librettists - the poets Craig Raine and Peter Porter, the novelist David Malouf - and even chewed over Kipling's case with Salman Rushdie: they were unanimous in saying how underrated Kipling was.

In the end, it was Malouf who joined forces with Berkeley, and the result of their collaboration, Baa Baa Black Sheep, will be premiered at the Cheltenham Festival tonight. It's now a much more complex work than Berkeley can originally have planned: both he and Malouf felt that The Jungle Book was too hackneyed to be done straight - Malouf says: 'It seemed to me that people will come to it with ideas conditioned by the Disney film, and I wanted to restore some of the power and some of the terror.'

His solution was to merge the Mowgli stories with a chilling short story, 'Baa Baa Black Sheep', that Kipling wrote in his mid-twenties. In the story - thinly veiled autobiography - the young Punch and his sister Judy are dispatched from their happy family home in Bombay to spend the next five years in a boarding-house in Southsea run by the puritanical Auntirosa. Harshly bullied by her teenage son, Punch's only friend is Auntirosa's husband, a former sea-captain, whose death is one of the story's more disturbing elements. The boy turns in on himself more and more, resorting to books for comfort. By the time his mother arrives, neglect has left him nearly blind; when she bends to kiss him good night, he tries to ward off the expected blow.

Berkeley detects in the original story an explanation for much of Kipling's later writing - 'All the elements of revenge and cruelty.' The opera makes the relationship far more explicit. In Malouf's scenario, Punch's refuge is not in books but in imagination: the Mowgli stories are a series of fantasies in which he faces his enemies and masters them; through dreaming he can cope with his daily miseries. 'Once I started thinking about it with David, all the characters in this pitiful story about Auntirosa and the House of Desolation (Kipling's name for the boarding-house) seemed to have a natural and logical alter ego in The Jungle Book, so the bully Harry becomes Shere Khan, the Captain becomes Akela the old wolf . . . '

This structure has enabled Berkeley to play with two sound worlds, using notes from a pentatonic scale to allow East (represented by Thai gamelan) to meet West. This is Berkeley's first opera. A project with Angela Carter based on Virginia Woolf's Orlando was aborted - he now thinks that was just as well, since it would have been a set of tableaux, 'wonderful games', 'Whereas here one is dealing with cruelty and profound emotion in a way that I was able to relate to musically.'

Cruelty seems to be something that Berkeley has been wanting to do for some time, and Baa Baa Black Sheep has been, at least in part, something 'which would tap that source'. The spin-off has been two of his most successful pieces, the 1991 Clarinet Concerto and Entertaining Master Punch, in which critics detected a hard edge and a depth of feeling he hadn't achieved before.

The attraction for Malouf is harder to pin down. He says that for him the appeal of opera is that 'all the words and all the emotions are going to be translated into another language . . . I'm interested in forms of language that don't have to do with human speech. My books often refer to those things unspoken - feelings, gestures, silence.'

You can see why he wanted to do this story: one fact that seems obvious - although he says that he had to have it pointed out by somebody else - is that the theme of the outcast child, deprived of language, recurs in his work. In An Imaginary Life (1979), the poet Ovid, exiled to a remote, barbarous land, meets a boy who has been nurtured by animals; Remembering Babylon, published in May, concerns a young white man who has lived with aborigines for 16 years and has only a confused memory of his mother tongue.

Unlike Berkeley, he is an old hand at opera, having previously written two libretti for the Australian composer Richard Meale (including Voss, taken from Patrick White's novel). His experience has taught him a certain amount of humility: in his introduction to the published libretto, he writes: 'A libretto is in most ways a poor creature: not a work in its own right but the ghost of a work that is still to be born, a form that is not intended to be dramatic in itself but to be the occasion for drama of another kind.' He takes self-effacement a step further in Baa Baa Black Sheep: the spare libretto is, in fact, a deeply cunning collage, containing virtually no words that aren't taken directly from Kipling.

Such modesty is helpful from Berkeley's standpoint, and he says he's grateful for Malouf's readiness to take suggestions for reshaping the work, building up some parts, experimenting with the pacing - 'Having said that, when you ring people and say 'I'm thinking of cutting this', there's always a moment of hesitation there.'

As Malouf said during rehearsals last week, though, 'That's the nature of a collaborative work . . . The librettist can only do what the composer has to do in the end - say, I've taken it this far, somebody else has to take it farther. That's what Michael will be finding now, the director and the designer will be making it their work now, extending it in ways he didn't dream of.' And that might make a good moral for this story, and for Kipling, the spokesman for a declining imperial power: you have to know when to abandon the dreams.

'Baa Baa Black Sheep', commissioned by the Cheltenham Festival and performed by Opera North, opens tonight, 7.30pm, at the Everyman Theatre, Cheltenham (0242 227979). Further performances on 7, 9 July

David Malouf's libretto is published by Chatto & Windus, pounds 8.99

(Photograph omitted)