Classical Music: Experiment that breaks all the boundaries

The work of Gavin Bryars has always been pioneering, and his latest opera is no exception.

In an ever-changing world, few things are quite as certain as English National Opera's insistence on performing everything they do in English. So I wonder if the company knows how close it came to a rare linguistic excursion. Gavin Bryars tells me that at one point his new opera, Dr Ox's Experiment, might have been written in Esperanto.

Bryars is an experienced hand at making musical ideas work which turn out to be a lot less eccentric than they sound. His two most famous creations remain The Sinking of the Titanic - which extrapolates with startling literalness from eyewitness accounts of the Titanic's band continuing to play as the ship sank beneath them (what would their music have sounded like beneath the waves?), and Jesus' Blood Never Failed Me Yet. In this, a tape loop of the singing of an unknown homeless man in London became the basis of another single-minded exercise in cumulative repetition.

Bryars's way with music is, on the whole, a lot more eclectic than these two not entirely typical examples might suggest. His approach has its roots in an experimental tradition benignly encompassing different musical genres. He's an accomplished performer on the string bass in both the classical and jazz fields, and many of his works have grown from ideas tried out and developed with his own Gavin Bryars Ensemble, an operation which for him has always been about making music with friends, rather than pursuing compositional objectives as such. So rather than ask "Why?" when considering (for instance) Jules Verne's marvellously strange novella Dr Ox's Experiment as a possible stage project, Bryars's instinct is rather to ask "Why not?"

The story is set in the fictional town of Quiquendone in 19th-century Flanders, whose location is described by Verne with carefully obscure precision. "He says that it's a specific number of kilometres from Bruges," says Bryars "But at the same time, he states that it can't be found on any modern map. Also we know that Verne was president of the Amiens Esperanto Association. I think he may have seen the linguistic bifurcation of Belgium as something needing a solution.

"So I did think of doing it in Esperanto. Well, the chorus parts anyway. When English National Opera commissioned it, that rather changed things. By the way, people are still doing research on where Quiquendone actually is. A lecturer at the University of Ghent has sent me a learned paper about it. He wants to bring some of his students to see the opera."

The story is one of those bizarre science-fiction parables that are Verne's trademark. Quiquendone, whose inhabitants lead lives that are tranquil to the point of inertia, is visited by the scientist and adventurer Dr Ox. He offers to provide the town with modern street-lighting - a front for his main experiment, which is to study the effect on the people of injecting Quiquendone with an oxygen-type gas.

Mayhem ensues, notably in the performance of Act 4 of Meyerbeer's five- act opera Les Huguenots which takes place that evening in the town theatre. "Verne describes Les Huguenots specifically," says Bryars. "Everything in Quiquendone happens so slowly that there's only time to perform one act of an opera in an evening.

"But this time the gas has the effect of a huge musical accelerando. It speeds everything up, so that the whole performance is compressed into six minutes. Composing this, and incorporating Meyerbeer's music, has been very interesting." Les Huguenots, still a famous opera in Verne's day, is now a rarity. "I found a vocal score in the library in Leicester, near where I live," says Bryars. "The translation of the text was marvellously archaic and strange. Blake Morrison has put some of it into his libretto. At first the cast wondered if we were serious about asking them to sing it."

Sleepy Quiquendone now becomes a surging sea of political radicalism, broken romances, drunkenness and threatened insurrection. The mayor and the town clerk decide to unite the people in a common cause by resurrecting a centuries-old dispute with a neighbouring village about the ownership of a cow. As full-scale war threatens, Ox quarrels with his idealistic assistant Ygene. His unattended laboratory explodes, leaving the town to recover from its half-remembered dream, with some of its inhabitants more changed than others. A study, perhaps, in the thinness of the dividing line between notional civilisation and the disintegration of public order. Bryars views it differently.

"A Bosnia-style analogy would be crass, and Atom Egoyan isn't staging it like that. I don't see the story as a parable of manipulation, with Ox as a nerve-gas dictator. He's a scientist, and he's testing a hypothesis in an age when science was equated with optimism.

"This was before we found out differently in the 20th century. Perhaps that's something the Titanic story is about, too. 19th-century science finding its nemesis.

"Ox is rather like Captain Nemo in Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea. He has knowledge and technical awareness, and a view of social organisation which at the same time he feels himself above, and perhaps slightly despises. I tend to admire anarchists. The concept of a society without leaders is a positive one, even if the chaos that usually goes with it isn't. In such a society people perpetually have to take responsibility for their own lives. Which they don't want to do. Ox is interested in seeing if he can provoke these inert people of Quiquendone into some sort of self-awareness. It's a social experiment as well as a scientific one."

The range of musical resources gathered by Bryars to articulate this tale is deliciously wide. The orchestra includes such exotica as a flugelhorn and oboe d'amore, and in one of the scenes (which draws on Bryars's earlier work By The Vaar) there's a part for an improvising jazz bassist. Bryars himself was originally going to play this. "I just like to have something to do," he explains. "But ENO's orchestra now has a player in its bass section who'll do it very well instead." His deployment of voices, too, cuts across opera-house convention.

"There's a dark side to the story. But Ox is a tenor, not the standard bad-guy baritone. He has lyrical singing too, so that we're drawn to him musically and personally. The townsfolk have mostly low voices, and to contrast with them, I decided that the two pairs of young lovers needed a bright, early-music kind of sound. So they're high sopranos and counter- tenors. David James, who's one of them, was telling me that he's quite used to being cast as a character who's a rather nasty and twisted piece of work. I told him not to worry, because here, he gets both the girls."

Meanwhile Bryars can't resist pointing out that Dr Ox's Experiment has already been graced with operatic treatment at least once.

"Offenbach wrote an operetta based on it. Apparently it was unsuccessful, and was taken off after a `short' run of only 42 performances." His own creation is scheduled for a run of just five. Try to catch one of them.

`Dr Ox's Experiment' is at ENO, directed by Atom Egoyan and conducted by James Holmes, for five performances from 15 June (the world premiere) to 3 July, 7.30pm. A day of discussion and performance relating to the opera is presented at the ICA in The Mall by Opera Zone (devised by ENO's Contemporary Opera Studio) on 20 June, featuring Bryars, librettist Blake Morrison, and the ENO company. Information on performances and Opera Zone day: 0171-632 8300

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