Classical music: How to make an opera that sings

The creators of `Hey Persephone!' have never worked with opera. Are they a dream team or a recipe for disaster?
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TAKE THREE WOMEN: a composer, Deirdre Gribbin, at the beginning of a career already marked by an original approach to sonority. A playwright, Sharman Macdonald, whose first play, When I Was a Girl I Used to Scream and Shout, won the 1984 Evening Standard Award for Most Promising Playwright, and whose The Winter Guest was filmed by Alan Rickman. And a director, Hettie Macdonald (not related), with a reputation for staging new work, notably Jonathan Harvey's Beautiful Thing. None of them has ever worked in opera, but now they're collaborating on a new opera, Hey Persephone! A recipe for disaster? Or are they the dream team, bringing innocence and freshness to an idiom in desperate need of just those qualities?

The days when new opera was a natural feature of the musical landscape are long gone, and Deirdre Gribbin acknowledges that, before this project got underway, she "wasn't sure what the purpose of contemporary opera was, why we needed new opera". Yet once immersed in what she describes as "the whole idea of drama and words and how music can enhance and transform them," she was hooked.

The relationship between Gribbin and Sharman Macdonald was fostered by the Aldeburgh Festival, but, as Gribbin recalls, not everything went quite as planned: "Sharman and I talked through a lot of ideas, but when I got the libretto, I read the title, Hey Persephone! and thought: this is not what I expected. I don't think this is anything to do with what we've discussed. But we'd talked for a long time, I'd read her plays, and I felt there was definitely a strong connection between our work. Her language is very beautiful, poetic and light, and I soon had strong visual images of the interaction between the characters. Then I began to hear the sound- world I wanted."

In fact, Sharman Macdonald was just as surprised by the title and subject: "I hadn't meant to rewrite a Greek myth at all. I was going to write about a dance class in South London, but while I was sitting in my garden one day, contemplating that idea, this phrase came into me head: `Hey Persephone, your dinner's ready... ' It was completely unlooked for, but you have to go with these things. Nevertheless, I didn't go back to the original myth, I only took the points that I remembered: the pomegranate, the relationship between the mother and the daughter, and the father who sorts everything out. Then I moved it into Glasgow and into the present. There's no line in it now about her dinner, but there is mushroom soup. There was always mischief in the idea; it was laughter that began the libretto, and I hope there's still laughter in it, although let's not go so far as to call it a comedy."

After the initial shock of Macdonald's libretto, Gribbin had to find the music to fit: "I spent a long time with the text before writing any music, to the point where I almost knew the libretto by heart. I knew I was going to have to be with the piece for a long time, and that writing an opera is a huge process that you can't just dabble in, so I waited until I had space to work at it. I read the libretto in a very special place to me, on Hadrian's Wall, giving myself time to absorb Sharman's rhythmic ideas, and her structures. We have different perceptions of dramatic structure, but then composers play with time in a very different way from writers. I worked alone for a year, from five in the morning until ten at night, which taught me a lot about being a composer, more than I've ever experienced before. I cut some text because it had to be a 90-minute opera, and it was difficult to choose which words to use, which not to use. I'd have liked to use them all, but I hope I've allowed enough space for things to happen."

The responsibility for ensuring that things do indeed happen has now passed to Hettie Macdonald, a director familiar with the joys and heartaches of bringing new work to the stage. "The difference here,' Macdonald suggests, "is that I have two writers, Deirdre and Sharman; and each has her own voice, so it's tricky to find a way through that does them both justice: but its also an interesting challenge. So much of the work with a play is building it up so that you have the right pace, the right shape. With an opera, all that is decided by the music, so you work backwards from there. During the first weeks of rehearsal, I had to be patient because, quite rightly, all the singers were worried about was the technicalities of the music. Then when they'd got the music, I came in to talk about character, story and so on. For me that's back-to-front. What I would normally do in the first two weeks of a rehearsal period, I'm doing in the last two weeks. Fortunately the singers are great. You hear horror stories about the grandes dames of opera, but everyone here is completely committed to the piece."

As a director used to working with speech, Macdonald has been touched by opera's fundamental attribute: the characters sing. "Being sung to is the most directly emotional experience, it goes straight into you at a very deep level. Because I don't read music, all I had to work from at first was the libretto, and I worried that I wouldn't be able to interpret the piece; but the first day of rehearsal was so moving, seeing the singers sitting there, pouring out this wonderful music. The minute you hear it and get to work on it, it's just like directing a play, only they're singing."

And so Hey Persephone! Is born. It opens next week at the Aldeburgh Festival, which has a distinguished record with opera premieres, from Britten and Birtwistle to Tavener and Turnage. Gribbin, Macdonald and Macdonald sounds like a firm of solicitors. Soon we'll know whether they're a first-class team of opera-brokers.

`Hey Persephone!': 26 June, Snape Maltings, Suffolk (01728 453543).

1-3, 5 July, Almeida Opera, London N1 (0171 359 4404)