The wheel of fortune turns for new opera

The ROH's latest 'everyday' tale revolves around a lottery, its star and composer tell Jessica Duchen

If there is one thing more scary than giving the world premiere of a brand new opera, it is doing so from a fair distance above the stage when you suffer vertigo. Any anxieties the soprano Emma Bell may have had about her role in Judith Weir's Miss Fortune at the Bregenz Festival last year were blown out of the water by the time she was in place.

"[My character is] supposed to be on top of a building," Bell says, "but I am absolutely paralysed by my fear of heights. When the curtain goes up I am not worried about my music, because I'm on this thing that's wobbling." Bell has reached heights of a different kind as she takes the lead in this latest work by the doyenne of British composers – its UK premiere is at the Royal Opera House (a co-production with Bregenz) next week. Bell is an exceptionally versatile soprano who excels in repertoire ranging from Handel to the present day, and her career has been growing incrementally ever since she won the Kathleen Ferrier Prize in 1998. This, though, is the first time a composer has created a new role especially for her.

Miss Fortune is probably the first opera ever to finish with the heroine winning not only her man, but also the lottery. Based on a Sicilian folk legend updated to the present day, it depicts a world polarised between rich and poor, in which the wheel of fortune spins to extremes according to chance.

Judith Weir likewise faced a new challenge with Miss Fortune. At 57, she is one of Britain's most respected opera composers; her A Night at the Chinese Opera created a sensation back in 1987 and subsequent offerings Blond Eckbert and The Vanishing Bridegroom drew commensurate acclaim. But this time she received a brief from David Pountney, director of the Bregenz Festival, requesting "an opera for an entirely normal audience". The result is the latest in an ongoing rush of "relevant" operas.

"I've never known a time before when people have been so interested in new opera," Weir says. "It's fantastic, even though it's not easy to find the finance."

Last year British audiences experienced Mark-Anthony Turnage's take on tabloid culture in Anna Nicole, Nico Muhly's detective story Two Boys, Damon Albarn's celebration of the Elizabethan astrologer, courtier, alchemist and spy Dr Dee at the Manchester International Festival and John Adams's Dr Atomic, which explored the creation of the nuclear bomb. This year has already seen the first London staging of Adams's more-than-relevant The Death of Klinghoffer at English National Opera. So there is much for Miss Fortune to live up to.

"The story is about people losing all their money and somebody having to live in ways she just didn't expect," says Weir. "The original folk tale involved a complicated twist, so I looked for the present-day equivalent: a chance that would mean you have a fortune forever. Obviously that was a lottery ticket. Many people now feel that the only way their future could improve is if they were to win the lottery. The whole country, more or less, functions like this and perhaps one could link that with the world of stocks and shares. It's all working on a lucky ticket."

The opera could be widely approachable, too, thanks to its straightforward structure. "Some strange things happen," says Weir, "but it's a flowing, operatic story told from A to Z."

It's crucial to a new opera's success that the singers should be at one with the creative concept. According to Weir, both Pountney and Covent Garden's own casting director, Peter Katona, suggested early in the opera's developmental process that Bell should be the heroine, Tina.

"We needed someone with the freshness and agility to sing interesting music," she says, "but also someone who can 'colour' the music right through the vocal registers: an unusual singer who could keep the audience's interest both vocally and as an actress for an extremely long sing – Tina is on stage almost all the way through. Knowing what sort of person I was writing for, both vocally and visually, was valuable."

"It was exciting to be part of that creative process," says Bell, "and to feel that my input was really valued. Everyone's searching, so you're not sidelined if you make a suggestion. And I like the freedom of singing something for which there is no benchmark: a new work is yours for the taking. It's a wonderful privilege because it's not every day this happens."

"It's a very contemporary story about things absolutely as they are at this moment," Weir emphasises. "Things are in a huge state of flux, rich versus poor; what will happen to everybody? It has a very bright, attractive cast, and it really has had a chance to bed down since Bregenz, so it will be an extremely well-prepared production of a new work." Bell adds: "And we've got break-dancers. We are the all-singing, all-dancing Miss Fortune."

'Miss Fortune' is at the Royal Opera House, London WC2 (020 7304 4000) 12 to 28 March

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor