Coales' Notes: Give me libretti or give me death: Another week in the world of culture: Gordon Coales becomes a worker in the opera factory

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The Independent Culture
TUESDAY: Well, an extraordinary stroke of good luck. This job is finally beginning to pay dividends. I am to supervise the production of an opera - Spuntini's I Gallesi (?)

We have brought off a great sponsorship coup on behalf of the OperaTion Company, though on the condition that the sponsor - a Mr Royle - be personally involved at every stage of the production. This has fortunately led to the resignation of OperaTion's Administrator, so I have been seconded to the project in a 'keeping people happy' capacity. I tried to find a recording, but it's not in the catalogue.

WEDNESDAY: Perhaps we don't have an opera. I had a call from someone called Colin who said he was a 'freelance dramaturg'. He had discovered I Gallesi for OperaTion but it was still on approval. He just wanted me to know (a) that the opera was completely unheard of and (b) that for an early 19th-century work, it had an incredibly contemporary resonance for us today - several in fact. 'And that's what they like isn't it? The contemporary echo.' I said I believed so. He said: 'Back me up please.'

I also had a word from our sponsor, Mr Royle. He said that he enjoyed opera so much more, he found, if he didn't know what was going on. So that was going to have to be another of his conditions. I replied that if he was going to be involved at every stage, this wouldn't - with the best will - be very easy. He said: 'Oh, once they start singing I shan't understand a thing. Just don't tell me the story.'

THURSDAY: First production meeting. Present were Mr Royle, Colin, the OperaTion team and myself. Introductions. Then Colin announced he had prepared a synopsis of the opera, and proposed to read it to us. The OperaTion Director said 'Let's hear it.' I explained Mr Royle's scruples. The Director said it was impossible. But Royle kindly said he would go out, and not come back till it was 'all over'.

Colin reminded us of the 'almost uncanny contemporary resonances' in I Gallesi and began: 'The scene is set in medieval York, imagined in this opera to be under, er, Welsh occupation. After an overture, the curtain rises on the keep of the Welsh Duke's castle. A Chorus of Ducal Guards. They sing . . .'

The Costume Designer said: 'Nazi uniforms then.' The Set Designer said: 'I'm seeing a car park.' Make-up said: 'Scars?'

Colin asked them to bear with him, and continued with emphasis: 'They sing sadly of the brutalising effect of army life on the soldier. Geralda, the Welsh Duke's daughter, then enters with her lover Arnoldo. He reveals to her that he is secretly fighting for the Yorkshire cause, and intends to destroy the castle by explosion. Alone, Geralda expresses her doubts. Arnoldo - is he a terrorist or a freedom fighter? She knows well her father's tyrannical disposition. As a child he had abused her continually. But in what circumstances, if any, can violence be justified? She cannot decide, and departs in anguish.'

The director said: 'Hold on. This opera was written in 1823?'

Colin said: 'Definitely. And now a comic scene follows. Two apprentices plot to steal a cart, lash the horses into a gallop and run it into the front of a shop. Geralda then re- enters, now mad, with a Chorus of Courtiers.'

Costume said: 'Courtiers? Decadence, right? Zips. TV maybe.'

Colin went on firmly: 'And they ask, is she mad? Or merely very sane? Is anyone normal? Then Grahamo, Geralda's brother, enters in shock. Arnoldo has blown himself up. Death, Grahamo sings, what is death? It is the Great Unmentionable. He vows therefore not to mention it. A Chorus of homeless people arrives . . .'

Costume said: 'I'm sorry, this is the third costume change for the chorus and we're still in Act 1. It's incredibly expensive doing homeless people you know. First the costumes have to be made, and then they have to be soiled and distressed.' Make-Up said: 'Would there be any sores, or signs of plague or anything?'

The Director, who had become visibly restless, suddenly said: 'I can't do anything with this. D'you see what I'm saying. I can't do anything with it. It's already much too . . .' He passed his hand over his head and left the room, but returned at once, and said to Colin: 'I mean, does it actually say homeless people in the libretto? Is that what it says?' Colin said: 'Well, in effect.'

The Director said: 'Not in effect. Does it actually, literally say homeless people? Or does it actually, literally say peasants?' Colin admitted he had done a little fine-tuning to the libretto. He thought it was what they wanted. It had been peasants originally. The Director said: 'Right, peasants. Who are, in effect, in our society, in essence, quite obviously, the homeless. Sure. But don't do my job for me.'

We all sat in silence. Mr Royle looked round the door and asked 'Is it all over?' I proposed that we adjourn, pending a more authentic synopsis. As we were going, the Director said to me: 'In fact, what I think I'm going to become passionate about is this very fundamental conflict at the centre of the opera, between the Welsh and the people of Yorkshire. That's it, isn't it?'

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