Is there a house for this Doctor?

Jules Verne wrote a story about a doctor who liked to play with gas. Gavin Bryars wanted to turn it into an opera. Blake Morrison wrote the libretto, but soon began to wonder if `Dr Ox's Experiment' would ever come off
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8 JUNE 1988

Letter from an agent representing the composer Gavin Bryars, asking would I be interested in working with him on an opera based on Jules Verne's novella, Dr Ox's Experiment. "It is unlikely that it would be produced before 1990," she says, but in the short term, there is a concert at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in November, at which Gavin would like to premiere part of the work. I don't know Verne's novella. I don't know Gavin Bryars or his music. I've only ever once been to the opera. I have a day job at the Observer, and 120 novels to read by the end of August for the Booker Prize. So I say yes, I probably would be interested.

EARLY JULY1988

Am sent a photocopy of Dr Ox's Experiment, which is out of print. It's an 100-page story of a typical Verne scientist-adventurer, who comes into a sleepy Flanders town where nothing has happened for centuries - barley sugar and whipped cream are its only industries, and the average courtship lasts 10 years. Offering to install gas lighting, Dr Ox secretly conducts an experiment to alter the behaviour of the docile townsfolk. The change of tempo as Dr Ox's gas works its effects has obvious dramatic potential. There's also a debate between Ox and his assistant Ygene (Ox-Ygene: Verne likes to pun) on the ethics of scientific progress. And a love interest. And a war theme. And a long description of an opera, Meyerbeer's Les Huguenots, at a performance of which Ox's experiment takes place. Even I can see why Bryars thinks all this could work as opera.

LATE JULY1988

Gavin Bryars comes down from his home in Leicestershire for lunch round the corner from the Observer's Marco Polo building on Chelsea Bridge. It's a small Greek-Italian place, with children's crayons on each table and paper tablecloths you can doodle on. Opposite Gavin's daunting presence - he's not only large in build but has one of those huge domed heads, like Philip Larkin's - I doodle quite a lot, trying to hide how unqualified I feel for the job of librettist. But I've listened to his music by now, and I like it. I like him, too: a strange mix of old Yorkshire (Goole accent, love of cricket, rootsiness) and something much more polyglot and modernist (apart from Verne, his chief enthusiasms seem to be Marcel Duchamp, pataphysics, Charlie Haden and Tom Waits). We shake hands on the project.

NOVEMBER 1988

Gavin performs with his ensemble at the QEH. The last piece is an epilogue to Dr Ox's Experiment, with the soprano Sarah Leonard. Impressed, one reviewer says he hopes Gavin might now be commissioned to do a full-scale opera: his only previous opera, Medea, was staged in Lyon, not here. Fingers crossed for a 1990 premiere.

JULY 1990

Italia '90: the voice of Pavarotti, the tears of Gazza, but still no opera-house interest in Ox, so I guess that's that. More encouragingly, Gavin sends me a copy of a letter from Dennis Marks, assistant head of Music & Arts at the BBC, who says that Ox done as a musical film is "an intriguing idea, and one which I think we might well pursue".

1991

Pause.

1992

Silence.

1993

A new version of Gavin Bryars's Jesus's Blood Never Failed Me Yet, with Tom Waits, is a surprise hit.

SUMMER 1994

Gavin and I go to Edinburgh to meet the Canadian director Robert Lepage, to see his Seven Streams of the River Ota and to ask him over breakfast next morning if he'd be interested in becoming involved in Ox. Gavin talks to him about pataphysics. I get a piece of sausage stuck in my gullet, and spend most of breakfast choking in the Gents.

AUTUMN 1994

Eureka! Dennis Marks, newly arrived to head English National Opera at the Coliseum, has formally commissioned Ox, for staging in late 1996 or (more likely) spring 1997. Gavin is keen that the Hilliard Ensemble be involved in some way, and that radio mikes be used for the character of Dr Ox. It's clearly not going to be a conventional work. Who would be the right director, if, as it now seems, Robert Lepage is committed elsewhere?

SEPTEMBER 1995

We have a potential director at last: David Pountney, one of the famous 1980s ENO triumvirate. Though the libretto isn't due to be delivered until late 1996, and the music until early 1997, casting decisions have to be made at once: singers sometimes get booked up years ahead. Gavin has long had in mind who he wants to play the two lovers in the opera - Valdine Anderson and David James. The more immediate problem is how large a role to give Ox and Ygene: in Verne's text they remain rather shadowy and enigmatic, but wouldn't this be wrong in the opera?

OCTOBER 1995

Meeting with a television production company, Kudos. They're very interested in developing Ox as a film - and so is the BBC. The idea would be to reinvent the stage version as an original movie, to be shot on location. Find all this very alarming. Have only just started writing the libretto, and now there's pressure for a screenplay. Movies of plays of books have been done before, but I'm afraid of this becoming The Unmade Film of the Unstaged Opera of the Out-of-print Novella.

NOVEMBER 1995

People keep asking: is it difficult writing words for singers? In truth, I haven't a clue, and start to panic when they go on about diphthongs and lower sevenths and three-bar harmonic phrases and all the stuff I never thought about during my brief, inglorious musical career (piano lessons with Mrs Brown, carols in the village church, drummer with a band called the Crofters, etc). All I can do is write a text for Gavin to set his music to, and make cuts and changes when he asks, and hope that words like "gasworks" sound all right in the mouth of a soprano and that "oxyacetylene blowtorch" is a phrase a tenor can sing.

JUNE 1996

Now the BBC and ENO are jointly commissioning Ox, and the film will go ahead as well as the opera. A frightening schedule arrives from the production company, with weekly deadlines for research, scripting, cast briefings, recces, finalised development packages, etc. Send stalling fax in reply. Know that Gavin too feels disorientated at the thought of rewriting the score (which for the film will have to be 30 to 60 minutes shorter), when he's not written it in the first place. Wonder how a film version would be affordable, even if shot in Czechoslovakia, which is, it seems, much cheaper than Belgium. Names like Randy Newman and Bono are knocking around. Air of madness about the whole thing.

JANUARY 1997

Gavin now deep into composition. Much flying back and forth of faxes: can't imagine how Mozart and Da Ponte managed without. Am slowly realising how few words there's room for. Have also begun to worry how many of them will be heard: 10 per cent? 20? 30? On bad days, feel indignant at the prospect of the libretto playing so small a part in the experience people will have of Ox. On good days grudgingly accept that the librettist's is a humble role - with words, as Auden said, "as expendable as infantry to a Chinese general".

12 FEBRUARY 1997

ENO has "postponed" Ox. Under the Arts Council's new "Stabilisation" programme, the company can have its very considerable deficit wiped out if it balances its budget. And guess what the easiest way to achieve that is? To dump the one contemporary opera in the spring season. Feel angry and betrayed, and keep muttering words like "philistinism" to myself. But Gavin stays calm and keeps working, and Dennis Marks rings to reassure me that postponement doesn't mean cancellation.

MAY 1997

The putting off of Ox means we've lost not only several of the cast but also David Pountney. But the Canadian film director Atom Egoyan is interested. I remember Gavin saying back in 1994 that he thought a film director would be ideal. Meet Atom when he pops over from Cannes, where his film The Sweet Hereafter is showing. We walk round the Hayward and talk about double cream. I like the fact that he's sympathetic to the victims of Ox's experiment, and won't present them as comic caricatures.

JULY 1997

Surprise, surprise. Having had its budget cut, the BBC Music & Arts department has decided it can't now go ahead with a full-scale film version of Ox and that it will film the stage version instead.

SEPTEMBER 1997

Dennis Marks resigns from the ENO, but says Ox will still happen.

OCTOBER 1997

Take the train to Market Harborough in Leicestershire with Atom and his designer, Michael Levine. At Gavin's house we listen to an electronic simulation of the music of Ox: the score is now complete, but has been played only on synthesisers, and the singing is represented by a strange plinkety-plankety sound, a bit like that old Fifties - was it? - Goons song, "Ying-tong-ying-tong," etc.

DECEMBER 1997

Most of the recasting for Ox is now complete: we have an Angel, Monk and Dean, I notice, as well as Atom: religion vs science. Since I've always seen Ox and Ygene as excitable southern Europeans (like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza) among the docile Flemish, I'm especially pleased that these two roles have been given to Italians, Bonaventura Bottone and Riccardo Simonetti. Imagine myself having to help them with the nuances and intonations of the English text, and am ever so slightly put out when (months later) I meet them and hear Bonnie speaking impeccable Home Counties and Riccardo broad Lancashire.

6 MAY 1998

Rehearsals. Today is a "read-through" of Ox at the ENO studio in Pitfield St. The whole cast and orchestra are here, and it's a bit chaotic. "Opera's my least favourite form because you never know who's in charge," someone grumbles. But then someone does take charge, the conductor Jim Holmes, and we take our seats: a "read-through", I belatedly grasp, means playing and singing the entire work. Tall, tensely affable, in a black polo-neck sweater, Jim pauses at intervals to explain what each new scene is about: whether knowing the plot affects how you play a harp or bassoon I don't know. I'm impressed by his feeling for Verne's story. The acoustic is not good, but there's a vapour trail of higher strings, and some of the voices come through with shiver-down-the-spine clarity.

After lunch, at the Coliseum, the principal singers sit in a line, on gilt chairs, and work with Jim Holmes and his assistant Jeremy Silver. There are queries about pronunciation: how do you say "Quiquendone"? Is that last syllable "don", "dun" or "doan"? I'm not much help with this one, since I suspect that Verne, an Anglophile and punster, intended it as a nonsense word that would sound like "chicken dung". But I'm pleased by the trouble taken to make the words audible.

7 MAY

The unveiling of the stage model, by Atom and Michael Levine: 40 or so of us - including the choreographer Gaby Agis and her dancers - crowd in to get a look at an illuminated box, a miniature of the stage of the Coliseum. We follow the scene changes. Some of the older hands express mild worries. The simulated snow, for instance: the wrong choice of material will create dust, which can play havoc with singing voices. And the ladders: how easy will these be to climb if the actors are wearing heavy costumes? Atom, dressed all in black, is reassuring. He knows what he wants, and in his quiet, unbossy way will get it, you feel.

14 MAY

At rehearsals. Gaby Agis asks (tongue-in-cheek, since no one mortal, least of all me, could have dreamt up all of the staging ideas): "Is it as you visualised it would be?" I laugh and say yes, more or less - at which point Atom steps in and insists "Well, we must change anything that isn't exactly as you imagined it. Are the ladders a couple of rungs too long, say? Should the snow be a centimetre deeper?" He says this deadpan, and since I don't associate Canadians with humour, it takes me a moment to be sure this is him being ironic.

Rehearsals are very strictly timed: a singer may be mid-aria, but if it's 1.30 everything stops. A union thing? Or a reaction to the days when Verdi, say, tormented singers to exhaustion?

Get a letter from the BBC saying that the planned film of the stage version of Ox has been cancelled, because of insuperable technical problems.

20 MAY

Rehearsal of the last scene, with Valdine Anderson and David James. I've been reading the Dutch author Margriet de Moor's novel The Virtuosi, about a woman who falls in love with a soprano's voice, and - 11am in the morning, with tears in my eyes - I understand how it can happen. Recall a sentence from a Verne story called "Mr Ray Sharp and Miss Me Flat": "When he strikes the keyboard," someone says, "it is as if a valve in my heart opened." Exactly.

28 MAY

Sitzprobe, meaning an exploration or rehearsal undertaken in a sitting position: no acting, just voice and orchestra - that's the theory, though Bonnie Bonaventura can't help but pace and whirl about. After the cacophony of Pitfield St three weeks ago, the Coliseum acoustic is amazingly clear. All the stagecraft problems have still to be faced, and will no doubt be bloody, but for now, just listening, all seems on course.

2 JUNE

Evening rehearsal at the Coliseum. First chance for the cast and chorus to act on stage, in costume. Various technical problems slow things down: those on the music side have little to do, and start making up anagrams of all the cast. Some problems aren't easily surmountable, because of the divided nature of opera. At the end of Act 1, for instance, it's important, theatrically, that one of the characters comes back on stage, but his entrance threatens to disrupt an important moment, musically, for another character.

3 JUNE

To rehearsals again, telling myself I might have a useful note or two to offer the director, but suspecting I'm simply addicted. As Robert Louis Stevenson once wrote: "An opera is far more real than real life to me. It seems as if stage illusion, and particularly this hardest-to- swallow and most conventional illusion of them all - an opera - would never stale upon me. I wish that life was an opera. I should like to live in one."

8 JUNE

Ten years to the day since I had that letter from Gavin's agent. A week till the first night. What was for so long an exchange of ideas, a private conversation between Gavin and myself, is now frighteningly out there, or about to be, in the hands (and mouths) of other people. So many people, too, most of them unacknowledged, behind the scenes. How strange that there'll be only five performances, with not even a CD or video to give the production a semblance of the permanence I look for in books. Yet that evanescence is part of the charm. And as for the time it's taken to get here, it's not unusual in Quiquendone terms, where - as I remind myself - for a relationship to come to fruition you have to wait at least 10 years.

'Dr Ox's Experiment': Coliseum, WC2 (0171 632 8300), Monday, Saturday, 24 & 30 June & 3 July.

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