Dominique Le Gendre: Magic in the night

Dominique Le Gendre is the first female composer to be commissioned by the Royal Opera - and she's come up with something decidedly spooky. Alice Jones meets her
Click to follow

Dominique Le Gendre grew up around music. "Our next-door neighbour and landlady was a woman called Olive Walke, who was the leader of a choir called La Petite Musicale in Trinidad. My sister and I used to go and sit under her piano at the rehearsals," she says. "There was always a sound of choirs singing Caribbean folk songs."

The early exposure to music has served her well. Now 46, Le Gendre is the first female composer to be commissioned by the Royal Opera. The work, Bird of Night, opening next week, is a fantastical rite-of-passage tale set in 1950s Trinidad and based on the traditions and folklore of the island.

Le Gendre's association with Covent Garden began in 2003 when she was invited, along with eight other black artists, to write a 20-minute short for A Nitro at the Opera, a festival collaboration with Nitro, Britain's oldest black music theatre company. Bird of Night was judged the most successful. The Independent's Robert Maycock praised its "light touch, generous imagination" and "beautifully concise score", and concluded his review with the words: "The big question after a stirring day has to be: great stuff, but will that be all?"

Not in the case of Le Gendre, who was swiftly summoned to the office of the director of opera Elaine Padmore and offered a full-length commission. The composer pondered several ideas before deciding to pick up where she'd left off; the original Bird of Night is preserved in its entirety as the prelude to the new work. She says: "Elaine was the one who said, 'You have a rich vein there, mine it. It's a source that doesn't exist in this country.'"

Padmore duly introduced Le Gendre to the librettist Paul Bentley (who wrote the book for Poul Ruders' The Handmaid's Tale) and the theatre director Irina Brown. Yuval Zorn, who conducted Nitro, came on board.

Le Gendredoesn't seem fazed by the step up to a full-length commission. "The fact that I chose to do a chamber opera sort of reassured me in my mind," she says, laughing. "But, since writing it, Paul, Irina and Yuval have been saying, 'This isn't any chamber opera, it's an epic.'"

Bird of Night centres on Apolline, a 15-year-old girl who wants to learn the magical ways of her godmother, who has the power to transform herself into a bird of night and take flight. Apolline's family, on the other hand, want her to be an "educated lady" who will study in France. The row over Apolline's future is further complicated by the arrival of the handsome and enigmatic couple Diego and Désirée, who offer Apolline all that she desires but are revealed to be the Devil and his mistress. "The rest of the opera is dedicated to preventing Apolline from meeting this couple and from Apolline flying as she wants to fly," Le Gendre sums up.

With its roots firmly in the realms of the supernatural, Bird of Night has potential for showy spectacle. But Le Gendre and Brown have rejected the literal approach, eschewing opera singers on wires in favour of a simple staging. "One of the main stories of the opera is the possibility of the mind and the importance of imagining something beyond what we are or know," Le Gendre says.

There will be theatrical elements, including dance scenes and some wonderfully weird feathered masks. For the most part, though, the magic is conjured up by the singing. Bentley has woven Trinidadian English with Creole and even Aztec, and has inserted moments of cheeky humour. Le Gendre's score is a "language in itself"; she reels off influences as diverse as Bach, Bernstein, African dance rhythms, mazurkas, jazz and Joni Mitchell.

The complexity of the score reflects a web of narrative themes, including the tangled skeins of family relationships and, perhaps most importantly, the search for identity. "In Apolline, what we have is this rootedness in who she is and also a curiosity for the outside," Le Gendre says. "But she wants to start from knowing who she is, and that is something we in Trinidad have sort of neglected. People are starting to recognise that." The 1950s setting is crucial to Le Gendre's vision of a girl and a country on the verge of independence - Trinidad became an independent nation in 1962.

Although Bird of Night is a flight of fantasy, there are strong echoes of Le Gendre's own life story. In 1979, aged 19, she left Trinidad for Paris where she trained as a classical guitarist with Ramon de Herrera and took courses in musicology at the Sorbonne. She had taken up the guitar aged nine, and although her upbringing instilled a love of her country (holidays and day trips spent exploring the island meant that she "knew a lot things about Trinidad that lots of Trinidadians didn't know"), she jumped at the chance to leave.

"I was dying to go," she says. "Some islanders choose to protect themselves from the immediacy of the outside by remaining very insular; others immediately fly. My desire was very simply to get out, to see what was there in the world, to have as rich a musical experience as I could."

For the past 19 years the composer has lived in London, although she often visits her parents and two brothers in Trinidad. She began composing for theatre, radio drama, film and dance before her big break in 1997, when she was commissioned to compose the scores for all 101 hours of the Arkangel audio series of Shakespeare's plays, honing her ability to tell tales through music.

After Nitro, she was commissioned in 2005 to write a chamber suite based on Derek Walcott's Tales of the Islands, conducted by Peter Manning. She is currently composer-in-residence for the Manning Camerata and for the In a Different Light project in Leicester, with the Philharmonia Orchestra.

It's an impressive CV for anyone, let alone a Trinidadian woman in the predominantly white and male classical world. But Le Gendre is focusing on her music. "There have been times when I've made proposals to other institutions and they weren't taken up. If I wanted to, I could say they were refused because I'm black, because I'm a woman. I don't know what's going on in people's minds, and in many ways I'm not interested," she says. "The only thing I can do is be very clear about who I am and what I have to say. All the discussions about a woman composer, a black composer; they're not really that important to me. I can only speak for myself."

Le Gendre prefers to let her work do the talking. Indeed, she considers her ground-breaking new work in the Linbury Studio as no different from the older, established works on the main stage. "People who love opera see in its storylines human concerns - heightened, fantastical, stylised, yes," she enthuses. "They're coming from the same source and that is simply a love of theatre through music and a love of the voice. They may seem like the most banal, foolish lyrics, but when you hear the voice do that, you see people in floods of tears, you see people suddenly understanding a human emotion."

'Bird of Night', Linbury Studio Theatre, Royal Opera House, London WC1 (020-7304 4000), in rep 19 to 28 October