Something of the night

The classic children's novel Marianne Dreams is brought to life at Sadler's Wells

A young girl, confined to bed by illness, finds an old pencil in her great-grandmother's workbox and begins to draw - a windswept landscape, a lonely house, a face at a window - and those drawings come alive in her dreams. When a schoolfriend, injured playing football, supplants her as the object of attention, her imaginings take a dangerous and sinister turn.

Catherine Storr's 1958 novel Marianne Dreams is one of those classic children's stories that stay with readers far into adulthood. Among those whose imagination was gripped was the composer Andrew Lowe-Watson. "No other book I recall had quite the same atmosphere and power. For me, it is a modern fairy tale with a moral," he says. "You have to live in the world your imagination conjures up, and sometimes the anger we turn on others rebounds on ourselves."

He approached the publisher Faber and Faber in 1999, and was gratified not only to get the go-ahead to adapt the work, but to find that the author, then in her eighties, was keen to write the libretto herself.

Storr completed the libretto shortly before her death in 2001. "We spent many working lunches in her flat overlooking the rooftops of Hampstead," Lowe-Watson recalls, "going over the words she had written until we had a workable libretto. One of the things that impressed me most was her insistence that simple words were best in opera. 'Let the music show the wind in the grass,' she told me".

Lowe-Watson is the prolific and versatile composer of 11 musicals, including eight commissioned by the Brothers Grimm festival in Hanau, and the highly acclaimed Strange Domain, based on Le Grand Meaulnes, the haunting novel of childhood's end by the French writer Alain Fournier, who was killed in the First World War.

Marianne Dreams is his first venture into opera however, and asked about the fundamental difference between writing a musical and an opera, Lowe-Watson said: "In an opera, the music leads. There are passages when it has its own momentum and takes the words with it. But it would be quite wrong to do that in a musical. But what writing musicals has taught me is the importance of reaching out to an audience on first hearing. Although the music can be very intense, it has its lighter moments, too."

The music is warm and accessible, but anything but bland or formulaic. A sense of harmonic dislocation reinforces the unease of the narrative. The scoring, for chamber orchestra, is spare: a plangent solo oboe embodies Marianne's dream-states; sombre brass represents the forbidding ring of the stones that she conjures up around her home. The one-act work receives its world premiere at a concert performance at Sadler's Wells tomorrow.

"I hope that Marianne Dreams will be a new kind of opera," says Lowe-Watson, "an opera that will reach everybody through the power of music and a thrilling story".

'Marianne Dreams', Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler's Wells, London EC1 (0870 737 7737), 16 June

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